The role of the historical fiction writer

Now, I’ve made no secret of the fact that I think historical fiction writers have a duty to portray history as accurately as possible and I think this should be the most up to date interpretations of the past, and not what people were taught in the classroom at school, often quite some time ago, or what’s to be found in popular ‘history’ books often written by presenters from the TV who simply regurgitate the same old supposed facts.

History, contrary to popular opinion, is not an old, dead, subject. In fact it can be very current (I’m just reading about a new copy of the Magna Carta that’s been found abandoned in an old scrapbook) and it changes as more and more information is unearthed or rethought.

Now, this problem doesn’t only affect historical fiction authors, but often those who are eminent scholars in other fields who want to cross-reference with history. Archaeology is only the most obvious of these. Archaeologists aren’t historians, and vice-versa, and as close as the two subjects are, their cross over points can be poles apart. Archaeologists and historians both use each others research to ‘prove’ their arguments but they often rely on outdated interpretations and aren’t always aware of the most up to date research. This can cause huge problems, and I think that all scholars have a duty to seek out experts who can provide the correct current thinking, even if they ultimately question it and offer an alternative.

So what of historical fiction writers? Too often I see old stereotypes being portrayed and no efforts being made to write something that’s factually accurate but different to the accepted norm and this means that time and time again, outdated ideas and even completely incorrect stories are being written about historical figures and being accepted by a huge majority of people because it says it in a book. Not only does it stifle historical research because it means that readers don’t question the story, it also means that incorrect historical ideas are constantly being reinforced. As an historian, I’ve been taught never to really accept what’s written, to look for the bias, look for who gains from a certain take on events, to look at why things are written just as much as what’s actually written. I take this as normal behaviour, but I’m starting to think I might be wrong and that worries me. What if people really think that Elizabeth I did have an affair with Dudley? What if people really do think that Henry VIII was just a dirty old man who went through six wives in seemingly rapid succession (forgetting all together that he was ‘happily’ married for nearly 20 years before all that kicked off)?

If you’re a historical fiction writer, think about why you use the information that you do, and more importantly, if you’re a reader, please think about how the characters are used and why and if you can, dig a little deeper, look for the ‘truth’ because it’s more than likely very, very different from what’s being portrayed. Even seemingly small touches can damn an entire book or TV show. Find the reason, and then, hopefully, the ‘facts’ might make themselves a little clearer.

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2 thoughts on “The role of the historical fiction writer

  1. I’m not entirely certain that the history we write should be the most up to date possible. The characters are living in a different time period: they are not privy to the latest theories of what was happening in their time. Their views are informed by the times they live in, which are best accessed through the newspapers and publications of the day. I find writing with 1877 Victorian characters that I am constantly having to check what they would have known, particularly when it comes to their views on medicine etc. I tend to shy away from the prejudices of the day however, rather than give them another airing.

    • The history I write about is much older than the Victoriana period, and like all historical times, new information is constantly being discovered, for instance the huge coin find a few weeks ago of eleventh century coins. People living in those times would have known more about then than we do because so much information has been lost. Whilst sources are incredibly important from people who wrote at that time, their bias and the manipulation of the ‘facts’ through time and the ‘accident’ of that fact’s survival has to be very carefully considered and weighed up. History is not the science of facts many think it is. It’s all about interpretation. Historical facts almost always tell you more about the time they’re written in, than about the time they purport to tell you about!

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