When Does History Surrender to Fiction?  

Posted by Tony Hays

I wrote recently about going to locations you were writing about. Another constant question concerns the integration of history and fiction. When does history take a backseat to the story or vice versa? In other words, when do we ignore the facts in favor of the fiction?

An old friend of mine, the late Dr. Frank B. Williams III, professor emeritus of history and former department chair at East Tennessee State University, often told the story of the so-called Battle of Mud Run in Savannah, Tennessee. It was a tongue-in-cheek appellation as the event in question centered around the day the Union gunboats first appeared on the Tennessee River at Savannah. There was no battle, but all the Confederates and Southern sympathizers panicked and fled, turning unpaved Main Street into a long "mud run." With a twinkle in his eye, Frank would regale his class, recounting how one of his ancestors, hobbled by a wooden peg-leg, made it ten miles out of town before he stopped. "That peg-leg is still in the family," Williams would say, "and it's still got mud on it from the Mud Run." Naturally, some credulous student would query, with mouth agape, "Really?" Dr. Frank would smile and say with a wink, "never let the facts get in the way of a good story." The phrase has almost become a cliché, but there is some truth in it. In the broader view.

But readers of historical fiction are some of the most demanding in the world. They are sophisticated readers, intelligent, who readily see the difference between "literary license" and factual errors. They will be the first to tell you when you've made a blunder. Quite frankly, I've seen more historical novels trashed in reviews for inaccuracy in their historical detail than for any flaw in the story. And that is the audience for which we write. Dedicated, demanding, and constantly challenging the writer to educate and entertain them. It is frequently said, "history makes good history." History is real life. Real life is surrounded by jagged edges and unfinished sentences. Those are what writers of historical fiction have to work with and around as they try to fashion a story from the flotsam and jetsam of reality.

Gore Vidal wrote in his author's note to Burr that he occasionally moved people and events around as the story needed. Indeed, he admitted to resurrecting someone long dead because he needed that particular person at that particular point in the story. That, I think, is the key. Hemingway once said that you could leave something out of a story if you knew what you were omitting and why. The reader will sense that and accept it. But if you leave something out because you don't know what goes there, said Hemingway, the reader will sense it and it will become a hole, a gap in the story. The same principle, I believe, applies to accuracy in historical fiction. As Vidal points out, if you move things around because you need them to be altered, and you know that's what you are doing, that's okay. The key in historical fiction is letting the reader know that you've changed things in an afterword or author's note. Then it becomes an error of design, not faulty research.

This entry was posted on Sunday, January 3, 2010 at 1:02 PM . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

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