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14 January 2011

Historical Fiction or Fictionalized History?

Diane’s post the other day, on rediscovered favorites, got me thinking about the historical novels of my youth. Jean Plaidy was my bread and butter. I started out on Victoria Victorious and worked my way backwards through the Queens of England. They weren’t remote historical characters to me; they were friends, neighbors, near relations. I knew their most intimate secrets—or assumed I did. As a pre-teen, the border line between research and imagination was still unclear to me and I took everything I read as the expression of an absolute and objective truth.

Looking back, most of the books I devoured as a pre-teen were less historical fiction and more fictionalized history: Jean Plaidy, Norah Lofts, Anne-Marie Selinko, Anya Seton. All purported to convey the facts of the life of a specific historical character, embroidered with dialogue and physical detail, staying close to the facts while speculating as to the intangibles: motivations, emotions.

Then there were the books I’ll call historical fiction, ones in which my favorite historical characters put in cameos and where actual historical events played pivotal roles, but the focus remained on the lives and loves of imaginary figures inserted into the historical narrative. Into this category fell Karleen Koen’s Through A Glass Darkly, set against the Hanoverian ascension, but focused on the personal travails of the fictional granddaughter of a fictional ducal house that sounds a great deal like—but is not—that of Marlborough. The same was true of another of my favorites, Mary Lide’s Ann of Cambray, in which the fictional heroine finds herself swept up in the civil war between Matilda and Stephen. The hero and heroine are entangled with real events and real people, but are themselves constructs of the imagination.

The lines are relatively clear in fictionalized history. One can tinker with the intangibles (Selinko turns Desiree Clary’s marriage to Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte into a passionate love match, rather than a lackluster political arrangement), but not the basic facts.

What does the writer of historical fiction owe the historical record?

Once we’ve taken that step of inserting our own creations into the historical narrative—placing them in conversations with real people (mocking cravats with Beau Brummell, plotting rebellion with Bonnie Prince Charlie), giving them a role in historical affairs—we’ve already tinkered with truth. It doesn’t matter if our borrowed personages are voicing phrases they are on record as having spoken—they couldn’t have uttered those words to our characters, because our characters are emanations of our imaginations. In short, they didn’t exist. Once we’ve already pushed at the elastic boundaries of history to include our fictional creations, how much farther can we reasonably push?

It makes an interesting academic question, but it proved a very practical problem for me in the writing of my latest book, The Orchid Affair. Orchid Affair is set around a conspiracy that came to fruition—and fizzled—in spring of 1804, as various royalist groups conspired to abduct Bonaparte (there was some disagreement as to whether “abduct”, was, in fact, a euphemism for “assassinate”) and replace him with a member of the royal family. There’s an excellent novel to be written about the conspiracy as it occurred—and as it unraveled. It’s a fascinating and complex story of daring plans and larger-than-life egos.

My book is about a fictional governess-turned-spy inserted into the household of a fictional assistant to the Prefect of Paris. The book opens with the interrogation of Jean-Pierre Querelle, a member of the conspiracy, who was actually interrogated in the manner and on the date specified. (In my version, he’s interrogated by my hero. This was not, in fact, the case, because my hero didn’t exist.) In the original draft of the novel, I tried to stay close to the actual actors and all the crosses and double-crosses involved.

There was a problem with this. Rather than history serving as a backdrop to my story, my hero and heroine were being overwhelmed by the technical details of the story. While I did still pin my plot to the main episodes of the actual event (i.e. various interrogations, the capture of the primary conspirator), I ruthlessly omitted many of the intermediate steps and characters, substituting my own characters’ invented actions instead, while trying to remain true to the spirit of the actual events.

This was my compromise: I didn’t have any real historical actors do anything that they hadn’t actually done, but I did omit a great deal of what they did do, both for simplicity's sake (for some reason, French plots always seem to involve multiple people with the same last name) and to provide my own characters room to grow. One of these days, I’d love to tell the story of the Cadoudal Affair in full—but The Orchid Affair wasn’t the place.

Writers, how do you deal with juggling your characters and historical fact? Readers, how much pushing of the historical boundaries are you comfortable with?

7 Comments:

Blogger Stephanie J said...

As I write my own novel, this is something for which I struggle. Fitting my novel to the historical events proves challenging because I want a bit of freedom but it's hard for me to find the balance. The lovely DR suggested to write the story and find the historical facts later (well, ok, she meant this for the small details of the story but I have applied it as a general rule). I rather enjoy how you weave historical fact and fictional events in your stories and strive to strike a similar balance. As a reader, I find I can forgive the deviance from fact but then I've always been that way. Your storytelling is really fantastic and I think that plays a role in how much I'm willing to go down the not-quite-factually-accurate path.

9:04 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Lauren, I just read a mystery novel dealing with the bombing of Wall Street in 1920, which was never solved. The author decided that the culprits were a cabal of real-life senators and other government officials. Of course, there is no proof of this, the author just made it up, but it really bothered me. I wasn't sure why he just didn't use fictional conspirators.

11:38 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

As a writer, I like to takes little bits of real historical events and weave them in, but I've not put my characters in the middle of anything that was historically "important" . . . yet. For example in my upcoming book, Ripe for Pleasure, my characters are searching for a real lost treasure (one that has never been found).

As a reader, I’ve learned to accept that small bits of real history will be altered in service to the book (e.g. the only characters that seem to get HEAs are the fictional ones in Sharon Kay Penman’s brilliant books, because she sticks to the real history for the “real” people). And I understand that if the author is writing about a fictional character, they will probably have to let that fictional person take some of the glory/blame from a real person. It doesn’t offend my soul that Cornwall let Sharpe capture an Eagle!

11:54 AM  
Blogger Susanna Fraser said...

The first time I ever wrote a real person into one of my stories, I swear I expected him to HAUNT me. And I don't even believe in ghosts.

One of my current WIPs is a historical fantasy featuring a real person as a major character...only he's a shapeshifter. So I've got over my fear of hauntings.

I think it's fine to play with history as long as you make your changes fit the mindset of the time. I'm a lot more bothered by historical fiction with characters who act like 21st century people in historical costume but never violate the timeline than I am by books that insert fictional characters into real events or otherwise change what really happened, but nonetheless feel like they COULD have happened.

12:02 PM  
Blogger Linda said...

Having just finished the first of your series Lauren, I must say I loved the blend of fiction and history--you do it very well. My WIP is set in Civil War Louisiana and you have now become one of my mentors in how to blend fictional characters into real-life events. We know General Butler was derisively called "Spoons" because of published accounts, so if I use that trivial bit as one of my characters walks down the street, I feel I've not made up the event, I'm just putting a face to a person who said it.

As a person who loves to research, sometimes I feel I am adding too much minutiae (just because I love to read it doesn't mean others do)...but that is where editing my draft comes in, right?

As a reader, I know if it is classified "FICTION" that I don't want to use any facts in it for a doctoral dissertation and can suspend belief (to a point--I totally agree that characters set in 1645 Scotland who talk in 21st century English make me throw the book against the wall and I lose all interest in the tale). On the other hand, I LOVE reading non-fiction, so I am probably weirder than most LOL.

So, in fiction I look for balance which for me is also believability (and have been known to then go research an event to see what really happened--I fully admit, I'm a nerdy geek that way).

Please consider writing the true account of the Cadoudal Affair--you've intrigued me and I'd certainly read it (after reading "The Orchid Affair" of course).

7:40 PM  
Blogger D.M. McGowan said...

Some times it can be easy to include a historical event ... or at least what is known about it ... and not change any of the events by including your own imaginary people. I have a few chapters in "Partners" where a cop killer is hunted down that follow the historical story very closely.
In "The Great Liquor War" however I had to have my own fictional people do a conglomorate of things in order to allow the historical characters to perform the historical actions.
Whatever works and keeps the history as it should be.
Dave
www.dmmcgowan.blogspot.com

7:48 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Lauren, and very timely for me, as I've just been writing a scenes set during the Battle of Waterloo. It was rather intimidated tackling something so iconic (and before that the Duchess of Richmond's ball, the subject of my blog tomorrow). I had to sort of write in layers, getting down the facts of the battle, then weaving in the scenes I needed with my characters. I have both real and fictional characters. I tried to stick to things my real characters actually did, but obviously some of their actions are fictional as they interact with my fictional characters. I try at least to make sure my real historical characters don't do anything that seems completely out of character. I struggled in VIENNA WALTZ with how far I could have Talleyrand involved in fictional scheming.

10:42 PM  

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