Hello, friends! Today’s post is one I have thought of for a very long time. I’m a major lover of historical fiction. In fact, that’s probably the genre I read the most. But where does history end and fiction begin? Just how much can we murky up the lines? Lately I have read some books that were maybe a little too fictional even though they were based on historical events. So I want to discuss this topic with you and hear your thoughts!
I want to preface this post by saying I am not a writer nor do I intend to be. In the end, historical fiction is whatever the writer wants to put to paper. The argument I will be putting forward in this post is that not every book intended to be historical fiction should be marketed as such. After all, readers trust blurbs, publishing houses, and book sellers to guide them to a book they love. If they’re massive history nerds (like me), it’s obvious they’ll want to see real historical events portrayed in the novel they picked up that claims to be historical fiction.
But what about when the author takes such liberties that the historical events get almost completely distorted? Should that book still be considered historical fiction?
Historical fiction should try to stick to facts and be loyal to history
When I pick up a book about early Medieval Europe, I expect there to be the traditional division of classes: gentry, noblemen and women, and clergymen. Of course it’s not exactly like this everywhere in Europe, but I’m certainly not expecting to find wealthy merchants doing business everywhere.
Following the same logic, if I pick up a book set in Revolutionary Russia and told from the point of view of the Romanov family, I’m not expecting them to understand the struggles the gentry goes through. But I’m also not expecting for certain key historical events to be completely erased.
When I bring up this point about Russia, I’m referring to how Nadine Brandes handled the morality of the last Romanov tsar in 1918 in her 2019 novel Romanov (review here). She paints a picture of Nicholas II as a benevolent ruler who knew and loved his people. Yet the vast majority of history books will tell you otherwise. What about all the parties thrown for the entertainment of the royal family when their people were starving? What about Russia’s intervention in World War One when the domestic situation was dire? What about Bloody Sunday, a cold-blooded slaughter of hundreds (or maybe thousands) of protesting workers in 1905? The author seems to completely forget these issues, but they’re crucial to tell the story she has in her heart. How can anyone write a book set in Revolutionary Russia and not mention all the decades of events leading up to it?
My issue with the too-liberal romantization of history does not stem from Brandes’s novel — that would be an attack on her, which I don’t intend at all! My issue is that marketing a book as historical fiction creates expectations in the reader. And when those expectations aren’t met, it’s easy to feel defeated, unsatisfied, and feel like you have wasted your time and money.
So how can fiction and historical accounts blend? Is there no creative freedom?
Of course there is creative freedom! It is very much possible to write a historical fiction book creatively and have it still be logical and in line with the actual events that happened. The author just needs to find a way to tell their story without bending history. Obviously this is easier said than done, but so is writing a spectacular novel.
Firstly, I think we need to take into account the Vraisemblance of what you are trying to write. In other words, is what you are about to write likely to happen in the time frame and setting you are taking as your own? Fiction is playing with likelihood and tricking the reader into thinking these events you are describing could have happened or can happen in the future. That’s what sets apart awesome fiction from mediocre fiction.
Think about this with me. I will give you the choice between one of two books and you can choose only one of them:
The first: A girl is born with magical powers in a poor village in England in the 13th century. Her powers allow her to see into the future, so she petitions the king and queen to take her on as a court magician after proving to them her powers. She is accepted into the palace, but must still live as a servant. However, as she grows up, she learns to play power games and successfully rises a little inside the court society.
The second: A young princess and a serf fall in love despite the disapproval of her parents, the queen and the king. After keeping their love a secret, the young woman elopes with the serf and they live happily ever after in a cottage in the woods.
I don’t know about you, but I think I’d prefer reading the first one for its historical accuracy. The second one sounds like a lovely story, but if I go into it thinking it is based on historical facts, I will probably end up pulling my hairs because it sounds too implausible.
That isn’t to say history can’t surprise you!
In spite of all this, that isn’t to say that history can’t surprise you. Of course it can! A lot of what we think we know of history is nothing but a myth! No, people wouldn’t have a heart attack if you talked about sex during the Middle Ages. Have you seen the illustrations monks and illustrators would put on the margins of extremely expensive books/manuscripts? If anything, the Renassaince introduced puritanism and taboo thinking into European culture!
If there’s a little known historical fact you want your readers to know about, by all means talk about it! Write about it! Make movies about it! But make it clear, in one way or another (maybe as a footnote, an appendix, an author’s note), that that thing really did happen!
But, please, never, ever, ever, ever skip out on research!
If you’re writing about historical fiction, it’s necessary to know the time period you are writing about. Libraries and research centers are awesome places to start your research — and for free! A well-researched historical fiction book feels so satisfying to the reader. And it’s glaringly obvious to any reader when a writer doesn’t quite investigate their setting and time period.
An excellent example of this is how noble women of the Medieval Ages (I’m sorry for bringing it up all the time!) are portrayed in historical fiction in books and movies. No, they would never EVER wear their hair down and flowing like we do now! What was acceptable in Medieval Europe was completely different from what we see as normal in today’s society. A “proper” lady of high birth would wear her hair in a modest way, so much so that oftentimes her whole hair would be concealed inside their “hat.”
My point with this is that when describing a time period that is not yours, you have to extra careful to not import what you take for granted today! I remember reading a book set in 18th-century Portugal in which plumbing is described — there was no plumbing in people’s houses (in the way we know it today) back then!
Historical fictions should honor history, right?
All in all, I think historical fiction must be an homage to history. Who else but a history lover would set their book in such remote past? There are certainly ways of infusing some historical elements into your story and not market it as historical fiction…
You can be inspired by the past and not market your novel as historical fiction!
I have seen some books being advertised as historical fiction when they are just taking some inspiration from cultural aspects of the past. Just because you were inspired by the past it doesn’t mean the story should be historical fiction. There are so many ways of getting around that if you’re not aiming to make your story historically accurate, you can still use past events as inspiration!
Take The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang, for example. I have never seen it marketed as historical fiction. I have only seen that label being used by readers, not by the publisher or the author. I think this is a great example of taking inspiration without being historically factual. The plot is inspired by the Sino-Japanese and the Rape of Nankin — but the novel doesn’t pretend that her characters live in that time period. Kuang simply took the tensions between the countries in that time period and created her own world with it. The book isn’t even set in China! It’s set in a whole new universe, and I love it for it.
But there are some exceptions…
Of course this leads to the very interesting debate of how minorities (ethnic, religious, etc) should be portrayed in historical fiction. A prime example of this is the portrayal of African Americans before the 20th-century as slaves.
These same-old, same-old narratives get very tiring! I strongly believe minorities and groups of people who have been wronged in the past should not be defined by their suffering. And I do agree that slave narratives or holocaust narratives can be too repetitive and written to assuage white guilt. So is it valid to tell a story set in the 17th or 18th century in the Americas and have African characters not be slaves?
As with a lot of things, I feel conflicted with this. On one hand, it would completely invalidate everything I have written thus far. It wouldn’t be realistic. But on the other hand, it would also give minorities the freedom to write all the stories they were robbed of. This is a very complicated subject and I would love to hear your thoughts.
Perhaps I should leave you with a final thought: create those stories in worlds that do not exist, inspired by the real world but without the emotional and physical torture that our world still inherits. Toy with the idea of creating fictions inside a semi-fictional world.
These are obviously just my thoughts. You don’t need to agree with them — nor should you! Diversity of thought is always welcome.
What are your thoughts about the relationship between history and fiction? Where do you draw the line between the two? Let’s talk! 🛋