Historical Licence When Writing Fiction


Yet another memorable panel from When Words Collide was Historical Licence. The very talented presenters included Diana Gabaldon, D.B. Jackson (aka David B. Coe), Jodi McIssac, and Susan McGregor. Each panelist has written some form of historical fiction, what separates them is their devotion to history and willingness to change things to suit their stories. That’s what lead the discussion.

Turning to myself for a moment, I’m an avid history nerd. Much of my early and mid-teens was devoted to historical fiction –to the point that I can barely read it now. My love will return, I just need space. More than that, I’ve written my share of historical fiction. In fact, much of the honours project I completed involved writing turn of the century fiction and some set in the 60s/70s era. Finally, I make no bones about loving research. Not only do I love to know things, I love to find out how they came to be the way they are.

History is, quite simply, awesome. So obviously I took great interest in this talk. I won’t present it at length, but I’ll share my favourite parts that I think will be fruitful for anyone who wants to write historical. Please remember the awesome thoughts presented have been filtered through my measly brain! Now back to the panel.

Diana Gabaldon’s commitment to historical accuracy is far beyond laudable. In the course of all her books –the entire Outlander series and the spinoff Lord John series– she can tell you the two historical inaccuracies within them. Two inaccuracies she made willingly because her story wouldn’t work without them. That is mind-boggling. Considering the Scottish history she covers, not to mention the WWII history she covers, I feel like my research skills need vast improvement.

Still, she agreed with the other authors when they said it’s up to you as a writer whether or not you want to stay true to history “as it’s written.” That’s a key phrase there. You can deny it if you want, but history is written by the winners. More often than not, the barbaric, male winners who spin tales to their own ends.

So, depending on what you’re writing about, there’s vast differences in the kinds of history available to you. Some cultures have been taken over and erased. Some, like the people of New Guinea, rely(ied) on oral traditions, so mass deaths/killings from things like colonialism have wiped out swaths of their history and culture. All we have left are the notes from people like Margaret Mead and the stories and knowledge the elderly hold onto.

Beyond the implications of “written history,” you have to remember that you’re a fiction writer, not a historian. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide how authentic to history you want or need to be while writing. But, there is a difference between historical fiction and alternate history fiction. D.B. Jackson went on about this at some length since he holds a history degree and his fantasy books are set in colonial Boston.

Two basic questions to ask yourself include: what needs to change, even minutely, for your narrative to work; and, are you trying to recreate a place that was or a place that could have been? Your answers to these will save you a lot of time down the road when it comes to your writing.

Regardless of what path you choose, there are always going to be certain readers who will be alienated by the things you choose to stay true to, or not. This can be said about any narrative choice when it comes to writing and it all ties back in to finding your ideal reader.

From a purely narrative standpoint, Diana Gabaldon mentioned that juxtaposing history can be just as powerful as presenting it, which is what she did by using a (relatively) present day damsel in historic Scotland. Using Claire’s more modern perspective as a filter bridged the gap between the tumultuous Scotland of yore for many readers.

I have to say here that I have yet to read Gabaldon’s Outlander series, but I do know quite a lot about it and the time in history in which is takes place. For the record, there is no way in hell I would want to be a woman in that time. And from what I’ve heard, Claire walks a fine line doing so because some of her sensibilities don’t jive. That’s a powerful arsenal for a writer.

Something else that Gabaldon said made me quirk my head: ordinary people in their time will be ordinary in any other time –extraordinary people are catalysts, though not usually for mass change because history doesn’t work that way. This is both a fantastic and realistic concept. One I still need to think at length on before I dissect. But I do agree that single individuals are not equipped to bring about mass change. It’s not possible. Just think of the legacy of Dr. King and the issues African American still face half a century later.

Another important point that came up that is truly worthy of discussion is that historical persons have to stay true to their time, even if a contemporary moral compass dictates that what they do is ethically questionable for readers. People are products of their time, that’s the be all and end all. And believe me, I know that’s frustrating.

You can absolutely stay true to your moral compass, I do believe you should, but there’s a fine line between balancing that and integrating true history. Perhaps it comes down to depicting only just what you need. For me, I prefer to depict all the good and bad because the bad shouldn’t be erased or forgotten because then it’s far too easy to repeat. But that’s part of my moral compass.

The last topic that really piqued my interest concerned using real historical persons as characters. I can’t remember what writer they quoted who said that it shouldn’t be done, but the entire panel, and most of the packed room, laughed at this. Historical fiction would be pretty damn dull without the real people who made up history. Just think of all the Henry VIII books we’d miss out on!

Still, the panelists agreed that if you’re going to put words in real people’s mouths –which they very much supported– this is what they advise: do your research to see what they would say, how they would say it, and whether they’d care about the topic you’re making them talk about. Most importantly, don’t portray them doing anything worse than they actually did. That was a line the authors all agreed they would not cross, but said it’s up to an individual writer. It’s something to keep in mind.

That’s all I have for you folks! It was a wonderful discussion.


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