Invention is the Midwife of Good Historical Fiction

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but invention is the midwife of good historical fiction.

Invention and creativity are good things. But in historical fiction we (writers) sometimes lose sight of that, and get bogged down in the minutiae of our period and the thousand little details in our characters’ lives.  I was recently reminded, with force, that readers come to authors of historical fiction for something more than a collection of facts.

I had the opportunity to hear Susan Vreeland, a master of the genre, speak at a recent Historical Novel Society Conference.  I thought Susan was going to do a presentation on her latest book.  But, when we were gathered before her in our neat little rows, she decided to tackle a larger issue – the role of invention in historical fiction.

“Don’t be tyrannized by fact.”  That’s how Susan opened her presentation.  And she is right of course.  Historical fiction is not academic history.  Does accuracy matter in historical novels?  You bet your farthingale it does but, “fictional art can show truth that goes deeper than a collection of fact; it can show us what it felt like to be a particular person at a particular time” (again, Susan V).  Besides, “as soon as something happens people start lying about it” (Cecelia Holland) so “truth” in history can legitimately be debated.

Susan pointed out that selection (and correspondingly, elimination) of facts is part of the process of writing compelling historical fiction.  Good authors know instinctively – whether they write historical fiction or another genre – that telling just the right bits is what gives a great story its focus.  Authors of historical novels must choose only those events from history that relate to the specific premise/themes of their particular novel.  It doesn’t matter how interesting an event is (or how pivotal it is in the life of a historical character), if that event doesn’t forward the plot of the book an author is writing, then it needs to be left out.  There were dozens of interesting events in the lives of my main characters, Marguerite and Eleanor of Provence, during the twenty-year period covered by The Sister Queens that did not make it into my novel because they were not germane to the “sisters” theme of my book.

 This “selection” of fact or “filtering through narrative focus” is a wonderful thing for readers.  Think of how many marvelous books there are offering different views of the same historical figures (e.g. C.W. Gortner’s Confessions of Catherine de Medici and Jeanne Kalogridis The Devil’s Queen which both give us fascinating visions of Catherine de Medici; the dozens of can’t-put-them-down books on Henry VIII and his many wives).  If every writer approached these figures (the much-written-about Anne Boleyn for example) from the same perspective, and selected the identical facts to include in her/his narrative, readers would be offered a single course meal rather than a smorgasbord.  Variety is the spice of life, and that goes for literature as well.  If, as readers, we sometimes find the contradictory feelings and actions ascribed to historical figures in different books aggravating, we need to remember this next point. . .

Invention is a part of historical fiction—embrace it.  As writers of historical fiction we should feel free to invent events, invent characters, put words into the mouths of characters, etc, as long as our inventions contribute to the narrative arc of our story and are in keeping with what our research has revealed about the nature and personality of our characters.  Author Margaret George suggested this quick “gut check” for authors —imagine that you are writing for the historical character herself/himself.  Would he/she be pleased?  Margaret also posited that if someone was writing about you, you might be very happy to have certain things fudged.

As readers of historical fiction we need to allow ourselves to be swept up in the drama and the deeper meaning of the story we are reading and stop “sweating the small stuff.”  Only then can we learn about “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself” (Susan V).  And isn’t pondering universal themes that resonate in our own lives a better use of our time than worrying about precisely when the Spanish farthingale fell out of fashion in the French court?

A caveat—there is always a caveat.  Authors should fess up when they stray.  The general consensus among attendees at the Historical Novel Society Conference was that authors ought to point out when/where they deliberately deviate from the historical record.  A good author’s note is a must.  While readers should assume there is fiction involved in every novel (for example it’s likely a given that the author imagined the dialogue she’s written between characters dead 500 years), they will appreciate being told if an actual historical event has been moved (ditto other significant changes).

So what do you think?  As a writer or a reader of historical fiction is invention the guide to the artist’s brush, or a guillotine that destroys your pleasure in a book?  What does historical fiction give you that reading non-fiction cannot?

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