This week's roundtable proved to be quite a popular one with writers weighing in on both sides and having some pretty strong feelings about the issue of historical accuracy in fictional works. And with period fiction being all the rave on television, in movies, and in novels, it's remarkably apropos for writers looking to test the waters of blending fiction and history.
When you use people or events from history in your fiction, how important is it that they are portrayed accurately? When is it okay to ignore history and create new "facts" about the people or event you are choosing to utilize in your story?
Stephanie Osborn: Depends how serious my story line is. If I'm playing around with a concept, I might play a bit fast and loose. If it's a really serious story, then I'll try to stay close to the facts. (If it's an alternate history/universe, that also gives me some leeway to mess with the timeline.
Robert Krog: I would only fictionalize history if I were writing alternate history. If I were writing strict, historical fiction, then it would be a cardinal sin to change any facts. I would carefully distinguish which I were writing so the reader would know. The tiny exception might be to insert a small, historically insignificant event written to keep the character of the person in question in tact, say a chance meeting that is over briefly. I would write it so that it would be something of which historians would plausibly be ignorant. I would keep the implications of the event as small as possible.
As far as alternate History goes, the possibilities for alteration are much greater, however, for the alternate History to be a useful exploration, it should really ask, what would the world look like or how would the world be changed if this particular person or event were different, but the rest remained the same. What if the South had won the Civil War? What if Stalin had died in W.W. II? What if Muhammed had converted to Christianity rather than inventing his own religion? Etc.
James Bojaciuk: Accuracy is incredibly important. First, you'll be alienating any reader who knows the real history. I have my own blacklist of authors I'll never read again -- some for making up their own facts (Houdini believes in fairies and magic), some for fundamentally misunderstanding history (failing to understand that when Theodore Roosevelt said "race," he meant "nation," and spinning-off into a very racist Teddy when his actual record belies that notion).
Second, we owe historical figures, and their families, and readers as a whole an accurate take on the figure, their beliefs, and their life. There's no reason to violate that. History is always more entertaining, and enlightening, than fiction's "improvements."
The best kind of drama is human drama, and the further we get from that with embellishments, the less powerful it is. One needs only compare Karoline Leach's mostly accurate In the Shadow of the Dreamchild to any of the novels based on the faked Lewis Carroll/Alice romance to see which is more interesting, dramatic, and powerful.
As a publisher, I have a very low threshold for inaccuracy. I think we owe our readers real history, as much as humanly possible.
When is it okay? Alternate history, *if* that alternate history takes off from an actual historical point. Near the end of his life, after meeting with Arabs, FDR decided that any and all attempts at Zionism were absolutely wrong, and Jewish people did not deserve any land in the Middle East (directly opposed to Churchill's own beliefs--which had been fervently held his entire political life). Add to this his dismissive attitude toward Jews in general...
And you could take that and, in an alternate history where FDR goes on to a fifth term, plot around an explicitly anti-Semitic FDR who has a war of proxies in the Middle East. Or does any other reasonably villainous things the plot demands of him. All of it is firmly based in the bedrock of history, even if none of it came to pass.
Alternatively, FDR revealing himself to have been a Yakuza informant the entire time is impossible to take seriously, and a bit insulting to history.
All changes need to have a core of both believability and facts, unless you've decided to write something absolutely absurd.
Tamara Lowery: I personally have only lightly touched on historical facts, just enough to give my readers a feel for the time setting of the stories. My current series of books are about a pirate cursed to be a living vampire, so the readers already know to suspend disbelief to a point. I have carefully avoided including known historical figures. The stories take place in the years just before and in the early years of the American Revolution. I only reference it as how it might have come up in conversations or affected characters not directly involved in it.
Hiram LaFon Doup: Accuracy is important unless you are doing an alternative history story!
Kurt Belcher: Me personally, unless I'm writing a fairly serious story, I like to go off of established history to varying degrees. For instance, the main character in my WINTER WAR comic was based on a real sniper in the war between Finland and USSR. But I also used other smaller details I learned from stories about the war, with him as their focus.
On the other hand, I have a couple of comics I've written that feature Abraham Lincoln, both of which have historic deviations. One has Fredrick Douglass calling him an "a-hole", and another has him as President-in-perpetuity, and looking like Charlton Heston's Moses in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS.
Mark Bousquet: In a general sense I tend to take the DOCTOR WHO method: get history true enough to be recognizable, not so true it turns my story into a textbook.
Mark Holmes: I like accuracy but when it gets in the way of excitement. In a western a pistol only has six shots which is accurate. However the heroine can "fan her gun" and still hit multiple targets which is really not possible in the real world.
Barbara Doran: I spent a good deal of time studying up on 1930s Shanghai for the last "Golden Dragon" book. I wouldn't claim perfect accuracy for a book that includes real dragons and Gods, but it provided much needed flavor. Besides, research is fun!
Ed Erdelac: I love (and prefer to read) the notion of 'hidden' history. I like to cleave to actual history as much as possible in terms of established timeline and character. But a surprising amount of history is spotty and a lot of time is lost to memory. It's in those blank spaces that Doc Holiday can stare down demons, Zora Neale Hurston can become a Mythos detective and demons can run rampant through Andersonville prison.
Lucy Blue: The first novel I ever published was a collaboration with another writer on a TV tie-in for the show Forever Knight called These Our Revels. It took place around the conception, rehearsal, and first performance of Hamlet; Shakespeare and his patron William Hilliard were major characters. And oh yeah, there were vampires in it. Lots and lots of vampires. Obviously it wasn't a historical document, plus we made some decisions about Shakespeare's sexuality that have long been speculated but never been proven. BUT we took pretty deep pains to make everything that wasn't vamp-related as accurate as we possibly could. My writing partner even consulted an astronomer about phases of the moon in England during our time frame to make sure one of our characters could actually have been gazing up at a full moon when I wrote that she was gazing up at a full moon. Our feeling was that the more vigilant we were about all the details we could include (without overloading the story), the easier it would be for the reader to buy into the notion that one of Shakespeare's favorite actors was a vampire. Since then I've written several medieval-set paranormal romances and again, getting the history as right as possible without getting in the way of the story makes the fantastical story seem more plausible, I think.
Tom Hutchison: I like to use the facts as the baseline, but you have to let your character fill the space that is needed in your new version of this "historical" narrative. Id' say the one thing you have to be cognizant of is that there are people who have existing understandings and perceptions of your character and if they see something totally out of historical place, you may get a bit more hate mail than usual or get talked to at a convention. But that to me is part of the fun of messing with what people already know or believe.
Jenny Reed: I prefer history that is as accurate as humanly possible. I find it is usually best to use fictional characters in a real setting. That generally means avoiding interacting with historical famous figures entirely if possible, or keeping the interactions minimal at best.
For example, it's okay to watch the Queen and her parade walk down the avenue, or to join the line and shake her hand, or even to have her give your main character a quest because s/he is good at something. But making your character the Queen's favorite consort or the Queen's personal confessor or the Queen's handmaid who she talks to daily is a really bad move. At least, it's not a move I would make. Not unless I was actually writing the story of the Queen and did a hell of a lot of research about her, anyway.
Ed Keller: Established facts are of paramount importance! Even when writing historical fiction, the events, characters and how the characters WERE should be as accurate as possible until the moment of deviation from actual history occurs. After, that point nearly anything goes, though the closer you keep the characters' personalities to that of the real people, the more believable they will be.
Jim Ritchey: Maintain character. Everything else is BS. If you know the kind of person Andrew Jackson or Abraham Lincoln is, you don't need to wonder. Study them.
Emily Leverett: I'm an English prof, and I write fantasy. Story first. Always. Unless you're deliberately going for an accuracy-heavy genre, or it is a fact that if you do wrong (w/o reason) it will fling the reader from the story. It's neat to get background right, and I am a fan of accuracy when you can. I'm a teacher, if folks learn real things from my work, hooray! But story first. Always.
Brian K Morris: As much as possible, I like to get the history right. I don't always succeed, but I try.
Retta Bodhaine: As a writer who bases a good number of her stories off of historical events, this question is very important to me. I write fantasy, but I try to get the known elements of historical events correct. I think it's important that the factual information be handled responsibly. I know that most people aren't going to research the life of Persian King Cambyses II, or the traditions of the 18th century Tanka people and the pirates they produced, or even how our universe came into existence according to myths, beliefs and (my personal favorite) science. That's my job, to know as many of the facts as is feasible, and then portray them in an entertaining way, and add in my fantasy elements in the plentiful unknown gaps. There are things I will change in order for the mash up of history and fantasy to blend harmoniously, but once again, I try to change those things in such a way that it does not hurt or directly mislead my audience about factual history and, if it is not to be believed, I make it unbelievable by introducing supernatural elements.
On one hand, I think it's irresponsible to present fiction in such a way that the audience walks away thinking that it was truth. It continues to aggravate our growing problems in the age of mistrust and misinformation.
On the other hand, I very much think it's the audience's responsibility to not be unthinking sponges. To understand that all mediums not specifically labeled non fiction are fictional. To question and seek answers from RELIABLE sources (finding reliable sources might not be so easy but that's a different rant for a different day).
I also think that taking that responsibility from the audience is an insult. That's basically saying that the general population isn't smart enough to know to have questions and how to find answers.
If you want to go the extra mile and have a fact tracker or Easter egg blog that corresponds with your work because you're proud of the research you've done... that's up to you.