Accuracy in Historical Fiction

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.

9 comments

  1. motre

    One basis for which I think changing history is OK, is of the set of changes themselves, as a whole, create a comical satire of the period. What was wrong in that time frame, and how could it have been even worse. Then end with some means by which it is all explained, such as the main character managing to alter the documents of history to what we today think happened. Yet keep it sufficiently absurd that we think history can’t be different.

  2. Judy

    This is to true for doing your research, If you as the writer plan to change the course of written history as is known, then it had better be with some justification. i agree with Motre ‘on as the main character managing to alter the documents of history to what we today think happened” The emphasis is on ‘think happened’.
    According to Tacitus, Suetonius Paullinus accounts that Boudica committed suicide by poison. I challenge this. I know SP almost lost to a woman leading thousands of men against themight of Rome. It is also known how revengful against the Britanni that SP was after. He would never report any thing but insults about Boudica to Rome. Julius Caesar is know to have inflated his numbers in such reports to look good to the emperor.
    Looking at Boudica, being the brave Iceni queen to have led her warriors to battle, I see this woman as a leader, leading them into this confrontation. She was strong and fearless. I think she deserves the respect to be given an honorable death in battle than commiting suicide because of a male ego.
    Am I right in thinking this way?

    • Carrie Slager

      Perhaps. If you were to write a book about Boudicca’s rebellion and ultimately her death, you could give her a more fitting end in tune with her belief system. But personally, I think her suicide was a brave act, defying the Romans once they smashed her army. That’s just me, though. Tacitus would have had a bit more knowledge of the battle than most sources, however, since his father in law was in Britain at the time. Then again, like the Egyptians, the Romans are not known for writing about the less than flattering aspects of their own history.

      Just as an historical note, there were no emperors in Julius Caesar’s time. His nephew, Octavius (Octavian) was the first emperor or “princeps” of Rome.

  3. Lily Dewaruile

    History is in the words of the chronicler. That person was usually of the conquering class, with biases and agendas. The consequence is inevitably dubious.

    Gerald of Wales was credited with a compilation worthy of historical esteem. His grandmother was Nest, a princess, daughter of Rhys ap Tudur and sister of Gruffydd ap Rhys. As the son of WIlliam de Barry and brother of Robert and Philip, was it likely that Gerald would tell the true story of how Gwenllian, his uncle’s wife, was killed? His purpose was to make the Norman half of his lineage look good.

    Authenticity is essential, accuracy desirable. Blatant lies are damaging and should be avoided. I’m in favor of creative use of documented facts being treated with respect while pursuing a creative fiction to entertain and delight.

    Thank you for a stimulating article. –Lily

    • Carrie Slager

      Thank you for such a thoughtful comment!

      I have to agree that most historians (particularly ancient historians) had a bone to pick with someone and if what you’ve learned about the historical figures from different sources doesn’t add up, then I think it’s okay to change things around a bit. As long as it feels authentic, I don’t mind it. But what I do mind is when authors like Conn Iggulden change well documented historical facts around. In his Emperor series, for example, he killed off Sulla with poison. The real Sulla actually retired from the office of dictator peacefully. I don’t think a change like that is justified.

      However, in the case of someone like Cleopatra, there is a huge debate about whether or not she actually used a snake to kill herself. After all, the venom of an asp works very slowly and is incredibly painful. Personally, if I were to write a novel about her, I would have her drink some poison that would put her to sleep peacefully until she stopped breathing. I don’t think she used a snake, although it is entirely possible.

      As long as an author stays true to the time period and the characters, I don’t have a problem if they can truly justify their changes.

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