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Thursday, February 25, 2010

The truth, the whole truth, or ???

Historical romance authors need to decide how much true history to incorporate into their novels. Balancing interesting, realistic plots and settings while not overpowering the romance can be a challenge. We are writing fiction, yet the addition of the word "historical" on the spine implies the inclusion of some actual history. As a reader, I’m not all that fond of novels where, for example, the historical element goes no further than having the hero/heroine romp about in a castle and do castle-y things. Yet often real history conflicts with the story you want to write. How much can you stray from what really happened without being inaccurate and/or alienating readers?

For example, is it ok to compress distance/time if your hero/heroine need to get between two places faster than actual travel time permits? Put the king somewhere he might not have been so your h/h can interact with him? Imply details about a real place you’re having trouble tracking down information about?  Alter the role a real historical figure played? 

The farther back you go, the fewer original documents such as letters and contracts that exist. The more researchers have to speculate. The harder it is to translate from original languages.  I’m often surprised how seemingly reliable sources can disagree on what actually happened and/or when/where.  It’s like striking gold when I come across more than one source that says something like, “No one knows exactly when X took place or how Y happened,”  or when accounts differ, for example, as to the weather on a given day or the specific location of a battle.  I’m free to fill in the blanks as I see fit.

And which sources should an author rely on? Many agree that Wikipedia, for example, is a starting off point but not a final authority. If one research book written by a professor says Y and another says Z, which do you trust? What if you don’t have access to primary sources?

Some authors insert a note to explain how they have stretched, ignored or adapted the truth to suit the purposes of their stories. I prefer this to reading and wondering what did or didn’t actually happen. But there’s a “going too far” line authors can cross that I’ll only know when I see it.

What do you think?

A few articles on this topic:

Medieval Sourcebook: Why Study History Through Primary Sources

Purdue Online Writing Lab

Yale College

2 comments:

Sally said...

With fiction, as a reader, it's about the story for me. I enjoy a period piece so I expect the physical and social environments to be accurate for the obvious but I'm not checking facts. If the story is heavy with factual events and people then I would expect primary sources were used and accuracy to the best of the authors ability.

As a writer I steer from factual events and places for the very reasons you stated. I prefer
a story in an historical period over the research of it.

Allison Knight said...

You've named an author's true dilemma. First, you are so right about it being difficult to find facts the further back in history you go. Often, you have to rely on drawings or tapestries to get an accurate picture of life in the middle ages. And because there's no reliable information, you have no choice. Some things you have to make up based on what you've seen or read.
It's a hard choice. Something as simple as the drinks of the day can be hard to find.
So what's the solution? I think most of us opt for a bit of imagination.