Years ago, I went far up into the remote Highland hills with some Scottish friends to see a natural well once used by the Picts. As kids, my friends would visit the well to make a wish and leave flowers or pretty stones. That historical place, for the locals, is part of their ordinary world. And it’s important to them—so important that one dark night, my friends and their young friends removed an old carved stone set there by some medieval churchmen to erase the paganism of that ancient spot. My friends spirited the stone away because they wanted to restore the well to its Pictish origins; a thousand years later, the churchmen’s offense still burned in local memory, especially when fed by a little local ale. Well, soon enough the police were searching for the missing medieval stone. So back the thing had to go, secretly, wrapped in a blanket inside a pram, and pushed up into the hills by a few guys fortified by a few pints.
History is a thriving thing, with the power to excite and incite us, to inspire us to care deeply. The love of it can nudge us into action on starless nights because we so respect the past, our ancestors, and social memory. We feel the tug of it in our imaginations, perhaps in our DNA. Look at any college campus class schedule; visit any museum; go to any bookstore and browse the bestsellers table, the mystery and romance sections and more. We still care, and we still find ways to connect history to our own lives, our own times.
Before I wrote historical fiction, I was in academia, trained as a historian, specifically an art historian, and now, in fiction, I use what I learned there—methods of research, processes of thinking and inquiry, writing techniques: defining a beginning, middle and end; how to evocatively describe, how to create tension and anticipation, even how to develop a plot by telling the story of an artist, a painting, an artistic trend. Good nonfiction historical writing can keep a reader on the edge of their seat just as a good story can do … tell a clear story, infuse it with meaning, keep the reader with you. And there are important differences—no footnotes (yay), and you can Make Stuff Up.
So when I began writing fiction, I thought I was prepared. Then I found out how difficult it is to do this–it's not just making stuff up. Story needs a solid structure and strong elements. The historical writer should be pretty familiar with the chosen historical subject. And it’s a challenge to juggle all this while sticking to a word count and other publishing parameters.
I also discovered that accuracy and mastery is not enough in historical fiction. It’s essential—a historical story will suffer without a reliable historical framework, even if it’s just sketched in. But imagination, voice, ability and common sense are just as essential. Accuracy in fiction does well when it’s tempered with authenticity.
We can reconstruct history with structure and facts, with logical conclusions, we can create a precise portrait of a historical figure or a landscape of events. We can also conjure all of that for the reader without a great amount of detail. Conjuring—that’s what suits the realm of fiction, mingling the historical facts with imagination, creating a kind of shorthand that evokes authenticity—a sense of the time and place, the daily life, where the characters walk and events take place. Dialogue, action, narrative and emotion give the facts an immediacy, a sort of storytelling magic that brings history to life. For me, the success of historical fiction often hinges on a delicate balance of accuracy and authenticity.
I’ve run into this with every book I’ve written, none more challenging than when I wrote the stories of the real, historical Lady Macbeth and Queen Margaret of Scotland. With my historian's hat on, I carefully followed the fascinating track of actual history, and then wore my fiction-writer’s hat to elaborate and flesh out the facts with imagination—tempering accuracy with touches of authenticity, trying not to deluge the reader with minutiae and explanations, while keeping imagination on a rein too, to preserve a sense of historical truth. In every book I write, I want to conjure an authentic sense of the era and its events and people, while keeping the spotlight centered on story and character.
Readers of historical fiction enjoy being immersed in that world, carried along, tapping their own imaginations to add to the read, taking away something valuable for themselves. And hopefully they’ve learned something too while they’re reading. They want to feel and sense what it was like to live back then, in that time or that place. That’s why, for me, authentic has more weight than accuracy in historical fiction. I’ll tweak and adjust to make sure the characters and the tale are vivid and convincing. But at the same time, I won’t sacrifice accuracy—it’s the essential framework and provides the pins and seams that hold a historical tale together.
Sometimes a story works with great detail, the grit of that past reality, but the complexities of sticking to an accurate timeline can mess with the best plot. And sometimes we just want a galloping, rollicking good story that informs and entertains—even if its history is distilled and indicated rather than exactly portrayed. I’ll always be a stickler for historical accuracy, I’m just wired that way as a writer and a historian. But I’ll also bend the truth where it enhances the story, as long as it doesn’t wander too far off. I want the history to be strong and reliable—and I also want the story to be dynamic within that structure.
Historical writers, fiction and nonfiction too, are storytellers, part of an ancient line of bards. Some recited genealogies and battles and epics—the historians of their day. Others were tellers of tales, singers of songs. Today we historical writers do the same, though the modes of delivery have changed!
What do you think works best in historical fiction, accuracy or a lighter hand with the historical framework? Do you look for a chance to learn history from historical novels, or are you looking more for a focus on character and plot over historical context? We’d love to know your thoughts!