By Gordon Saunders
That is: How High Fidelity Is Your Historical Fiction?
Historical fiction is tricky. On the one hand, you must tell a great story. On the other hand, you mustn’t rewrite history. Or mustn’t you? Because if you read lots of biographies and historical commentaries, you can’t find just one history. And if the history is far enough back, nobody living can tell you what happened. But even if the history was yesterday, you may get five different stories from five different eye-witnesses. See what I mean?
So what is my obligation to ‘history’ as a writer of historical fiction? Be high-fidelity; that is, faithful to the original. Here are some suggestions.
First, every recognized date of such things as births, battles, debates, dalliances, and deaths should be presented as cast in concrete. In my experience, biographers tend to dwell on the nature rather than the date of an event. Articles and collections of an historical character’s writings do better. But you may still have to do some sleuthing to find out exactly when something occurred.
Second, historical persons included in the narrative must be where they were known to be, doing what they were known to be doing, when they appear. You can’t have Thomas Jefferson attending Washington’s first inauguration in New York when, in fact, he was in Paris. Their activities in the fiction must correspond to their activities in real life.
Third, and most difficult, historical characters must be presented in all their complexity and self-contradiction. This means that quotations must be accurately presented in such a way that the original context is honored and the original meaning transmitted. If the writer puts words into their mouths in the course of his story, as he will, they must be words the character might actually have said.
And what is my HiFi obligation to the reader as a writer of historical fiction?
For example, if I’m writing a Regency romance, must I inform my reader that King George III had become mentally unstable enough by January, 1811, that parliament elevated his nasty son, the Prince of Wales, to the title of Regent? And that when, in January 1820, George III died, the Regent became King George IV and the Regency period ended? No, I don’t think so. It’s the dress, the manners and mores, the technology, the morality, and the events of the time and place that are important. They provide a background for creating a drama with specific difficulties and opportunities.
Should I ‘translate’ the history to make it understandable to contemporary readers? For example, the prose and oratory of late eighteenth-century individuals was, shall we say, more florid and opaque than ours. So should I have Alexander Hamilton say ‘Okay’ instead of ‘Yes’ because it sounds more natural to the modern ear––even though “o.k.” wasn’t invented until 1839 and Hamilton died in 1804?
Should I elevate the political philosophy of Jefferson or Hamilton and downplay (not to say distort) the philosophy of the other? People are complex. Ideas are complex. People’s ideas and alliances change (witness James Madison). All of this must be evident. Historical fiction may illuminate the current political debate, but should not be part of it.
That’s what I shouldn’t do. What should I do? Let your readers see and feel what it was like to live in that time and place. Let them understand some of what brought the human race to where it is today––positive and negative. But, most of all, give them a rippin’ good story!
Oh, and one more thing. Some of your readers will like to have you sort out the actual from the fictional so a note or two at the end and even a little bibliography might not be amiss.
Dr. Gordon Saunders writes history and fantasy for Young Adults. Growing up in Boston, and living in four countries in Europe for over 25 years, gave him an eagerness to share in a concrete way principles we need for living today despite our context and conditions.
Some would rewrite history
to serve the modern mind,
to make a true epistolary
into another kind
that vilifies a certain man
to make another seem a saint
for those who would not understand
that this is what the story ain’t.
A hero who is born of old
cannot be newly minted,
and a story oft retold
should not have details stinted
in favour of selective grooming
that makes one more or less than human.