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.

 This “selection” of fact or “filtering through narrative focus” is a wonderful thing for readers.  Think of how many marvelous books there are offering different views of the same historical figures (e.g. C.W. Gortner’s Confessions of Catherine de Medici and Jeanne Kalogridis The Devil’s Queen which both give us fascinating visions of Catherine de Medici; the dozens of can’t-put-them-down books on Henry VIII and his many wives).  If every writer approached these figures (the much-written-about Anne Boleyn for example) from the same perspective, and selected the identical facts to include in her/his narrative, readers would be offered a single course meal rather than a smorgasbord.  Variety is the spice of life, and that goes for literature as well.  If, as readers, we sometimes find the contradictory feelings and actions ascribed to historical figures in different books aggravating, we need to remember this next point. . .

Invention is a part of historical fiction—embrace it.  As writers of historical fiction we should feel free to invent events, invent characters, put words into the mouths of characters, etc, as long as our inventions contribute to the narrative arc of our story and are in keeping with what our research has revealed about the nature and personality of our characters.  Author Margaret George suggested this quick “gut check” for authors —imagine that you are writing for the historical character herself/himself.  Would he/she be pleased?  Margaret also posited that if someone was writing about you, you might be very happy to have certain things fudged.

As readers of historical fiction we need to allow ourselves to be swept up in the drama and the deeper meaning of the story we are reading and stop “sweating the small stuff.”  Only then can we learn about “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself” (Susan V).  And isn’t pondering universal themes that resonate in our own lives a better use of our time than worrying about precisely when the Spanish farthingale fell out of fashion in the French court?

A caveat—there is always a caveat.  Authors should fess up when they stray.  The general consensus among attendees at the Historical Novel Society Conference was that authors ought to point out when/where they deliberately deviate from the historical record.  A good author’s note is a must.  While readers should assume there is fiction involved in every novel (for example it’s likely a given that the author imagined the dialogue she’s written between characters dead 500 years), they will appreciate being told if an actual historical event has been moved (ditto other significant changes).

So what do you think?  As a writer or a reader of historical fiction is invention the guide to the artist’s brush, or a guillotine that destroys your pleasure in a book?  What does historical fiction give you that reading non-fiction cannot?

6 Responses to “Invention is the Midwife of Good Historical Fiction”

  1. Good article, Sophie. I’m currently reading a new release in which the main character is fictional (early 18th century), and the author just throws in actual historical characters in ways (at least so far in the book) that is just seem contrived, like she’s doing it just to make the story “historical”. To me that is not what historical fiction is about. A writer can tell a good historical tale even without an “A-list” historical figure in it. I’d rather not have that figure in it if it seems that the person’s appearance in the story is simply the author trying to say, “Hey, look who’s in my book!” Story is first and foremost the important part of historical fiction.

  2. While I can see your point, it also worries me. It is taken far to often as permission to ignore historicity completely. After all, its fiction.

    Then what you end up with is codswallop like Braveheart.

    It is a very dangerous slippery slope from fudging a few facts (which I’ve done as a writer) to making up the whole thing, including debasing the history of two nations.

  3. This is an absolutely wonderful article. I plan to shout it far and wide. And I’m not sure that we ought to worry about a slippery slope as long as everything is copped to in an author’s note. I think Braveheart is actually a great example of why.

    It was wrong–egregiously wrong–but it did teach people a thing or two about that time period and it inspired others to learn. It also made history seem exciting, relatable, and accessible.

    Readers and viewers are more sophisticated than we give them credit for. If some fictional version of history catches their fancy, they will look it up.

    • I think you are 100% correct about readers. I also think it is up to a writer whether he/she is interested in teaching history or has another goal. In addition, historical “fact” is open to many interpretations — academic historians take opposing views of things all the time.

  4. I’m not sure that teaching history is a good reason for writing fiction. Bjorn Kurten tried that with The Dance of the Tiger, an interesting experiment, but I don’t think it quite works as fiction, unlike, say, William Golding’s The Inheritors, which has a similar setting, but focuses on plot, setting and characterisation rather than trying to “sell” a particular version of history.

  5. Great post, Sophie. To me, what historical fiction provides that non-fiction cannot is the experience of reliving history through the senses and emotions of characters representing people who actually lived it.

    By definition, historical non-fiction, even narrative non-fiction, is written about the past from the perspective of the present and cannot (or should not) speculate beyond known fact. But fictional characters, whether based on real people or not, do not know our present, what their future holds. They only know how they feel and what they can do in the context of their present, which is our past.

    Historical fiction asks readers to forget the present temporarily as the price of admission to a uniquely immersive experience in the past. Part of delivering that experience is the writer’s ability to fill in the gaps and breathe life into the historical record. That said, when the writer fills in those gaps, the reader also rightfully assumes that he or she will not contradict known fact without justification. It’s a unique bargain, I think, between writer and reader.

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