Thursday, February 22, 2018

Thoughtful About . . . Preserving the Sacred in Historical Fiction

For the past few weeks...or perhaps months...I've had this realization swirling through my mind. One that explains why I like some historical fiction better than others. One that most of the world (or at least the mainstream world) doesn't seem to share.

My thoughts on this started when I read a bestselling ABA historical, The Alice Network, a few months ago. I'd been on the wait-list on Overdrive for months--so long that I'd forgotten I'd requested it, or why, or who recommended it to me by the time it actually arrived on my Kindle, LOL. But I read it, and overall I really enjoyed it. The writing is phenomenal, and the story was gripping--a dual story line, one about a female spy for England in WWI occupied France (hence why it was recommended to me), and the other just after WWII, following a young woman as she goes in search of her missing French cousin. It's been a while since I've read anything outside the Christian market, so there was a wee bit of culture shock to suddenly have bedroom scenes and bad language in front of me, LOL. But that didn't really get to me (I mean, I do watch TV, so that's not exactly shocking to my senses, much as I don't like it). It wasn't the historical character's rather modern take on sexuality--that actually had an explanation that built the character and was necessary for her development.

What bothered me was a relatively small plot point (and in no way ruins the whole book, which was fabulous): the fact that the author took an actual historical figure and turned him into an adulterer--excusing it by describing his wife as half crazy and self-obsessed. This isn't new in mainstream historical fiction--this is why I couldn't stand to watch Turn after the first season--but it bothers me. For so many reasons, it bothers me. Not just in this instance, but as a symptom of society's views today.

First of all, it goes against my personal code for writing historical novels (not that I hold others to my standard, but it's what got my attention about it first). I determined long ago the kind of historical fiction I wanted to write, and it obeys a simple mantra that I developed: Facts are sacred, motivation is up for grabs.

Which is to say, if something is recorded as happening, then it happened. Period. I will not mess with fact. But as for why things happen, why people make the choices they do...even if history gives us a reason, who's to say the writer of that history really knew what was going on in the person's heart or mind? The why is always open for interpretation in my book. And in my books. 😉

So I get a little twitchy when other historical writers play fast and loose with facts. But I can imagine the author of this book claiming that's exactly what she was doing--she was explaining the facts with this motivation. That this fellow was in love with her fictional character. Which is great...except that it means a historical figure was turned into an adulterer. By my definition, this changes his fact. Because it changes a person's entire moral fiber. It's one thing to create a fictional mistress for a known womanizer. It's quite another to take someone recorded as a man of upright character and decide he'd be more interesting if he had an affair. If it were me, I'd have no problem writing him as falling in love with my character--motivation--but I wouldn't have changed his fact. He never would have acted on it, and his nobility would have had the same effect on the heroine that his physical love did, to drive her onward.

With all the insistence that writers not defame historical figures (because let's face it, we never know when descendants might sue), I'm not sure how and why this particular defamation is okay. But in today's society, it seems to be. And that is what ultimately bothers me. Not that an author would do it, but that no one cares. I'm not just upset on behalf of the bygone people (though can you imagine if someone wrote YOU this way in 90 years??), but because it speaks to what our culture doesn't even consider bad anymore. Apparently it doesn't bother most of today's readers to think that a man cheats on his wife, especially if his wife isn't exactly likable.

That hurts my heart. And takes me back to my title. So much of the world today cares little for the sacred. And by that, I mean matters of faith and God and the Church, yes, but also those moral covenants we make with one another. When I speak of preserving the sacred in fiction, I want it to include faith, to include facts, but also to include that understanding of bonds, of covenants, of things larger than ourselves or our happiness.

It used to be that a person's reputation was everything. Today, it seems that being infamous is just as desirable as being famous. That notoriety has eclipsed respect. We've gone from making heroes of our villains to making villains of our heroes, and we don't even notice that we've done it. Our definitions have changed.

But I think the questions still need to be asked: What gives us the right to redefine what they believed, those who came before us? To change the type of people they were? We don't have to agree with it--with their stands, with their beliefs, with their facts. But all too often today, people want to change it. To turn ordinary, low-level authority military men into adulterers. To turn godly men who happened to fight for the Confederacy into villains. To strip Christians in history of the very things they stood for and not see the problem with it...because we don't value those things anymore.

But if we do that...who's to say our own beliefs--whether we think the sacred or the self more important--won't be rewritten after we have gone?


  1. I agree with you 100%! You can extrapolate that into so many areas of today’s society. Are we really getting the truth in our news? Society as a whole is going down very fast. Why are teachers losing control in the classroom?
    Why are parents losing control in their own homes? It goes on and on! It all hinges on the Bible being the basis for our morals and society is degrading rapidly, because today’s society doesn’t choose to recognize that.
    I’ll get off the soapbox. I love your writing because I learn the truth of history in a new and enjoyable way! Keep up the good work!

  2. Excellent blog! I agree with you completely. Of course authors bring their biases. However, when writing historical fiction, every effort needs to be made to preserve accuracy. I do believe we will encounter more and more grievous rewriting of history. And yes---to the culture shock of some of the stuff out there. I'm immensly grateful for inspirational authors.

  3. Wonderful post! I think you are spot on! Part of the research I do for each book involves looking at the way characters in that time thought about faith and morals. Reading diaries, biographies, and articles from that era gives you wonderful insight into what people believed and valued. I'm glad we can both weave those honest faith threads into our stories and stay true to what is sacred. Let's keep writing!

  4. I rarely read anything other than Christian for the simple fact that I am tired of being exposed to the cussing, the sex, the lies, the hatred, and the calculating greed that permeates the entire story! I just feel almost depressed the entire time at having to worry all the time in that kind of lifestyle! Another big problem I have is that they are trying to address issues like homosexuality in history and make people react the way that they would react today. But if you are going to write in a historical setting, you should keep reactions set on what they actually would have been.

  5. Thank you Roseanna for your thoughtful blog. I agree with you completely.

  6. Preach it! Totally agree with you. Keeping it honest and true is important, and preserving morals na integrity is just as much. If a writer can't work with the truth, then they should find a new subject. Thank you for writing this!

  7. Thank you for your post on this subject. I struggle reading anything that isn't Christian fiction any more, and even then there a couple of authors I erased from my wanting to read list, with their books unfinished on my shelves. I value both of you as authors i always want to read because I know you are safe and that you have done the research that makes your stories a true glimpse into bygone times.

  8. I completely agree. I hate the depiction of an English Queen from the Anglo-Saxon period in the works of one major author. Hate it. She ends up sleeping with the hero whilst married (because the hero sleeps with literally every good looking woman in the series): sleeping with a Viking: and her husband is made into an abusive moron. No evidence for any of it. Not a shred. Her husband was admired and loved by his people. He was not a stupid coward, like the books make out.

    And do not even get me started on what another authot did to the Tudors. Making Henry VII into a rapist, and that his wife an an incestoous affair with her Uncle before they were married and was still secretly in love with him. No. Just no. Literally no evidence. None. Nada: and no motivation since he was not only her Uncle, he had just executed her other Uncle and half brother.

    There are some general market authors who do stick to the facts and don't change history to make it more 'interesting'. Those are the ones I prefer to stick with: along with the Inspy ones who do the same :)