As many of you know, I have a love-hate relationship when it comes to Conn Iggulden’s books because his incessant need to mess with history is infuriating. It happens more and is more noticeable in his Emperor series, which annoys me to no end because some of the changes are not justified. So, in this article I will discuss when writers need to be accurate and when it’s okay to mess with history.
I don’t know anyone who went to see The Mummy (1999) for its historical accuracy. But that’s how cinema is so different from literature: in the former, accuracy is a bonus while people expect it in the latter. Authors should not betray the bond of trust between them and their readers or their readers (especially reviewers like myself) will eat them alive. Unlike The Mummy, a novel about the same thing would be ridiculed for having five canopic jars instead of four, giving Seti a beard and including the idiotic idea that someone can be mummified alive and survive more than the first day. Basically, if you’re going to write historical fiction be sure, if nothing else, to get the basic facts of the time period right.
Generally speaking, historical fiction includes at least one historical figure. And while they may seem remote, it is important that the author remembers that they were real people with hopes, dreams and loved ones. It’s okay to malign an historical figure, but you know, make sure they have a human side to them. Despite all of my criticism of Conn Iggulden, I truly admire the fact that he could bring a human side to someone like Genghis Khan. If Iggulden can bring a human side to someone like him, I’m pretty sure most historical fiction writers can bring human sides to much less ruthless characters.
Most writers would never dream of changing around the events leading up to the sinking of the Titanic. So why do so many historical fiction writers change other events in history? They sometimes do it to simplify an event to make it easier to understand, but I think they need to place more trust in their readers, who are anything but stupid. Sometimes they change an event for plot purposes, which as an amateur writer, I can understand—as long as they keep the main events correct. For example, the events leading up to the battle of Cannae involve a series of incompetent generals, complex Roman politics and impressive strategy by Hannibal. It’s okay to simplify the events leading up to Cannae for plot reasons, as long as the battle is as close to accurate as you can get. Authors shouldn’t change history around too often, but when they do, they had better have a good justification.
In short, historical fiction writers should be as accurate as possible. Sometimes there are gaps in historical accounts and that’s when writers are allowed to use their imaginations, as long as they don’t go overboard with it. Events can be changed for plot purposes, but writers had better be able to justify it and should get the basic facts right. If they don’t, reviewers like me have field days and an excellent excuse to completely trash their books. The way to avoid this is simple: do the research. It requires a bit of effort, but it certainly pays off in the end.