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What is Historical Fiction?

I recently got entrenched in a discussion about the true nature of historical fiction, i.e. what is it? what is the true definition? how does an author keep the integrity of history while maintaining a creative license? and so forth….

So, here are my thoughts, as well as some of the comments from the discussion. In definition, the Google definition of historical fiction, it reads: is defined as movies and novels in which a story is made up but is set in the past and sometimes borrows true characteristics of the time period in which it is set. A novel that makes up a story about a Civil War battle that really happened is an example of historical fiction.

Sometimes, I feel, it is hard to define the difference between being a FICTION author and holding true to history. We are, after all, not historians, but we want to represent history as true, or at least to the extent that is commonly accepted as truth in our society. But, to be fair, even some historians who research and research history often have conflicting accounts about what is true and what is not true. How should this affect the historical fiction author? ‘Tis a quandary….

Here is where I will share some of the comments in the discussion. Please read and share your thoughts in the comment section below:

Paula Lofting, the moderator of the Historical Writer’s Forum, opened the discussion with this:

“What is the best definition of historical fiction and does it mean that it should be as accurate a depiction of a time and its events, or should there be a free for all with the facts, after all its fiction isn’t it type attitude?

Personally, this is my view – I like my historical fiction to be as true to the time, events, and environmental settings as possible. I am more bothered about the atmosphere, costumery, architecture, and landscape than I am by the language and events, however, I prefer to write these as accurately as possible when I am writing myself. If I am reading historical fiction then the story must come first because there is no point in having an accurate read if the plot or storyline is boring and dull. and the story is dull. Secondly I want the characters to ‘look’ like someone of that time, what they wear etc, daily life, what buildings they lived in etc, creating an atmosphere that makes me feel I’m in the for example 15thc, Lastly, if it is about fictional characters then of course the story is a made up one and this goes without saying, but where the facts are changed to suit the story, I would prefer they weren’t but I don’t mind if they are as long as the author leaves a historical note explaining where they have used their author’s licence. Where the facts are missing, I’m happy to allow the author to fill in the facts with plausible explanations.”

To which, led to some of these comments:

Rachel McDonough: Try to be as accurate as you can, otherwise what is the point of it being historical fiction. Inaccuracies can take the reader out of the story. The history is part of the experience, so get it right!

Julie Newman: Historical fiction is a story within a story, but you have to do your research and make sure you know as many of the historical facts as possible. The reader will discard your work if there are any discrepancies. Given that history is always changing the more we unearth but we need to be true to the facts of the time.

Rachel V Knox: It depends a little bit on what you’re writing. If it’s fiction set in a time there’s more freedom so maybe the story comes first. I’ve just written one based on real people, so the story was restricted to facts, making researching facts foremost to the story which developed based on that.

Kate Jewell: I like to be as accurate as I can be with the historic events, politics etc. And the social history side especially travelling times. (Fun to research that stuff!)

Language is a bit more of a problem. I want the reader to get a flavour of the period through the language used by my characters but not being so pedantic that I lose them. I’ve been surprised several times when looking up an alternative word or phrase that would fit the 15th C better to find that what I thought of first was actually in use during my period. Something to do with being immersed in the period maybe!

Of course, the writer of Historical Fiction lays him/herself open to all sorts of dangers, not least the discovery of facts unknown at the time of writing that could make a nonsense of their original plot. The archeology that has been done to determine the exact site of the Bosworth battlefield for example. And the discovery of Richard III and the analysis of his DNA. How many books describe him as having dark eyes and black hair?

Kerry Lynne Smith: How do we (both reader and writer) know what the “facts” really are? Anyone who has studied history for long comes to realize that it’s an ever-evolving, constantly changing. What was thought of as “fact” forty or even twenty years ago is now laughed at as folly. The more adamant one insists that they know what “really happened” the more they show their ignorance. All the HF writer can do is use what “facts” are satisfying to them and their purpose. It’s then up to the reader to decide if it is or isn’t pleasing, satisfactory to whatever their perceptions and expectations are.

Elizabeth Chadwick: I think there certain things that are facts without ifs or buts. It’s not all bollocks. 🙂 There are facts that change because our knowledge increases and there are facts that change because of trends. And then there are facts that stay carved in stone. I also think the more you read about and around a subject in nonfiction, the more nuanced will be your understanding and the more you will know what is carved in stone and what is mutable. I don’t think there has to be an order of batting in terms of story, atmosphere and fact. A good enough author will be able to work with all of them and weave a seamless tapestry without warping any of them out of true. So the fact purists get their facts and the story addicts get their page turner that keeps them up until dawn. You just have to be a good enough writer. 🙂 There is always a way round, and it’s fun finding something that works with both story, setting and history.

Katherine Pym: I write as close as possible to the historical facts, weaving them into the story as seamless as possible. Because some of the facts are so outrageous, I have to follow the story of late with a note from the Author, explaining these unruly facts. If one writes a story that deviates from known facts, the author should, up front, say it is Alternative Historical Fiction.

Kevin Heads: Most important for me is the story, after all, it is fiction. When the tale interacts with real history then I think it important to try and follow the historical events if possible. However, if bending history takes place to fit the storyline then for me that’s ok as its fiction, not fact. As a reader, if it says fiction then that’s what I expect. If I want facts I read a history book 😀

Donna Gawell: I just read an article about the trend in Germany media to rewrite their WWII history. The young Germans say they are tired of learning about the Holocaust, yet 40% of them have never heard of Auschwitz (probably because some people refer to Auschwitz incorrectly as a Polish concentration camp, not a German Nazi camp.) My point is that we have a moral responsibility to not rewrite history in order to pursue a fabricated story just set in a historic era. Young Germans gravitate towards stories that rewrite their WWII history.

Todd McGee: The Kaiser’s Last Kiss is a historical fiction novel that is based on Kaiser Wilhelm’s time in The Netherlands after the Germans invaded in May 1940. It is largely fiction but includes some actual events in the story that are altered. For instance, the book has Heinrich Himmler visit the Kaiser, and the Kaiser’s wife give Himmler an envelope of cash. In reality, Herman Goering visited the Kaiser, not Himmler. Not real sure why the author changed it, but I guess he had his reasons. I think you should be as true to the time period as you can and incorporate facts/events into the text if possible to add authenticity. But you are writing fiction as well.

Richard Tearle: I admit I have been pondering this post for some time. any ‘what if’ approaches should, IMO, be noted as such somewhere in the blurb or book cover, and the plot should not be too fantastical or even potentially ‘real’ history changing. For me, what ifs must be a) plausible and b) extremely well written – I have seen too many of either or both in the negative. The story AND the historical ‘fact’ are vital to me BUT, if we accept that (from an example above) Elizabeth I was a virgin, introducing a lover is acceptable, but it should be a well-kept secret, perhaps with the deflowerer bumped off with or without Liz’s knowledge! The other thing, which seem in contrast to what I have just said, is that if I have to consult the Oracle of Wiki and react with either ‘Well, I never knew that’ or ‘Goshdarn it, it never happened’ then it rather shows how good the story and its teller was!! There are some things in history that you cannot change – but you can present the events from one point of view or another – either in the way a character would think or the way the author thinks and puts their thoughts into their character’s head ….I hope I have made some sense here!!

Kevin Heads: As a fiction writer I don’t think you can rewrite history you can, however, write a story that uses history as a backdrop and intertwines with dates and events. Like Paula says if you rewrite history it becomes fantasy. If people deny historical events then that is because they choose too not because of works of fiction. The FACTS are there it is up to individuals to believe them or not.

And my thoughts? I like what Robyn Heitmann said: “There are ‘facts’ and then there is interpretation. Every generation interprets through the lens of their own understanding.”

Case in point: Or rather, several cases in point: With my novel “Blood and Ink” I delve into the possibility of Shakespeare not being the true author of the plays attributed to him. Do I believe this idea? No, actually, I am a true Shakespearean; but as a fiction author, the premise makes for an interesting tale to tell. So, who do I stay true to? To which loyalty does my path lie? To the Shakespearean side of me, who does not believe the theory; or to my fiction side of me, who loves to take on an interesting storyline? The challenge is, well, challenging!!

One of the comments above says that we must stay true to history, to tell it as it is, and I believe this because we do have a measure of integrity, even as authors (believe it or not). To tell a tale of the Holocaust, one must tell the raw and visceral reality of the Holocaust, but what if an author wants to take on the story of the Holocaust from, say, Hitler’s POV? That novel might infer that the Holocaust never happened (which I myself would never read, honestly), but does that mean that it does not adhere to the definition of a historical FICTION novel? No, it is a historical fiction novel according to the definition above.

Another, less controversial subject matter… which was touched on in the discussion… how many novels vacillate between Elizabeth the First of England being a virgin? History shows, and if we are to maintain the integrity of such a powerful Queen, that she was until the day she died. How are we to maintain a sense of loyalty to her and to historical fact, if we, as historical fiction writers, deviate from this truth? And yet, it happens all the time.

I think this becomes less of an issue when we remember that we are artists who love history. That is why we became historical fiction authors to begin with, or at least why I did. One of my favorite authors, Ken Follett, does this so seamlessly to me. If you are a reader of his novels you can see how he weaves historical fact into his story while upholding his right as a fiction writer to create a beautiful story. We are not historians writing non-fiction, we are dreamers and creators who wish for our stories to create a buzz about history with our readers. What did I wish for when I wrote about the Shakespeare authorship? I wish for anyone who reads my novel to take a trip into the past and maybe spend a day searching for the truth himself or herself. I love the quote from Randall Wallace’s Braveheart, where Robert the Bruce says: “I shall tell you of William Wallace. Historians from England will say I am a liar, but history is written by those who have hanged heroes.” Here is another case in point: What is the truth about William Wallace? What is the truth about Edward I?

I think it is wrong for a historical fiction author to get caught up in pedantic history (someone who’s too concerned with literal accuracy or formality) to the point where the creative process suffers. Follett’s last book “A Column of Fire” shows many many scenes between actual people and fake people that never occurred, even scenes between actual people who we will never know if they happened; but the scenes of actual events are true to history (or as true as history shows since none of us were actual eyewitnesses to these events).

Anyway, I hope this blog post shows accurately how I feel. I say, “keep writing, keep researching, keep creating, and keep history alive.” That, to me, is what it means to be a historical fiction author. If you want to be a history professor, or if you want to read a textbook about history, this is not the place… historical fiction should give you a taste of actual history and if it inspires you to delve further into history, then we have done more than our job as fiction authors.

But, such as it is, this is only my opinion, but it is, after all, my blog. LOL

Please share your thoughts below….

Thanks for reading!

D. K. Marley

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DK Marley is a historical fiction writer specializing in Shakespearean themes. Her grandmother, an English professor, gave her a volume of Shakespeare's plays when she was eleven, inspiring DK to delve further into the rich Elizabethan language. Eleven years ago she began the research leading to the publication of her first novel "Blood and Ink," an epic tale of lost dreams, spurned love, jealousy and deception in Tudor England as the two men, William Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe, fight for one name and the famous works now known as the Shakespeare Folio. She is a true Stratfordian (despite the topic of her novel "Blood and Ink"), a Marlowe fan, a member of the Marlowe Society, the Shakespeare Fellowship and a signer of the Declaration of Intent for the Shakespeare Authorship Debate. Her new series titled "The Fractured Shakespeare Series" will tackle adapting each play into a historical fiction novel. She has traveled to England three times for intensive research and debate workshops and is a graduate of the intense training workshop "The Writer's Retreat Workshop" founded by Gary Provost and hosted by Jason Sitzes. She is also a blogger for her blog "The Jabberwocky Blog" on Wordpress. She lives in Georgia with her husband and a Scottish Terrier named Maggie.

4 Comments

  1. I like this, thanks for posting! @dkmarley

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  2. Very interesting, and I love all the perspectives in one place. Honestly, I love love historical fiction, but this is why I haven’t ventured into writing any. I hate research hahaha oh man. I only do what I have to for my contemporary novels and try to write what I know. I much prefer the story than researching details, and I think I would get lost in it if I tried to write historical fiction.

    I like your shakespeare idea, that wouldn’t bother me, and if you have written it, please let me know. I would love to see where you take that. My favorite historical fiction is the witch from blackbird pond. They do a good job of keeping to general facts.

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  3. This is an intriguing, in-depth article. I agree that the principle of your concluding paragraph, especially when I consider how some of my favorite historical fiction authors have inspired me to delve deeper into the actual facts behind their stories.

    Reply
  4. This is an intriguing, in-depth article. I agree with the principle of your concluding paragraph, especially when I consider how some of my favorite historical fiction authors have inspired me to delve deeper into the actual facts behind their stories.

    Reply

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