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TSS: How Much History Does Historical Fiction Need?

This week, I posted a review of Shadow of the Swords, a book that I enjoyed but found too many historical accuracies in to be entirely comfortable with.  I loved the idea of it, but worried that the doubts the changes would leave in readers’ minds would undermine the otherwise important story the author was trying to convey.  The author, Kamran Pasha, dropped by, and left his opinion on my review; namely that fiction is an art and is still enjoyable despite changes made to history, that it’s more than a dry retelling of facts.  You can read his comment in full here.  I’ve really appreciated the fact that he left a comment because it led us to an interesting email discussion, which has given me the idea for this post and the desire to find out whether others agree or disagree.

In essence, my opinion of historical fiction when it involves mainly real characters and events is this; that it should follow historical fact as much as we know and use the author’s imagination to in effect fill in the blanks.  I do think that sometimes minor changes are necessary, and fictional characters inserted into said history don’t bother me particularly, but I really dislike the changes of major events, the omission of important historical characters, and in general anything that could give a reader the wrong impression about the period, the event, or the person.

Undoubtedly a book can be a wonderful read even if it gets history wrong, but I know some people do read historical fiction and allow it to influence their beliefs and feelings about the historical period in question.  Yes, this includes me, although I do try to read history about any period that I am really enjoying in fiction, to make up my own mind.  I love that historical fiction has really taken off in the past few years, but I am often running into people who believe they know something but they’ve been misled by a book or a movie.  Historians do get it wrong and historical understanding can change over time, which is why it’s important to read a few different sources in order to escape bias, but so few people do that and I dislike the fact that they could easily pick up and spread a mistaken belief because of a fiction book they read.

Even major politicians get history wrong and many people seem to have lost the ability to think for themselves; that probably doesn’t apply to anyone reading this blog, but I firmly believe we should get it right whenever we possibly can.  Think about all the backlash against immigrants; how many Americans are from immigrant stock themselves?  All of us who aren’t Native Americans, if you think about it.  As an example, how many of us are proud to be Irish now, and how many of those have neatly forgotten the discrimination our grandparents endured and insist on perpetuating it by discriminating against others?  This is why history is important, because it does profoundly affect what is happening today and can help us to determine how we react to the calamities of the future.

Finally, I also think a lot of my desire for history to be as accurate as possible in historical fiction is simply because I love history.  I think it’s all fascinating on its own.  I love historical fiction because it can bring that history to life, and I will admit that I feel misled and cheated if I believed what I read and the author had in fact changed things to suit his or her story without saying a word about it anywhere.  In the book I first referenced in this post, Shadow of the Swords, Pasha does freely admit that he changed things in his author’s note, and in general if changes are necessary I like when they’re detailed somewhere.  I still probably won’t agree with what was changed, but at least I know what to believe and what not to believe and I can respect the author’s desire to construct his or her own version of the story.

Perhaps I’m thinking too deeply about historical fiction, but I do believe an understanding of history is important in becoming an informed citizen of the world.  Many of us do feel we’re learning from historical fiction; it’s not just mindless pleasure that is immediately forgotten.  Fiction can be a powerful tool to inspire us to learn more, to understand the world that much better, to become better people.  As a result I do feel we should get it as close to the truth as we can; the wonderful stories are there.  They just need a clever mind to give them life and make them accessible to those who prefer not to read straight non-fiction.  Obviously, much of my own personal preference as represented in this post is due to the fact that I think everyone should have some basic understanding of history.  My own studies have massively expanded and drastically changed my own view of the world in ways that I appreciate on a regular basis; I wish that for everyone else, too, and I think historical fiction could be an important first step.

What do you think?  Do you agree or disagree?  Am I missing the point of fiction?  How much history do you like in your historical fiction?

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16 comments to TSS: How Much History Does Historical Fiction Need?

  • If the characters are made up then I do nto mind big changes…ok not that big. But if the book are about real people, and things are really changed then I do mind. That is the way I felt when I read paintign Mona Lisa, cos in my opinion too many things had changed and had been altered to fit the story. If the story had been made up, great, but as it was now, I just felt it was wrong. And how would someone who doesn’t know that much about history know what is true or not. They could get this totally wrong impression on things.

    Ok I have babbled and do not know if I made sense
    blodeuedd´s last post …Review- Aristobrats – Jennifer Solow

  • As a history teacher I have a hard time reading historical fiction that is historically inaccurate. I have been known to stand in my living room and shout at a book “That is not true”
    A good historical fiction author should be able to weave his/her storyline around the historical facts.
    Historical movies can also make me nuts. I blame Disney’s Pocahontas for an entire generation of kids not knowing the truth about the settling of Jamestown.
    Beachreader´s last post …Catching my Breath and Finally Reading

  • I quite agree with what you’ve said. I believe novelists writing about actual historical figures shouldn’t stray from known facts, or should at least inform their readers when they’ve done so. Many readers simply do not read nonfiction, or read only nonfiction that supports a particular view of an event or person, so I think the novelist is honor-bound to respect historical fact and not to distort it simply for the sake of storytelling. That doesn’t mean that the author simply has to write nonfiction with dialogue; there’s still a lot of room for the novelist’s imagination to play in speculating about motivation, filling in the gaps, etc.

  • Historical inaccuracies do tend to bother me. I am not likely to catch them though, as I am no history buff, so it is not usually an issue!
    Stephanie´s last post …The Sunday Salon- 9-26-10

  • Amy

    I agree with you. While I love historical fiction, I prefer that an author follow actual historical events rather than change history to fit his/her story. I don’t mind if they change/add events and characters but I would prefer they be upfront about it when that does happen. I read historical fiction because history fascinates me and may times find myself reading about a specific time frame or person after I finish a book. If things have been changed substantially from historical record, it does change my opinion of the book.
    Amy´s last post …The Sunday Salon – The National Book Festival

  • dangermom

    Historical inaccuracies do bother me a lot. My feeling is that if a story can’t be properly (accurately) told in a given historical setting, then the author should perhaps find a different setting. Or, you can always use an “alternate history” setting–I just finished Farthing, and look at the amazing Wolves Chronicles by Joan Aiken. History is amazing the way it is; I’m not sure it needs editing and improvement to make it suitable for our purposes.

    My biggest problem with historical fiction, and the reason that I don’t read much of it, is the tendency to plop a heroine with modern sensibilities into a historical setting and then have her go around fighting all the sexist racist wrongs she sees. My feeling is that it is not only historically inaccurate but also disrespectful to the women of the time, who were strong and purposeful, who addressed their problems in their own ways, and who didn’t necessarily need rescuing by one of us ‘enlightened modern folks.’ (Or, if they did, they didn’t get it.)

  • This is why I don’t trust historical fiction. I enjoy reading it, but if one wants to know about the history of a period, one should read a history book. There are so many out there now that are just as compelling as novels are. If you want to know how to repair your kitchen sink would you read a how-to book or a novel about a plumber?

    But this question has been around at least since Shakespeare. How historically accurate are his history plays? Not very. But some of them are still excellent plays.

    That said, today I think an author who knowingly makes substantially changes in the historical record should not be considered a good author of historical fiction. I’ve long felt that historical fiction is the moral equivalent of fantasy, which I also enjoy. Authors who treat the historical record as something they can alter whenever the plot requires, just add fuel to the fire.
    cbjames´s last post …Sunday Salon- Memoirs of a Midget

  • I love learning about history through historical fiction and for this reason I like the facts to be as close to the truth as possible. Unfortunately I’m unlikely to spot inaccuracies in most periods of history because I’m not an expert. I’d hate to think how many false historical facts I now believe to be true just because I’ve read about them.

    I don’t mind the odd tweek of history, but like it when the author takes the time to explain exactly what was changed to suit the story. I think that means I agree with you!
    Jackie (Farm Lane Books)´s last post …Recommendations from a non-blogger 4

  • I love historical fiction because I view it as an opportunity to learn a bit more about a certain historical figure or time period. Because it is fiction, I know that everything I read should be taken with a grain of salt, but I would certainly hope that authors do their research properly to be able to get the majority of the facts correct. Manipulating history for fiction is misleading, in my opinion, and could cause even more historical inaccuracies in the future should said manipulations gain credence.
    Michelle´s last post …The Sunday Salon – September 26- 2010

  • In great part I think a reader’s attitude to history in fiction depends on what kind of reading experience is important to them. To someone who uses historical fiction as a form of time travel or fly-on-the-wall participation, accuracy may be crucial in order to suspend disbelief or allow themselves to relax and trust the “genuineness” of the experience. Someone who looks at fiction as a form of experiencing art, for example, may find a portrait by Picasso to be as “true” or factual a representation of the sitter or of her/his personality as a mirror-like representation by Ingres; in such a case, emotional truth, creative originality, or enlightenment through subversion, for example, may be the criteria by which they judge their enjoyment – or the relevancy – of any form of fiction.

    To treat historical fiction as a source of accurate political, social, or cultural information is tempting, but fraught with problems – that old saying, “history is written by the victors” exemplifies only the start. How many readers have been won over by Follett’s depiction of the Middle Ages (“The Pillars Of The Earth”) and cite his research into cathedral building to back up the truth of his vision? How many historians and writers of fiction have fought over Richard III? How many writers base their interpretations of relationships between actual or fictional historical figures on their contemporary understanding of the human psyche, modern values and virtues, or a Western/Eastern bias; are particular about getting details about the material culture correct but pooh-pooh the all-pervasive role of religion; or equate sound research with reading books like those by Frances and Joseph Gies?

    Striving to incorporate “known” fact without omission or addition or bias is hard and controversial work even for academic historians, and I salute any writer of historical fiction who tries to emulate their scrupulousness. Personally, I want my historical fiction to be as correct as possible in its smallest detail. I like to speculate about historical figures or events – the puzzling whys, whos, hows, wherefores – but I am not interested in history as fantasy. Like you, I think history is “all fascinating on its own”. It is why I find it very hard to enjoy historical fiction set in the thirteenth century, which used to be a favourite period of study for me. But I do understand why others may have different priorities. By its very nature, fiction takes liberties and plays with truths, so in a way, “historical fiction” is a delicious, artful paradox.
    Danielle C.´s last post …Iraq- They Came To Baghdad by Agatha Christie

  • If you’re missing the point of fiction than so am I, because I completely agree with you. I think Susan said it very well, actually. Novelists are welcome to take some liberties with the story, particularly motivations, etc, but please stick within the realm of facts.
    Jen – Devourer of Books´s last post …Debutante Ball Challenge 2011!

  • I completely agree I am a proper history geek, I love watching history documentaries, reading works of non-fiction on history and I see historical fiction as another avenue of learning. I am only truly impressed with a work of hsitorical fiction if I can see the research that the author has put into it and even better is if I learn something new. A great example would be Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 set in the dark period of the Soviet Union a time period I knew vague details about, but after reading Child 44 I was keen to know more. So if a historical fiction had changed facts, real events and people then I would be mighty upset haha.
    jessicabookworm´s last post …Something New and Something Borrowed

  • Oo oo so interesting – what a great topic to explore! For my own part I’m happy with changes to time spans and adding characters that didn’t really exist but are based on a composite sketch of what might be typical for such a character etc to be detailed in an authors note. I am more than prepared to forgive changes to timelines to get everything to fit into a book.

    I am a bit iffy about making things up because it might have happened and the dates can be made to fit (a good example of that would be Napoleon and Wesley meeting in a Simon Scarrow book – there’s no recorded meeting, but he engineered one in fiction because he could make the times they were at a place fit and drammatically that was almost like an insider joke ‘See soon these people will be important in each others life and they have no idea, haha’ – fun but eh really necessary?). Same goes for more specific changes to history when it comes to more specific things, like weaponry etc. I want to know what kind of weapon a character would have used, not what kind of weapon the author thinks would make things more exciting drammatically.

    When it comes to writers having to guess, because there isn’t any evidence I think my feelings are the same as when I read non-fiction narrative history. The guesses should be made on evidence available about similar people and the guesses should be acknowledged (in fiction that would be where the author’s note comes in). Oh and I get really annoyed when an authors note is just like ‘I made too many changes to historical accuracy to count, but they’re there, hope any I haven’t made deliberately will be pointed out later – peace out).

  • I could go point by point but it would be easier to say that I agree with absolutely EVERYTHING you said in this post.
    Heather J.´s last post …Naked In Eden

  • My first priority with any book is always the story and whether I’m enjoying reading it or not. If that’s taken care of, I don’t mind historical inaccuracy so much as long as it’s not LAZY historical inaccuracy. Like the author has read a bazillion Tudor novels and decided to call that “research.”

    I really admire historical fiction that feels authentic to the time period and researched out the wazoo. At the same time, novels are constructions and fantasy, and if the author wants to play with that, I don’t have a problem with it. I can suspend disbelief–on occasion. :)

  • I found myself nodding along in agreement with every point you made. I studied history in college, so sometimes I wonder whether I am a little too picky when authors take liberties…but your point about casual readers getting misled by one particular book is very valid.

    That said, I don’t mind extra characters added in, but I hate it when the authors get the culture/behavior/basic history wrong.
    Nishita´s last post …How Could I Have Missed this One