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History and Fiction: How Much of Which

June 11, 2011

It is perhaps ironic that this blog on historical fiction begins with discussion of a historical movie, “Princess Ka’iulani,” but it gets to a question historical novelists deal with constantly: how do you balance history with fiction? How much of which?

This particular movie alleges a love affair that may never have occurred, depicts certain events that simply did not happen, and generally compresses events that did. As I watched one scene after another, I gave voice to my inner historian’s indignation, saying aloud (to the annoyance of everyone else in the room), “But that didn’t happen!” Yet, at the conclusion of the movie I felt that the movie somehow captured the essence of the Hawaiian Revolution. (Hawaiian history buffs may feel differently.)

The novelist, happily, has a broader canvas to work with than a ninety-minute movie, but the question remains: how much history do you put in your fiction, or vice versa? In my own novel on the Hawaiian Revolution, I used Herman Wouk’s Pug Henry as a model for the fictional character who I could conveniently place wherever I wanted him to be. That allows me to leave history as it is, requiring the fictional character to make all the necessary concessions. That strikes me as less of an abuse of history.

So, what do you look for in historical fiction, a good story or good history?

I look forward to hearing from you.


6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 20, 2011 8:17 pm

    Thinking of Hawaiian and other history, it is sad if an author abuses history, but sadder yet that history abused the peoples.

  2. June 24, 2011 6:24 pm

    I respect an author who seeks out primary sources wherever they exist. To distort history for the sake of a good yarn seems a disservice to those whose lives were entangled with events.
    Story-telling is entertainment, but it’s also an opportunity to pass on the benefits of sound historical research. I’m a new author in the field, but as a reader I like to come away better informed about the past.

    It is great to have a place for discussion of the subject. Thanks.

    • June 24, 2011 6:33 pm

      Harry, Great to have you hear.

      In your own historical fiction, do you ever find yourself needing to fill in the gaps, or adjusting the timeline ever so slightly? I was recently brought up short by a friend of mine who pointed out that I put Stephen Crane in Cuba six weeks before he was actually there, but I simply had to have him there to comment on an event that I was not going to misplace in time. So I left it as it was–my big confession.


      • August 2, 2011 8:11 pm

        Hello Kurt, sorry I’m late.
        On time lines I laid them out on a chart and took pains to hold to chronological accuracy – it seemed to me that this was vital. I’ve an idea that the HF writer has an obligation to inform as well as entertain.
        I was forever fretting over how many days it would take a horseman to travel from London to Northumberland.

        Only so much is possible.

        I met a problem with the bodkin arrow, a noted armaments museum and writers such as Cornwell have the bodkin as deadly at armour piercing. New research, using field tests, brings this into doubt – I went with the new research. I expect some archery expert will point out my ‘error’ should ‘Tom Fleck’ become better known.

        Compared to this – your Crane ‘adjustment’ might seem mild.

      • August 2, 2011 8:20 pm

        Further to what I wrote about accuracy – I did recast important parts of ‘Tom Fleck’ – I had him as an archer and a labourer until an historian friend pointed out that labourers were not trusted with the long bow – only landed men (yeomen). So I gleefully rewrote his genealogy to explain how his family had lost their land.
        I took his name from a local English 16th C parish register and was quite happy until I discovered ‘Fleck’ was a Galloway (Scottish) surname. But great! His origins could now become more complex and likewise his psyche. The character had become more interesting and he altered the track of the story.

  3. July 25, 2011 1:03 pm

    possibly both, but like we said on Goodreads, a little leeway is fine! 😉
    Movie-goers are usually more ignorant that book readers, but I did the same that you did with Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven – and gave up the conquest of Hollywood because they don’t even know what history means. We’ll see if I can manage an historical novel, though… 😀

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