Where Romance and History Meet - www.heartsthroughhistory.com/

Saturday, May 16, 2009

A Question for authors and readers

Here’s a question for you. How much history can a romance writer alter for the sake of a story without being accused of betraying his/her craft?

I’ve given this a lot of thought, because I’ve done just that, intentionally. With Heartsong, the medieval from the 13th century, I had my hero going into Wales for hostages. Taking hostages was a practice used during the medieval ages, but there is no record I could find of Edward I seeking hostages from Wales. I also changed his son’s birth a year to make the timeline fit my story.

When I first began to write, I had the scene of a US Civil War battle wrong. I caught the mistake, and it was my mistake, before the book saw the light of day. Now, even I would consider that poor research on the author's part. But, I still wonder if a historical romance author can alter the date of an event or a character's participation in an event, without an avalanche of objections being heaped on her/his head.

I agree, there are some events, some occasions as an author you cannot alter. An example might be the date of a war's beginning or ending, the corination of a king or queen, or their deaths. But, I know writers who have included a book character in a event or at a particular occasion and I suspect many will continue to be do so because, after all, it’s fiction. My concern is how much can an author alter?

The reason I'm asking is simple. In one of my books in process, I have my hero coming up with a plan to stop the great London fire. Can I do that, or is it stretching the truth a bit too far? After all, it certainly wasn't his idea because I made him up.

I'd love to hear your opinion.

Allison Knight
"Heartsong" Named
Best Novel of the Year
available from Champagne Books


Cynthia Owens said...

Great post, Allison! I think authors can take some license with history, as long as its not too big an event (like, as you said, a coronation or the beginning or ending of a war). In my work in progress, I have my heroine mentioning that she attended the farewell performance of William Charles Macready in London in 1859. That performance actually took place in 1851, but mentioning it my story served a purpose, so I did. I really think it's the whole "suspension of disbelief" thing. As long as it could have happened...

AllisonKnight said...


Glad you agree. I really want my hero to plan the end to the great fire of London. (grin!)


Regencyresearcher said...

I am a little more of a purist and don't want the dates of things changed-- dates of births, deaths, or farewell appearances. I think it would be wrong to change the date of the battle of Hastings or of Waterloo but see nothing wrong in having some imaginary character think up some action during that battle as long as the endresult was the same.
A man could think of a way to end the fire of London but face opposition or winds or something that make it impossible to implement. Or it could work as long as the end result of the devastation is the same. At the same time, if I didn't know anything about the great fire or care for that period of history, I might not even notice that he stopped it well short of the actual destruction.
I consider actual events as a framework within which we should work.

Ellen said...

It's not so much as betraying your craft as being accused of being a lazy writer who can't be bothered to know what really happened at a particular period in time. However, fiction remains fiction, regardless of genre. There is nothing wrong with taking a setting (be it place or time) and using that as a backdrop to a plotline. The tricky part is, as Allison noted, to know when to use that creative license and when not to.
As much as you want to, you can't change history or alter things to fit your way of thinking. Try and you'll have someone who knows the period or subject matter all over you for it. That's the quickest way to lose your credibility with readers too. The same applies for all sorts of subject matter where research is key. Try writing a police procedural and making up the procedures as you go along. Someone who has knowledge of both police and the court system will rip you apart. Same thing applies with history.

My opinion, as a writer and a publisher is to use the historical fact as your backdrop, then build the story around it. You've still got room to build other events into your fictional story, yet you've got enough of a foundation to keep the 'realism' in your story.


Victoria Gray said...

Great post...it really made me think! I think authors of historicals can take a few minor liberties, but in the case of events that had a significant impact, I don't feel it's best to alter the facts. As another post suggested, your hero could come up with a plan and try to stop the fire, but fail due to forces beyond his control. This would engage the reader and provide an opportunity for him to work through his feelings of frustration and sadness over the devastation.

Virginia said...

Great post! I can see where authors may want to change a few things in their books when it comes to history! Thats what makes it so interesting. After all you are writing a FICTION book and that is the key!

Kytaira said...

I don't have any problem with authors changing history. I just appreciate it when they have a page at the end that says what history was changed to fit the story.

Fempatriot said...

I think the closer you can stick to historical facts, the more seriously your writing will be taken. I like to avoid historical happenings or historical figures whenever possible. I also do a lot of research to try to create life as it must have been lived. (I like to stick to the 1800s)There's no reason a fictional character couldn't take part in a battle, meet the Queen, live through a natural disaster so long as they don't actually change the course of history.

Anita Birt said...

I think we can't make major changes to real historical events like the fire that destroyed a lot of London. Your hero could try and stop parts of it and be successful, but the fire overwhelmed him and he escaped with his life!

About Edward I. Was he born in the Welsh border town, Usk? I've climbed through the ruins of his castle. I really should dig out my records.

In my book. A Very Difficult Man, I played a little fast and loose with the date when the bride ships sailed from London, England to Victoria, Canada. The first ship sailed on 1857/8 and I have the date as 1854. Let's hope no one notices.

A very interesting post. Thanks.

Linda LaRoque said...

I think an author can alter history on some occasions to suit their story, but I think it's also good to acknowledge the alterations. In one of my time travels, my story had the railroad connecting from Waco to San Antonio in 1876 when it fact it didn't travel that far until several years later. In my opinion, readers will be okay with altered facts if they know the author is aware and states reasons for changes.


Angelica Hart and Zi said...

Minor alterations are fine but anything major and someone thinks you didn't do your research. Unless, of course, you are a time travel operative and history has been changed and you forgot what time line you're in and... Oh, sorry I digress.