Necessity may be the mother of invention, but invention is the midwife of good historical fiction.

Invention and creativity are good things. But in historical fiction we (writers) sometimes lose sight of that, and get bogged down in the minutiae of our period and the thousand little details in our characters’ lives.  I was recently reminded, with force, that readers come to authors of historical fiction for something more than a collection of facts.

I had the opportunity to hear Susan Vreeland, a master of the genre, speak at a recent Historical Novel Society Conference.  I thought Susan was going to do a presentation on her latest book.  But, when we were gathered before her in our neat little rows, she decided to tackle a larger issue – the role of invention in historical fiction.

“Don’t be tyrannized by fact.”  That’s how Susan opened her presentation.  And she is right of course.  Historical fiction is not academic history.  Does accuracy matter in historical novels?  You bet your farthingale it does but, “fictional art can show truth that goes deeper than a collection of fact; it can show us what it felt like to be a particular person at a particular time” (again, Susan V).  Besides, “as soon as something happens people start lying about it” (Cecelia Holland) so “truth” in history can legitimately be debated.

Susan pointed out that selection (and correspondingly, elimination) of facts is part of the process of writing compelling historical fiction.  Good authors know instinctively – whether they write historical fiction or another genre – that telling just the right bits is what gives a great story its focus.  Authors of historical novels must choose only those events from history that relate to the specific premise/themes of their particular novel.  It doesn’t matter how interesting an event is (or how pivotal it is in the life of a historical character), if that event doesn’t forward the plot of the book an author is writing, then it needs to be left out.  There were dozens of interesting events in the lives of my main characters, Marguerite and Eleanor of Provence, during the twenty-year period covered by The Sister Queens that did not make it into my novel because they were not germane to the “sisters” theme of my book. Continue reading »