10 February 2018

How Historical Should Be Your Historical?

I have been following an earnest debate in a Facebook group regarding how close to factual history Historical novels should stay.

On the one side there’s the fiction is never fact and shouldn’t be taken as such. On the other there’s the fiction should stick to the fact until the fact gets in the way of the fiction. And a lot of differing views threading in, around and between.

My stance is that authors have to be true to themselves and their prospective readers, as far as their publishers will allow.

I’ve never wanted to write about historical figures, or even historical events. I’m much more interested in how ordinary people lived their lives in what we might call a historical era, but that certainly doesn’t mean that I can make it up as I go. Just as modern London can’t be set in modern Poland for the sake of a fictional story, named places that existed as historical fact both have to be set in their true place and have an authenticity to them corresponding to the stated date. And not just in looks or smell.

I remember being in a cinema watching Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. RH (Kevin Costner) had just landed on English sands below the unmistakeable white cliffs of the country's southern shore when he uttered words to the effect of: Tonight I will dine at my father’s table – ie in Nottingham. The  cinema erupted in gales of laughter, with someone behind me quipping, ‘Got a helicopter waiting on the cliff-top, has he?’ And that was it for the film. The suspension of disbelief had been well and truly trashed, the audience more intent on chortling over the succession of gaffes than concentrating on the story.

Cinema-goers do that. Readers don’t. They throw the offending novel at a wall, give it a one-star review for wasting their time, and never read that author again. So novelists play fast and loose with history at their peril, while Hollywood adds the euphemism Based on... and runs all the way to the bank, massacring History as it goes.

Yet every Historical novel is also based on… people, events, places, eras, that once existed. History – the factual History we novelists take as primary or secondary source material – is based on… documents that are based on… hearsay or, if we’re lucky, eye-witness accounts, transcribed bytranslated from… and we would be foolish not to accept that everyone along that line is relating facts as they saw them, or was instructed to see them. Truth, after all, is a many-faceted light in the darkness.

This is one of the reasons historical novelists add a Historical Note to the back of their  books, gently separating the history from the fiction for interested readers. You’ll find one in each of the Torc of Moonlight trilogy, to both separate and dovetail the past and the present storylines.

But there’s not one added to Beneath The Shining Mountains, a true based on… the remembrance of a then old woman, translated to an American ethnographer to be set down in a foreign tongue, doubtless edited for understanding, and doubtless edited again two generations later for a thin volume of “tales” from a people who lived yet whose life had perished, her story re-envisioned by me with the help of a wide range of secondary sources that might, or might not, have been as historically accurate as maintained.

How historical is your Historical?

Mine? I do my best. In the end its all any novelist can do. We’ve just got to ensure that we do it.

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