Historical fiction: what’s accuracy got to do with it?

Salvete, readers!

My last post ended with a promise (or threat, perhaps) to share my thoughts on the concept of ‘accuracy’ as a framework for understanding historical fiction.

Once, at a conference dinner, an inebriated PhD student flipped the bird at me when I mentioned that I wrote historical fiction as well as academic history. ‘I’m not interested in that reception crap,’ he slurred. ‘Because I’m a REAL historian.’ He then proceeded to try and chat up my wife and throw up on me. We are not friends.

I’m sorry to say that the rejection of historical fiction by historians isn’t an isolated malady, though it is mercifully rare. I’ve heard more than one historian smugly proclaim that they will never consume an historical drama. It’s not to their taste, because it’s ‘inaccurate.’ A minority of historians would rather historical drama vanish altogether. The argument is usually something along the lines that academic historians ought to be the gatekeepers of history, lest historical facts be twisted according to the whims of popular taste. Thankfully, this kind of elitism among historians is rare and growing rarer—I think most historians would agree that historical drama in popular media can be a very useful talking point for academics to bring their work into the realm of public discourse. And, as I’ve mentioned in my very first post, story-telling is among the most powerful means to bring the world of the past alive for the present.

Accuracy is a perfectly legitimate framework for assessing academic work, but there really isn’t much point moaning about lack of ‘accuracy’ in historical fiction. It’s fiction. It isn’t real. By and large, I don’t think fiction writers claim otherwise. For an historian working within the genre of academic history or even popular non-fiction, it is grossly unprofessional to make stuff up. But that’s because the historian whose work is misleading betrays the reader’s trust. Unfortunately, it does happen, and when it does the historian gets called out on it by peer reviewers. Hopefully. An academic historian is obligated to ground their work in verifiable fact. The same isn’t necessarily true for the writer of historical fiction.

Now these points regarding the distinction between fiction and non-fiction might seem self-explanatory. On the other hand, remember how that ghastly journalist felt obliged to expose Elena Ferrante’s true identity because it turned out that her made-up stories were made-up? Ferrante was vilified because the journalist lacked the ability to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction. In an age of fake news and alternative facts, it has never been more important to distinguish between the real and the unreal. Both have the power to shape the world.

For the subgenre of historical fantasy in particular, I don’t feel that the author is obligated to portray reality. Rather, they are creating an entirely new world, albeit one which evokes the historical past. The following disclaimer appears in every volume of Cressida Cowell’s children’s series How to Train Your Dragon sums it up nicely. I discovered it when I was reading it to my kids:

Warning: Any relationship to any historical fact whatsoever is purely coincidental. You have been warned.

As soon as I read that, I knew I was in for a fun read. The author doesn’t strive to portray real people, events, or places—the world she creates is her own. Cowell’s having the time of her life with her research, and I want to go along for the ride. I would argue that she is playing with history in a very conscious manner. I always remember this quote from her website:

  1. Do you do any research for the Hiccup books?

The Hiccup books are really ‘fantasy’ books pretending to be ‘history’ books. (The dragons are a bit of a clue, here). In real history, the Vikings could never have met the Romans, as they do in How to Speak Dragonese, because they missed each other by about three hundred years. However, even though the history in the Hiccup books is not to be relied on, I still do masses of research. History is full of fascinating facts that give me ideas for storylines. For instance, I found out that in the harsh, snowy winters, the Vikings used skis to get around, and this gave me the idea for the ski-chase at the beginning of How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse.

That said, the effectiveness of the world-building in an historical fantasy is directly proportional to how grounded it is in reality. It is much easier for a reader to buy into the phantasmagoria and the supernatural if the mundane elements feel like they belong to a real time and place.

When I catch myself griping because of anachronisms, I know that I have lapsed into pedantry. Nit picking is fun, if useless. It strikes me as a very shallow way to engage with a text. It’s much more interesting—and certainly I learn a lot more—when I make a conscious decision to consider how the author has used their research materials to tell a story. Story comes first, always. I’m very much invested in these matters as the author of a YA historical fantasy based on Greek myth.

In my next post, I will share my views on the concept of historical authenticity, as opposed to historical accuracy.

Until next time,

Valete

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9 thoughts on “Historical fiction: what’s accuracy got to do with it?

  1. I very nearly studied history at uni but did social work instead because I could not understand what to do with a degree in history! If only I had considered writing historical fiction as an option…I do get hung up on inaccuracies in fiction and historical fiction – but not so much the Vikings meeting the Romans – more the little things that pull me out of the story. Like an ‘ordinary’ Australian family eating mac and cheese in the 1950’s. I think they were eating chops and mashed potato. I shouldn’t be so nit picky. At the end of the day I can’t think of anyone better qualified to write historical fiction than a historian.

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    • Ooh, I get what you’re saying about mac and cheese in the 1950s! I wonder if it becomes a real problem when it undermines characterisation/setting. And I also think it becomes more noticeable when it’s close to your lived experience?

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  2. I feel much better now! I’ve gotten somewhat carried away with uniting various historical characters in my current story (“Choices: And Their Souls Were Eaten”), including importing a 12-year old Harriet Tubman (fudged into an older teenager), simply because it amuses me. Mine are all within 100 years, though, so I’m not so far off after all! I’m dying to read the next post.

    Felicity Banks

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, thanks for such a lovely comment Felicity! I have a lot of patience for fudging timelines in an historical fantasy. 🙂 And I should probably clarify about the next post– that should read ‘next week.’ I basically alternate between weekly catch-ups and thoughts on writing. Sorry about that!

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  3. I’m playing with an alternate history story at the moment. The events won’t be accurate (obviously!) but I do want the setting to “feel” right.

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  4. Pingback: Historical howlers | The Tyro's Stylus

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