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Archive - General > How far should historical novels stray from the facts?

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message 1: by R.G. (last edited Aug 03, 2014 05:41PM) (new)

R.G. Belsky | 51 comments I recently started a bit of controversy at the Deadly Ink mystery conference during a panel discussion of historical fiction. Talking about my own novel, The Kennedy Connection, I said that I didn't think you needed to be completely factually accurate about characters from history in a work of fiction. Many people disagreed. Here's a story about it:

My book is about Lee Harvey Oswald. I take a "what if" approach to history. What if everything we've been told about Oswald and his actions on November 22, 1963 were wrong? To me, that's what fiction and novels is all about. If I wanted to stick strictly with the facts, I'd write a history book.

Interested what others have to say...

message 2: by Kathy (new)

Kathy Davie (kathydavie) | 23 comments I say stick to the facts until your story diverges from them. After that, keep to the mores, style, manners, politics, etc. of the time to keep it believable.

Now, if you want to write fantasy, then do that, don't use Lee Harvey Oswald to do it. Change the names. Change the location. Don't base a story on an historical event unless you plan to use the history of the time.

message 3: by David (new)

David Freas (quillracer) | 2220 comments I have no problem with an author 'bending' history a little in a book - creating a fictional battle that never happened in the Civil War for example.

I don't however like when an author tosses history out the window or radically alters historical fact - changes the date, time, or events known to have happened.

message 4: by R.G. (new)

R.G. Belsky | 51 comments In the case of Lee Harvey Oswald, I would make the case that no one really knows what the true facts are about him. So it's fair game for an author - as I did - to create a work of fiction around what we do know.

message 5: by R.G. (new)

R.G. Belsky | 51 comments Just to elaborate a bit more, Lee Harvey Oswald did not have a son. But by creating one for him, I was able to tell the story of what MIGHT have happened on November 22, 1963. As a work of fiction. To me, that's what writing a novel is about...

message 6: by Joseph (new)

Joseph  (bluemanticore) | 27 comments I think it depends on what sort of historical novel you are trying to write. A "what if" sort you are aiming to change history in a way anyway. If you are trying to write a work that simply takes place in the 1950s, for example, don't have people walking around carrying cell phones. And a nice courtesy I find I appreciate from authors is when they do change a date or a location of something that really did happen in order to make the story better, they make note of it in the back of the book.

message 7: by R.G. (new)

R.G. Belsky | 51 comments Of course, Joseph. Making sure the facts of history for things like cell phones or VCRs or color television or whatever is very important. You keep all those facts accurate. But then you write a work of fiction based on that. One of the best examples I've seen of this is 11/22/63 by Stephen King. Most of it is set in the late 50s and early 60s where his time traveler returns - and King does a masterful job of recreating accurately the details of that period. At the same time, he makes up a completely fictional story to tell.That's what I'm talking about...

message 8: by David (new)

David Penny | 10 comments It also depends on how far back you go, and what kind of source material is available. I have no problem with the creation of fictional characters and events surrounding the Kennedy era provided the core facts are not messed with (Stephen King, anyone?)

My own problem when I started writing a series set in Moorish Spain at the end of the 15th Century wasn't how much to fictionalise as how little source material there was that could be trusted. As they say, history is written by the victors.

In the end I wrote the story and not the history, but have had many positive comments regarding the verisimilitude of the era (always wanted to use that word in a post!)

message 9: by Terry (new)

Terry Shames (terryshames) | 17 comments I was at a book launch talk by author Rhys Bowen last night and she talked about this subject. She said she may stray a tiny bit from historical fact, but that her historical figures are not the main characters--they are in the books to add historical resonance. That works for me as a reader.

message 10: by R.G. (new)

R.G. Belsky | 51 comments Just to use a personal example, this is from my own new novel The Kennedy Connection. Obviously not historically accurate, but done to drive a thriller plot. What does everyone think about that? To me, that's what fiction is all about...

“Who’s the author?” I asked
“Lee Harvey Oswald.”
I smiled. “Right.”
“No, I’m serious.”
“Lee Harvey Oswald is alive and a client of yours?”
“Lee Harvey Oswald Jr.”
“He had a son?”
I thought about that for a second.
“I don’t remember anything about Lee Harvey Oswald having a son. Didn’t he have a baby daughter or something with that Russian woman he married?”
“Oswald had two daughters with Marina, who he married while he was living in the Soviet Union. One of them there before he returned to the U.S. Another baby girl that Marina gave birth to just a few weeks before the assassination in Dallas. There’s never been any mention of a son. Until now.”
“I don’t understand…”
“Lee Harvey Oswald had an affair. In New Orleans where he lived in the months before he went to Dallas.”
“So you’re saying ol’ Lee Harvey was as much of a horndog as JFK, huh?” I laughed.

message 11: by C.T. (new)

C.T. Brown | 5 comments If you are writing a dramatisation of actual events using actual historical characters I would say you should stick mostly to the facts, if you are using a historical setting to tell your own story then that would be different. For example, Conn Iggulden's books about Genghis Khan's rise to power are good stories but also largely stick to the historical facts. Bernard Cornwell's books in the Sharpe series have a bit more latitude because they are about a fictional character albeit in a historical setting.

Erin *Proud Book Hoarder* (erinpaperbackstash) For fiction I think they should stick to the general known, larger facts, but I don't mind embellishment where it's interesting. I like Philippa Gregory, but don't have a lot of experience with historical fiction yet.

message 13: by Michael (new)

Michael (micky74007) R.G. wrote: "Just to use a personal example, this is from my own new novel The Kennedy Connection. Obviously not historically accurate, but done to drive a thriller plot. What does everyone think about that? To..."

When you know the history, and also realize that you can never know all the history, you can grant yourself great latitude in reading a historical novel. I find it great fun to follow the "what if". When I want to learn a history of an event, I will read history. When I want to be entertained, I will read the novel.
In fact, I look forward to reading this one.

message 14: by W. (new)

W. (wlen) | 4 comments I agree with Michael. History is pretty subjective. The number of new facts/perspectives being discovered about events, even well-documented ones, tells you that.

It also depends on the audience you're writing for. There are hardcore historical fiction purists who'll quibble over every detail in a book. Then, there are those who just want to be swept away. Eg. fans of The Book Thief That book has Death as the narrator of a story set in WW2...

message 15: by OddModicum Rachel (last edited Aug 21, 2014 07:38PM) (new)

OddModicum Rachel (oddmodicumrachel) | 117 comments I agree with everything that has been said here so far. I love well researched historical fiction, but that is simply as an immersion factor, and because it teaches me a bit more about a given time. Nothing is more grating than an author getting basics about their time period wrong, from style and manner of dress and customs to general style of speaking. I'm by no means an expert in any era, so if I immediately know something rings as historically inaccurate, I figure the author should certainly be aware of it. Now that's not to say I expect every tiny little detail to be historically accurate. You guys are authors, not academics, and as such I don't expect years of academic study on a subject before you put pen to paper. Drives me bonkers when readers nitpick the teensiest details that no rational person could be expected to discover with general research, and fault authors for it.

Alternative historical fiction is a whole different animal. As far as I'm concerned, the author is inspired by events in history to create his/her own world and timeline. And that's exactly what you get... a world of the author's imagination, with historical backdrop. Love that when it's done with imagination and creativity. I've been on a bit of a Steampunk kick lately, and it is such a thrill when its well conceived and imagined. Gotta love clockwork and automatons. Your Oswald timeline diversion would fall into this idea, I think, R.G. Up to a point, it's based in historical fact. Then there's a timeline diversion, and suddenly you're working with your own historical creation. Sounds very intriguing, and the idea of an unknown Oswald heir is quite clever.

message 16: by Carmen (new)

Carmen Amato (authorcarmenamato) | 23 comments I think Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer, says it all. Depart from history, while keeping all the period elements in place, but let the imagination build something to delight your readers. Maybe Vampire Slayer worked so well and was so popular because it used historical events to such great effect, yet was so imaginative that the reader knew it was fiction and could not possibly be true.

message 17: by Kirsten (new)

Kirsten  (kmcripn) As little as possible, at least when it comes to actual facts per history books. You can add to things, but don't change the actual events. For example, Abraham Lincoln can fight vampires, but he should still have been married to Mary Todd Lincoln, he should still have told off George McClellan.

message 18: by R. (new)

R. Marquez I agree. It tickles me when an author adds another layer onto historical fact, as long as they don't mess with the basics. I love the show "Sleep Hollow" because of that. A little history, a little fun.

message 19: by Stephanie (last edited Sep 13, 2014 10:40AM) (new)

Stephanie (quiltsrme) | 43 comments It didn't bother me when I was young because I didn't know history that well, but I found as I got older that it was intolerable and showed TO ME that the author poorly researched their subject before writing. So, you lose a lot of readers (who will also badmouth your poor work) by changing history to suit your story. However, if you introduce your story by saying 'What if Lee Harvey Oswald didn't kill President Kennedy - that Kennedy didn't die... this is what might have happened' then you avoid that issue because you are saying right at the outset that actual history is being shoved aside.

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer, says it all right in the title!!

message 20: by Audiothing (new)

Audiothing I don't know why you even asked the question as it didn't apply to your work, just as Stephanie pointed out.
However, by asking the question here you did make us read excerpts of your book.

message 21: by Michael (new)

Michael Rubin | 4 comments Deep South Magazine just published "11 Mysteries to Read in October" and four are historical fiction mysteries. Worth taking a look at this list.

message 22: by Rich (last edited Jan 30, 2015 06:16AM) (new)

Rich Zahradnik | 13 comments OddModicum Rachel wrote: "I love well researched historical fiction, but that is simply as an immersion factor, and because it teaches me a bit more about a given time..."

I agree it's all about immersion. And maybe a bit about who's writing. Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle creates a world in which the Axis won the war and the U.S. is split by the Nazis and Japanese Empire. It travels as science fiction because that's what Dick wrote, though there is no science in the fiction, just alternate history (and a big mystery).

Richard Harris takes a similar premise in Fatherland, a German win. That book is labeled a thriller, as Kripo detective March investigates a murder that leads to greater revelations.

Both alternate histories. Both create immersive worlds. I believed in both. But one is called a thriller and one sci fi, mainly because of who did the writing. My own belief is if you're going to combine "what if" with "who dunnit," you need to go large with your "what if," really alternating the history. The manuscript I just finished writing is set in 1975, right as NYC is about to go bankrupt. I include in the plot something that could have caused the city to actually go bankrupt. But that evidence disappears in the course of the investigation, so history proceeds as it actually did and isn't alternated. In terms of the fine grained details of 1975 NYC, I worked hard to get those right. I enjoy both alternate history mysteries and historical mysteries. You just need to be clear about what you're doing... building a world or describing one.

message 23: by Dan (new)

Dan Riker | 6 comments I have written a novel, not published yet, "The Blue Girl Murders," set in Baltimore in 1966 against the background of racial turmoil. The city, which still had segregated bars, was the target of CORE and there was a "white power" organization also demonstrating. It also was the year that Spiro Agnew was elected governor, running against a maverick Democrat whose slogan was "Your Home is Your Castle, Protect It." It was pretty wild. I was there, covering events for UPI.

I don't change any history in the novel, but I do have real people saying some things they didn't say - but not out of character. I also have them saying things they did say.

But much of the story is about the murders, which appear to be done as Mayan human sacrifices, and their investigation by a young police detective and the UPI bureau manager, with a zinger of an ending.

message 24: by Joey (new)

Joey Ledford | 3 comments I like it, Dan, especially your UPI history. I'm a former unipresser myself, and I inserted a couple of fictional UPI staffers in my book set in 1959 Georgia, SPEED TRAP.

message 25: by Wendy (new)

Wendy | 71 comments For me, a reader not a writer: historical fiction is set in a specific Time Period (civil war, Edwardian, Victorian). Authors may play with real historical figures (Nellie Bly, Louisa May Alcott,Lincoln, whomever they please. It is fiction, have FUN. Be unconventional! (I like it when the historical figure is "years ahead" of their Time. i.e. women being independent before it was a Right, a color blind character in a racist world). Stay within the confines of the Period. Otherwise the books' genre is paranormal mystery, fantasy, steam-punk, alternative universes.

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