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Real History And Plausibility In Historical Fiction, by Anthony Riches

I’ve long believed pretty firmly that the best historical fiction is a careful blend of fact and the author’s imagination, but the word careful isn’t thrown into that statement lightly. Before any would-be writer can hope to do themselves justice in the eyes of their intended readership they must first become master of the period they hope to use as the backdrop for their storytelling abilities. Many readers are drawn to the genre because of their pre-existing interest in the period depicted. Among their number there will always be more than a few who will know more about that part of history than most authors can hope to achieve (unless the author conveniently happens to be an Oxford Don – *tips hat to Sidebottom*). That doesn’t mean that the writer has to know more than everyone else, but it does mean that when any specific historical fact reaches the page – the colour of a Roman toga in the Republican era, the length of a crusader’s sword, the calibre of a British service rifle in 1898 – it has to be accurate. If not, the author is condemning himself to a barrage of emails  in the electronic equivalent of green ink, sent from correspondents quite fairly dripping scorn across the page in their disappointment at finding some fundamental error or other in their expensively purchased copy of the writer’s opus.

I can’t pretend to have chosen (serendipitously) the late 2nd century AD for this reason alone – although it was a factor – but my chosen era of history is perfect from a historical novelist’s perspective, given that most of what we know about the Roman empire comes from a relatively small number of surviving sources. At least one of those – the Historia Augusta – is now recognised as deeply untrustworthy by historians. How does that help me? Here’s an example.

We know that three main opponents faced off for the imperial throne between AD193 and 197, Septimius Severus (the eventual winner)  and a pair of senators, Albinus and Niger. Little enough is known about these two failed contestants, just enough, in fact, to make them perfect blank canvases for my Empire series. Having already introduced them to the reader in book five (The Wolf’s Gold), we will be spending a fair amount of time in their company between AD184 and 193, as they… ah… but that would be telling.

My point is this – the sweet spot of historical fiction for this author isn’t so much what we know, but more what we don’t know. It helps that the men concerned have been dead for the best part of two thousand years, which means that I can make them as flawed as I like without fear of reprisal, apart perhaps from the red ink brigade.  It’s the same with actual events. When I wrote Wounds of Honour, against the background of the British rebellion of the early AD180’s, all I could find was the rather bland statement that a general was lost in a disastrous start to the campaign. The governor? A legatus? If you’ve read the book you’ll know the choice I made and how I portrayed the rebellion’s destruction across the first three books. All of it made it up. By contrast, the series I plan to write alongside Empire, when I can get some interested drummed up, is set in a period of history when the means of mass communication were in place, and is therefore intensively well documented. In that case, I muse, I will have to much more careful to work my imaginings into the web of what is known about the men and battles of the era.

So, how what’s the best balance of fact and fiction in our chosen genre? Whatever you can get away with and still avoid the wrath of the experts, I’d say. Just make sure you do lots of reading first.


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Wounds of Honour: v. 1 (Empire)Arrows of Fury (Empire)Fortress of Spears (Empire)The Leopard Sword (Empire)     True Soldier GentlemenEscape by MoonlightTreason at Lisson Grove: A Charlotte and Thomas Pitt Novel

Writing Historical Novels

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. danielfbowman #

    Great post. I have written about the later Roman Empire, which has that same balance. It is important to be factual with what is known.
    What do you think about changing the order of or merging events to make a simpler storyline?

    September 30, 2013

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