Sunday, May 22, 2011

Blending Fiction with Fact

Letting one's imagination run completely wild becomes slightly more complicated when you're writing historical. How far can you abuse the facts before readers start to doubt your research abilities?

In contemporary, you can put Mr Smith in the White House, make him single and dashing and falling in love with the gardener's daughter and call it a romantic comedy. Doesn't matter that Obama is currently there, doesn't matter that never before has there been a dashing, young, single president with enough time on his hands to chase after the gardner's daughter.

This doesn't work so well when you toss Queen Elizabeth off her throne to make room for your young, dashing king (unless you're writing alternate history, of course). Which, granted, is an extreme example, but a similar fear applies to smaller facts. How far can we stretch before belief is suspended and doubt in the author settles in?

In my next medieval release from Carina Press, my story is set in Jedburgh, Scotland. I have a scene at an abbey and there my debate started. Do I make up an abbey, or use the famous Jedburgh Abbey? My problem is that my story is set during the Protestant uprisings and reformation, and Jedburgh Abbey was pretty much ransacked and destroyed. I did my research. I know that. BUT I still wanted to use that fabulous setting.

What I ended up doing was working the fiction into the fact long before that scene.

Fact: Queen Mary of Scots stayed at Jedburgh Abbey a couple of times, she had a townhouse in Jedburgh and I saw no reason why she might not have had a soft spot for the place.

Fact: During the Reformation, some abbeys were taken under the wing of protectors/guardians and were left alone so long as the monks did not stray beyond the walls to preach.

Fiction: On a visit to Edinburgh, I put in a scene between my hero (a powerful laird in Jedburgh) and Queen Mary, where I make it clear Jedburgh Abbey has been put under his protection at her request. He has a permanent guard at the abbey to protect it from the mobs, and so in my story it has not been ransacked.

Another big event in my story is the escape of Queen Mary from Holyrood House where she is held captive by her own barons and her royal guard. Queen Mary facilitates her own escape by 'making up' with her traiterous husband (Henry Darnley) and winning her royal guard back to her side. Of course I wanted my hero to have a hand in rescuing the queen, but no way could I have him intrude on that escape setting which is so iconic.

But, I have always wondered why the royal guard switched sides so quickly. One minute they were sided with the traiterous barons and her captors, the next they were escorting her down the servant passages to help her escape. Step in my hero, when there's a build up and a scene where he 'convinces' the captain of the guard (using, um, brute force and threats) to change sides, so the captain's mind was open to being approached by the queen for help. So, my hero gets to play a small role in the queen's escape, and in a way that might or might not have genuinely happened.

Both instances mentioned are stretching facts, perhaps too far, but hopefully I've shown that I do know my history and have purposely contrived fact to bend toward my fiction. I'm not sure. This is one of the small examples of the risks historical authors take, over and over, in order to make their characters and story work within the frame of documented history.

I tend to write royalty and well-known figures into my stories, which makes it even more tricky to take my story where I want it to go and not where history has already gone.

As a reader of historical fiction, how much leeway do you allow for in the blending of fiction and fact?
As a writer of historical fiction, do you stick strictly to documented fact and how do you get creative?


Judy Croome said...

While I don't want my historical romances to be overladen with facts that take away from the romance at the heart of the novel, I want the facts to be as accurate as possible, while still maintaining the integrity of the story. Slightly changing non-crucial facts (such as having your hero involved in changing the captain's mind) don't bother me at all, especially when they're well written and believable.

But what does annoy me is when the language and actions of the characters are far too contemporary for historical novel. That's when I find myself skipping pages and grumbling!

Judy, South Africa

Wendy Soliman said...

Good questions, Claire, and one which I think all us historical writers struggle with. I'm with Judy on this. Too many facts slow a story down but you'd better make sure the ones you use are accurate because you can bet your life that if you don't someone will notice.

Taryn Kincaid said...

Eh. Unless it's totally off the wall, like the Civil War before the Revolution, or anachronistic like zippers on a chemise, I'm not going to quibble about it too much.

Poetic license. There to be taken.

Erastes said...

I'm a stickler. I know that the moment you add a person who didn't really exist you are creating an alternative universe, but I still won't break it more than that. I'm anal about everything, even things like "there was a full moon that night" - i have to check that there was. The thought of changing an historical event fills me with horror, and yet I know people like Cornwell do it all the time.

Claire Robyns said...

Oh yes, for me the worst crime and turn off is the odd modern word that slips it. It happens so easily, and my poor editor has to keep a sharp eye on me, lol, but still that would be my biggest beef and might stop me reading.

Erastes, I had to laugh about the full moon, I read a review eons ago where the reviewer complained about something like that (was that you? lol)

Must admit the small details don't worry me too much, and if you want to deviate, you must at least lay down the groundwork working up toward it rather than leaving the impression that you have no idea how much you've deviated.

Still, a tricky biz and many writers do get away with it, although is that because the readers don't mind or just because the readers love them enough to forgive the few faux pauxs?

Patricia Preston said...

I love Medieval romances but I don't know that much about the actual history of the era. Whether there really was a castle by that name or King So-and-so did such-and-such doesn't matter to me as much as an entertaining story that keeps me turning pages.

Kathleen Bosman said...

There's something so satisfying about reading an historical novel that you know you are gleaning the feel of the time from and knowledge of how the people lived.
As a reader, I wouldn't care about the names of castles and such but I tend to trust that the writer has their important facts straight.
As a writer, I stress about all the research I do and wonder how accurate my conclusions about facts are. It must be so good to be certain of your facts and just write which is especially hard for those that hate the research part.

Vivien Jackson said...

A fiction writer's job is to entertain me, not inform me. If the writing is strong and the story compelling, I can forgive almost anything.

Claire Robyns said...

...It must be so good to be certain of your facts and just write which is especially hard for those that hate the research part...

Kathleen, I'll admit that I love the research, sometimes more than the writing, lol. Being comfortable in a specific era is a little like learning a foreign language, it's a struggle initially, but the more you read in that era and the more you write in that era, the more natural it becomes.

Claire Robyns said...

As a reader, I totally agree with the comments that so long as the setting 'feels' appropriate to me, I'm happy. As a writer, I still stress over every little thing.

Susanna Fraser said...

I love the research part, too, and wish I had more time for it. Pesky day job, paying the bills but eating up so much perfectly good time. I mean, I could be learning French, all the better to read untranslated Napoleonic-era primary source material!

That said, I'll cheerfully change whatever I need to make my story work. I've written, but not yet sold, out-and-out alternative history manuscripts, of the "What if the South won the Civil War?" variety. (Though not with the South winning. Not my era, and kinda too obvious as a "what if?") I've just started a new WIP where the hero really needed to be a general, so I'm just giving him bits and pieces of several real generals' roles, and I'll add a historical note giving real credit where it's due. But I try to portray the mindset and values of the day as accurately as I can. And I do those historical notes. If I ever get a publisher who won't let me include them at the end of the book itself, I'll put them on my website. I feel I owe that much to the past and the people who really lived through it.

Zee Lemke said...

I was fiddling around with making up a story about fairies in Guernica in 1937 and got stuck. One of the books I read for it (not primary; Kurlansky) makes a big deal of the famous tree there not having been touched in the bombing. Maybe fairies protected it! But I couldn't do it. There's a real, human reason, even if it's just an oversight by Germans who didn't know the tree was important. I can't make one up because no one knows the real reason, if that makes any sense. If I'm ever going to publish historical fiction, I want my stories to make readers curious about the real people of the period, not confuse them. (Not that anyone would think the fairies were real, hopefully.)

Claire Robyns said...

Susanna, I like the way you think. Don't think any publisher would object to author notes. In my latest medieval, I have a very early form of C-section which research showed had actually been performed succesfully (and documented) as early as mid 1600's - in Europe, though, not in backward Scotland, lol. But I had my relevant character's father study abroad and she learnt the process from him. But I suspected many readers might be dubious, so I included some documentation of this in author notes at end.

Zee, I would totally buy into the idea of faeries protecting a tree, lol