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How Fictional Can Historical Novels Get? by William Dietrich

Novelists make things up. This is not too shocking unless the novelist is writing historical fiction. Then there are reader expectations of fidelity to fact, and you have to decide what kind of historical fiction you’re writing.

Can the South be allowed to win the American Civil War? It does in Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove, who has a doctorate in history.

Can Hitler win World War II? He does in Robert Harris’s Fatherland. In Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America Charles Lindbergh becomes president of the United States and starts anti-Semitic programs.

Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, in contrast, is a recounting of the battle of Gettysburg that is fictional only in that it goes into the minds of the generals involved. Colleen McCullough’s Rome series adheres closely to well-known history. Hilary Mantel’s Tudor trilogy based on the life of minister Thomas Cromwell is meticulously researched.

I gauge my realism by the circumstances of the story I want to tell. Hadrian’s Wall revolves around a barbarian attack in 367 AD but we know almost nothing about it, leaving ample room for invention. The Scourge of God, about Attila the Hun, uses many more real characters and battles because his campaign against the West is better documented. So little is known about Hunnish culture, however, (a single room of artefacts in the Hungarian National Museum) that I found myself extrapolating from horse cultures ranging from the Mongols to the Plains Indians.

My Ethan Gage series of Napoleonic adventures puts a fictional American adventurer in the midst of real history and people. I try to make the details accurate, down to quoting what the principal people really said, but Ethan’s quests involving ancient mysteries are inventive, and his use of technology is speculative.

Did Robert Fulton really invent a submarine called Nautilus, as recounted in The Barbary Pirates? Yes. Was it used against said pirates, as in my novel? No. Was it great fun to write about, and hopefully to read about? You bet.

So what’s the rule?

To tell a good story that is entertaining and instructive.

Even the wildest fantasies have some foundation in fact. Lord of the Rings is grounded in Tolkien’s medieval scholarship, and Game of Thrones in the War of the Roses. Asimov’s science fiction Foundation series was based on the fall of the Roman Empire, even though it was set in space. Dracula goes back to Vlad the Impaler, and Frankenstein to Jewish legends of creating artificial men called Golems. The more fantastic the tale, the more it benefits from being grounded in reality to help the reader suspend disbelief.

History allows interpretation. Kenneth Roberts used Benedict Arnold as his key character in Arundel and Rabble in Arms but made him an underappreciated hero instead of a future traitor.

Strict adherence to real people and events is no more “serious” than invention to fit one’s theme, but it does carry clear advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is not having to invent as much and achieve a high degree of realism. The disadvantage is that human motivations are often murky in real history and so the novelist takes on the same burdens of the historian in seeking to explain what sometimes seems inexplicable.

The bottom line is that the entire spectrum from strict adherence to the record to fantastic invention has been successful. Whichever you choose, you’re in good company.


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The Emerald Storm: An Ethan Gage AdventureHadrian's Wall: A NovelScourge of God: A NovelBlood of the Reich     Send Me Safely Back AgainThe Summer HouseNecessary Lies

Writing Historical Novels

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