Antique pen and ink drawing of a hot air balloon flying over a landscape.

Can We Learn History From Historical Fiction?

We all know historical fiction is fiction, and yet we all learn history from historical fiction. I’ve been wrestling with that recently while wearing my other hat – the academic historian one. My colleagues and I were discussing when historical fiction can be considered a secondary source on a historical topic, and we came to the uneasy conclusion that it’s hard to know. More important for people who are not in an academic history setting, does it really matter?

It’s Fiction

Right in the designation of historical fiction is a key word — fiction. Historical fiction has to be a good story, with solid structure and lively, believable characters who we care about. If it isn’t, who wants to read it? To go all grammar nerd, “historical” modifies “fiction”. Fiction is the noun defining what we are reading. If it isn’t a good yarn, it isn’t doing what it is supposed to.

Often, the historical element is a way of removing the story from the immediate reality of the reader, so it serves as escapist pleasure. Raise your hand if that is one element of what you like about historical fiction. (My hand is waving around my head like I am trying to get picked on a game show.) So maybe I should just relax about the history part.

We Learn History From It

Even as we are thinking “this is fiction,” we are internalizing elements of the story world. When we know a setting well, say the American Revolutionary War era, we can easily spot moments where the story goes a little off track historically. But when we don’t know it well, our brains internalize the information to fill in gaps in our knowledge without our even realizing it. It’s the “without our even realizing it” part that makes me itchy.

What happens when authors think they know the history but are, without realizing it, reproducing misinformation they internalized from reading novels that did not accurately portray the time period? To be clear, even academic historians are not 100% accurate, but they constantly fact check each other, because the collective goal is to be as accurate as possible. But for fiction writers, the story is first and foremost, and there are varying degrees of adherence to historical accuracy.

What Historical “Truths” is Fiction Ideally Suited to Convey?

A key advantage fiction has over academic history is an ability to convey emotion through story. It helps people understand a situation on a more visceral level. Take slavery, for example. Reading a novel like Octavia Butler’s Kindred will give you a feeling for the horrors of slavery that an academic history simply cannot.

And Butler plunks a modern woman into Antebellum American slavery to go a step beyond. She helps her modern readers understand that no, they would not have been able to resist any better than those who actually lived it did. A huge part of how she was able to achieve this was by doing extensive primary source research. She read countless slave narratives, studying and absorbing the reality. That is the focus of her story.

But look at a story like Gone With the Wind, which addresses the same period and general geographic region. That story is about a White woman, with slavery as a backdrop, and the reality of slavery is not done well. The novel itself is a compelling story, with an intriguing main character, and it is still often taught as an example of how to write a successful story. But its very success makes the historical inaccuracies that much more insidious because a lot more people internalized them. And in this case, those inaccuracies have caused generations of pain.

Bending the Truth can Sometimes Help Convey a Deeper Truth

One of my favorite examples of bending the truth to convey a truth is William Goldman’s The Lion in Winter, my all-time favorite play. He took some of the most colorful and intriguing personalities in early England to base his story on. They were all related to each other, but rarely all together in one place, which made his job harder. His answer was to create a fictional Christmas Court to get them all together for a brief moment in which he could craft a plot that didn’t happen, to illustrate the realities of the people and how they interacted — what did happen.

All the other history, the intrigues, relationships, and outcomes, is on target, but Goldman could never convey that without artificially piling the family together in a castle for a few days. Key, however, is that Goldman says up front he followed the historical data as it is available, then created a fictitious event to get all the players in one place. Once he did that, he could show us the emotions and relationships that might have driven the historical outcomes historians can tell us about.

The Value of the Author’s Note

An author’s note is one of our most powerful tools to convey what sort of research we have done and what historical truths we know we bent for the sake of story. If you are a writer, write them. If you are a reader, read them.

Puritan Witchcraft

In my historical romance, Devil in our Hearts, set in Puritan New England, I did my best to portray the emotions of a woman who is unjustly accused of witchcraft. It was hard. I know I gave her more modern sensibilities about it than she likely would have had. That will all go in my author’s note. As a historian, I hope I can portray deeper realties about the time and phenomenon of Puritan witchcraft accusations, as well as the resistance to those accusations, than I could writing an academic history about it.

It is easy to think “darn, that must have sucked,” when reading about the grounds on which women were accused of witchcraft, but that isn’t enough. I want readers to feel, on a gut churning level, the terror of your town coming after you, backed by the church and state, for something neither you or they understand, but you know you didn’t do, and having no defense against it.

Do All Writers Agree?

Writers have a wide variety of ideas about how accurate historical novels need to be. Same argue they are only writing entertainment, and it is not their job to be accurate. Others argue it is key to be accurate. Having studied how our brains are wired to absorb story, I can’t agree with the folks who say accuracy doesn’t matter. But my voice is not the only one. Here are ten writers of historical fiction and their ideas on the topic.

We Do Our Best

We know that no writing is 100% factually accurate, because it can’t be. The key is that we have to do the best we can to get it right and let our readers know when we are aware we are veering from what is strictly factual and why we are doing it. Historical fiction is not academic history. The two reveal different truths. But we have to be diligent to avoid unknowingly perpetuating untruths — I’m looking at you, Miss Scarlet.

It may not be the job of an author of historical fiction to teach readers history, but we are doing it nonetheless, so please be careful.

Image credit: Dorothe, via Pixabay

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *