Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Remember When . . . History Was Inconvenient?

For those of you who write historicals, you're going to know exactly what I'm talking about in this post. And for anyone who doesn't, you're about to learn one of the things that most frustrates the historical fiction writer. ;-) It's really kinda funny--that thing that is our best friend, that thing around which we shape our stories, can sometimes turn into our adversary.

I'm talking about those facts that just get in your way. While writing Jewel of Persia I had quite a number of them--mostly the monstrosity of the man supposed to be my hero. In my current work-in-progress, the very timeline is the problem. Okay, not a problem, but . . . well, I'm writing a story with a lot of suspense. But you know, it's hard to sustain the suspense through 11 months of story. But that's when things happened in history, so . . .

I mentioned this to my agent in Oregon, and she said, "Luckily, it's fiction. You can bend things where needed."

Well, those of us who are die-hard historical lovers don't like to bend it too much, lest die-hard history lovers throw our books against a wall, LOL. To my agent I laughed and said, "Some of the little things that no one else knows, sure--but my next big event is the defection of Benedict Arnold. Can't really mess with the timing of that." (Which she readily granted, of course.)

For me, I have rules about what I'll let myself change and what I won't. Motivation I usually don't mind messing with--it's rarely recorded anyway, just speculated on. And when it is recorded, who's to say it's totally honest? ;-) So motivation I will change at will for the purposes of my stories.

Historical facts are a different story. Obviously the big things I'm not going to mess with. So even though it would have been much more convenient for Arnold to defect in July, it happened in late September in my book, just like it did for real. Similarly with most of the small things--if it's recorded, I honor it. Now, with some obscure historical figures whose actions are only recorded in one source, I take some liberties when it comes to when letters are sent, etc. But only where absolutely necessary, and I try not to contradict much.

The fun, of course, comes in filling in the blanks. The frustration, of course, comes when there are blanks that you wish weren't blanks, or times you wish it were blank and it's not. ;-) For instance, I can't always discover where a particular major was at a particular juncture, because the lives of majors aren't generally recorded day by day in sources available outside private collections. I'm willing to dig to get my facts--but I'm still on a time schedule myself here, so can only dig so long. So if I have you in New York when you were in Philly, Major, I'm really sorry! ;-)

I think it's a matter of engendering trust with my readers, so I'll work hard to stick to fact wherever I can. But there are sometimes when I really, really wish I could revise history a bit. How rude of it not to have happened exactly how I need it to for my novels! LOL

Hope everyone's having a happy Wednesday!


  1. The voice of reason vs. the voice of the critical spirit! Great post, Roseanna!

  2. Thanks, Carrie! Obviously a subject near and dear to us. ;-)

  3. I hear you, Roseanna. Sometimes it is a tough call when to stop digging and make an educated guess. Appreciate the post as I get back to my own research!

  4. Definitely, Stephanie! I've found that deadlines make an excellent check, LOL. You can only afford so much time to research when you have to get those words written by a given date! ;-)

  5. Ooooh can I relate! Hope I can find a Hebrew/Philistine battle near Gilgal when I want it to be ;)

  6. Oh ... I enjoyed reading this post! I was raised on the historical novels of Cynthia Harnett - and it's said that on at least one occasion she put the production of a book on hold while she research a tiny detail in the historical period of her novel. I value historical accuracy in the books I read to this day. When I spot an inaccuracy in a book I tend to assume that the author didn't do enough research or know any better. Isn't that dreadful? It only dawned on me recently that some authors DO research and DO know the facts of such-and-such, but CHOOSE to tweak the facts to fit their story. At least that isn't carelessness. I'm still not sure, however, whether I approve of it - because, after all, we can't REALLY change history and lots of readers won't know the facts or stop to consider and research them for themselves ... they'll just believe that it REALLY happened the way it did in the novel. I don't worry about tweaking the motives of the people behind the facts - because, at the end of the day, we don't know what the motives were ... not REALLY. I think my issue is knowing when to say, "Enough ... I've done enough research!" There's definitely is a point of "enough"! :)