Monday, April 28, 2014

5 Reasons Historical Fiction Can't Be Accurate


The accuracy of historical fiction was a topic at a recent gathering of Historical Novel Society authors. The debate of just how accurate a novel should be will never be resolved. I am, by the way, among those who strive for as much accuracy as possible. But here are a few reasons historical fiction cannot be "accurate." I would love to know what you think!

1. The winners write history.

We know this to be true, at least 99% of the time, or so long as the losers are oppressed, illiterate, and/or dehumanized. The fact that the winners write the history may not mean that they intentionally slanted it, but they have a different perspective. A society has to look at their causes and values differently than their enemies or there would be no justification for the conflict.

2. Not everything has been documented.

A sad but true fact. The farther back in history you go, the less you can know for sure. You could easily find out that my favorite color is blue, especially if you follow my discussions on my book covers. Looking back fifty years you might conclude someone's favorite color by observing photographs of the person, his/her car, home, and so on. Looking back one hundred years ago, unless someone's color preference had been written down somewhere, you would have more difficulty. There were only black and white photographs. But some possessions might survive so you might be able to make a conclusion, although it would only be guesswork and since most people wore dark colors and conformed to societal norms, that might be unreliable. Two hundred years back if a person had not stated somewhere that he/she preferred a certain color you most certainly would not know. A simple illustration, but you get the idea. Some things were important enough to record and some were not.

3. We cannot enter another person's mind.

We can make guesses, educated ones based on what a person did and said and the outcomes of his/her life. We can conclude that General George Washington did not wish to become king because he said so and he refused the crown. But how did he really feel? Was he ever tempted? Ah, this how a novelist's mind works and what makes the genre so intriguing.

I was reminded of this when I read this article, recommended as a follow up to the writers' discussion I mentioned above. The writer of this article contends that Edgar Allan Poe had admired Charles Dickens. But he's concluding this (or seems to be) because of the fact that Poe wanted to meet Dickens and wanted him to read his work. Poe had studied Dickens. So the article contends that the novelist of a recent book featuring Poe got that detail wrong when she had Poe in her novel state that he didn't care for Dickens. But do we know that he didn't? Do we know if he liked Dickens at one time and then later changed his mind? Without the man here with us, we can't know. (And you could argue that people don't always tell the truth about how they feel about someone.)

4. Some or all of the novel is fiction.

I know, Captain Obvious, right?

5. First hand accounts can, and often do, conflict.

Even when we've done our homework it may still be impossible to figure out what really happened. Although the winners write history, there might be several versions of it. By reading as much as
possible about say, The Boston Tea Party, you might be able to make some safe conclusions about what happened there: some colonists boarded a merchant ship under the cover of darkness; they destroyed some tea; someone painted the scene...but, was it politically or economically motivated? Did this rebellion spark the Revolutionary War or was it simply used as propaganda? There are some gray areas, as there are in most things, and that's why our novels can't be completely "accurate" in everyone's view. It's still art.

What are your thoughts?


Cindy Thomson is a writer and an avid genealogy enthusiast. Her love of history and her Scots-Irish heritage have inspired much of her writing, including her new Ellis Island series. Cindy is also the author of Brigid of Ireland and Celtic Wisdom: Treasures from Ireland. She combined her love of history and baseball to co-author the biography Three Finger: The Mordecai Brown Story, which was a finalist for the Society for American Baseball Research's Larry Ritter Book Award. In addition to books, Cindy has written on a regular basis for numerous online and print publications and is a mentor for the Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writers Guild. She is also a member of American Christian Fiction Writers and the Historical Novel Society. Cindy and her husband have three grown sons and live in central Ohio. Visit her online at www.cindyswriting.com. Coming this July: Annie's Stories!


12 comments:

Tamera Lynn Kraft said...

Awesome article, and so true.

Gerri Bowen said...

So very true.

Anonymous said...

I would just like accuracy for titles, laws of marriage , the laws of succession, and the dates of historical events so that authors do not place the battle of Waterloo in 1814.

D.M. McGowan said...

Good article however all comments apply to history.
Historical fiction should be first entertaining, I feel and second be as accurate as possible within those asspects that are historical or claim to be so.
Since all the point made in your post are true it is therefore a good idea that the HF author not rely on only one research source.
Dave
www.dmmcgowan.blogspot.com

Kelley Heckart said...

Great post. How can history be accurate when current events that happen on video camera have different views? Even when there are facts involved, another side disputes it as myth. I see this everyday on our news channels. Five people can witness the same crime and there will be five different accounts of what happened. How can anything be considered accurate?

Terry Irene Blain said...

Great article. As a former history teacher, wild inaccuracies drive me crazy. And while an author can't be totally accurate, they, like me, should strive for authenticity of the time/place.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I agree with anonymous. I'm all for writers taking license in areas of a historical person's life where there is no documented evidence, but unless you are writing alternative history, you can't have Marie Antoinette survive the French Revolution. There are plenty of gray areas within the facts. However, it's a lot easier to write a historical novel in a time period or about someone who is not as well known. For example Boudica, or Lady Godiva.

Cindy Thomson said...

Great comments, everyone. I agree that first it needs to be entertaining. Otherwise we'd have no readers and what's the point? And like I said, authors should get the known details right, the indisputable facts...but then there is all the rest. And yes, Kelley, people still can't agree on what happened most times! ;-)

Anonymous said...

I have recently read two historical novels, intended as sequential, by a well-regarded and popular author. The books misrepresent major facts of history as well as some minor ones, as if very little research had been done. Yet the books have gotten positive reviews. Is it acceptable to portray history completely wrongly in the name of fiction, with no disclaimers and without making the reader aware that an alternative history is being intended? Personally, I am appalled by it.

Dan Athearn
dra@efn.org

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