In just a month I’ll be on a panel at the Malvern Festival of Military History where we’ll be talking about “Turning Historical Fact into Fiction”. The whole business of how you balance fact and fiction in historical novels is always guaranteed to get historical novelists and their readers arguing. It’s one of those areas where there are no right answers, but it can be interesting to see how different writers go about it – from Deborah Swift, whose Pleasing Mr Pepys takes no liberties with the historical record (tricky, given how much the facts of Pepys’ life constrain her plot) to some more romantically inclined authors whose stories of passionate princes and dastardly dukes bear no relationship to any historical facts at all.
Given that when two or three historical writers meet in a pub or on an internet forum, this topic is bound to come up eventually, it’s no surprise that I have written the odd blog post about it. Rather than add another to the already tottering pile, I give you one I’ve prepared earlier (back in 2015).
I’m going to a meeting of the London Chapter of the Historical Novel Society this weekend. The topic for discussion is historical research.
This is a subject dear to my heart. I’ve blogged about it once or twice before, and Jenny Kane has chipped in with her own perspective as an archaeologist turned novelist. So why am I struggling so hard to think of anything that I might say on Saturday?
I think part of the reason is that research is always, in the end, a matter of judgement and, indeed, personal preference. There are some purists out there who seem uncomfortable with any fiction at all in their historical fiction. An author who dares to admit that sometimes they just make stuff up can infuriate this kind of reader/writer. At the other extreme, there are authors who will cheerfully ignore any historical details that get in the way of their stories which can often seem hardly “historical” at all.
We all have different amounts of knowledge and different ideas of what is important. I have just been reading a discussion about historical inaccuracy in which one contributor is furious about the misrepresentation of Finns during World War II. She ridicules an author’s ignorance and points out what she sees as blatantly obvious errors. However, it turns out that she is a Finn herself. Her irritation is perfectly genuine and justified, but it is unlikely that any of the English readers that this story is clearly aimed at will be aware of many (if any) of the mistakes. They are still mistakes, of course, and anyone who relies on the story to inform them about the historical facts will end up feeling foolish. But, in fairness, this isn’t what the author was doing. Non-fiction accounts of the Eastern Front are available. The novelist is using this as a setting for a work of fiction. If the period detail is accurate enough to carry along the reader, does it matter that it is not exactly right?
The problem here is that what worries one reader will not necessarily worry another. Moving away from historical fiction for a moment, I once read a thriller in which a key element was that a computer memory stick that held a lot of data would be larger than one which contained very little. This is an error so egregious that it is difficult to understand how someone whose novels seem generally well based in the 21st-century could possibly have made such a mistake. However, I was able to overlook this and enjoy the book. My son, on the other hand, found this impossible to ignore and considers this book one of the worst he has read by that author. Returning to history, I recently read a book in which a sharpshooter in a British Napoleonic regiment wore a green jacket. Because this is something that I am writing about (in Burke at Waterloo), I am all too aware that the green jackets were not awarded to individuals within regular regiments but were worn by specialist rifle regiments. This was one of several details in this novel that left me feeling that the writer did not understand his period and that much of what he said had to be viewed with considerable suspicion. When, in the same story, someone threw fivepence (not five pennies) to a beggar, I decided he had pre-empted decimalisation by a century and a half and I almost gave up reading. Others, though, have praised the same book.
Personally, I like history in my books to be accurate. But I’m not a professional historian and, even if I were, I would not necessarily be writing about the period that I’m an expert on. I was very conscious when writing Burke in the Land of Silver that, as an English writer, I was likely to make mistakes with Argentinian history. In fact, Argentinian friends who have read the book have been perfectly comfortable with my interpretation of their history and I am delighted by that. I suspect, though, that they are being generous and that there are errors that they are not pointing out to me.
Getting caught out in straightforward mistakes is something that I think most historical fiction authors do worry about. Fortunately I have an excellent editor who is very good at catching this sort of thing. For example, I had somebody using a Bowie knife in around 1807 which seemed perfectly uncontroversial. She pointed out that the Bowie knife refers specifically to a design by popularised by Jim Bowie who was not born until around 1796. That kind of thing can always catch a writer out and having a second pair of eyes, especially eyes that are familiar with the period, is really useful. Mistakes will still creep in, though. When I was researching the story of James Brooke for The White Rajah, I rather overdid my reading of contemporary source material and, as a result, I was able to pick up small but real mistakes in one of the definitive biographies of his life. Given that the biography was a detailed and well footnoted academic tome, I am sure that the writer would have been embarrassed at the error, but to suggest that anyone can write about historical figures in depth without having a single mistake is, frankly, unrealistic. To insist that my novels (or anybody else’s historical fiction) have no mistakes is just silly. Apart from anything else, if I checked every single “fact” in my stories, the stories themselves would never get written. In Cawnpore there is a reference to a regimental colonel. I searched for an online history of the regiment; I looked through the (very long) list of the names of the dead at Cawnpore; I read contemporary accounts; and I checked the definitive modern account. Hours later I still didn’t have the name. So you know what? I made one up.
I’m a novelist. I tell lies for a living. The best I can hope for is that the lies aren’t too obvious.
Festival of Military History
You’ll be hearing quite a lot more about this over the next few weeks. It does look like an amazing programme and there should be something for everybody with an interest in the subject. I’ll be there for all three days, though the panel I’m on is at the very end on Sunday afternoon. I do hope that some of you will be able to make it. Tickets are available at https://www.enlightenmentevents.com/tickets.