I just discovered this YouTube posting about “What Not to do When Writing Historical Fiction” and I have some thoughts.
I agree on some points and disagree on others. Tons of writers use real people as their main character in writing historical fiction, so does that mean that she has never read books by Margaret George or Alison Weir or Phillipa Gregory? She said she NEVER reads historical fiction books with real people as the main character, and after taking a chance by reading “Mrs Poe” she NEVER will again.
In one of my favourite books about a real person – “I, Elizabeth” by Rosalind Miles – uses Queen Elizabeth the First as the main character and fictionalizes the relationship and conversations between her and Robert Dudley. We weren’t there, so how do we know?
I agree with the notion that you have to be careful in not crossing the line into slander or out-right lies when pertaining to real people in history; but, for the most part, fiction is FICTION, and since none of us were ‘flies on the wall’ of said history and their lives, can we not fictionalized some of the parts of their lives while remaining true to what we do know?
I do not mean changing our historical knowledge of, let’s say, the moral uprightness of Abraham Lincoln, his manner and speech, into one of depravity and weakness (which we know to be untrue), but a conversation betwixt he and his wife about the grief they shared (of which none of us were privy to) might be considered an aspect of fictionalizing the details of a real person. For one, I don’t see anything wrong with that. Anything beyond that is delving into alternate historical fantasy (i.e. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer)
I do think, however, it is a dangerous thing for reviewers to be so dogmatic in their opinions about a genre. Taking that sort of stance is rather polarizing, if you ask me. Either you are going to have a huge number of supporters or you are not which, maybe that is what this particular reviewer is going for. I mean, in the world we live in, you can draw a line in the sand and people are going to take sides, for or against.
I am not that sort. I adore historical fiction and the authors who write in the genre. I know their struggle since it is my own-the endless days of research, the time travelling in your brain to another era, and pounding the keys to develop a world where readers can escape from the ordinary day-to-day monotony of today. Who wouldn’t want to leave the Covid-19 world of today to walk down the Bubonic plague-infested streets of London of long ago?
I give authors a hundred years from now permission to fictionalize my life in 2020 in whatever way that is going to provide a measure of escapism for the readers of the 22nd century. This is art, and art is in the eye of the beholder. I’m not going to scrutinize Monet’s Hay Stacks painting and question if there really was more than two haystacks in the landscape. I’m going to accept it for what it is: an incredible work of art built on the passion of the artist. And isn’t that what we are, artists of the written word?
Here is the link to the video if you choose to watch, and please, comment below and let me know what you think on the subject!!
D. K. Marley