16. Playing fast and loose with the facts – more on historical “mash-up”

Since the feedback I got at Winchester last week, I’ve been thinking about the historical fantasy genre. It’s prompted me to consider what you can and can’t do with historical facts. I contributed to a discussion thread on Goodreads about this. Does a writer of historical fiction have artistic licence to change the facts? The writer’s answer is, yes, of course. Historical fiction is fiction, not academic research. The writer can do anything that he or she wishes. But, the reader’s answer is different. Readers have conventions, just as writers do. The reader of historical fiction expects that the story should stick closely to the known facts, just as in science fiction the expectation is that the story should be consistent with known science.

The reader also has a right to expect something else – namely that the story will be a cracking good tale, observing the rules of story-writing, which lead the main characters in an arc, through jeopardy, to a resolution. That poses a dilemma in, at the same time, being faithful to the truth. The question is, what does truth mean?

Stories have a lot to tell us about what we really mean by truth. They are probably the oldest form in which humans have preserved and transmitted wisdom. Stories are devices that tell us what facts go with each other, what is important and what is less relevant, who deserves praise and who blame. It is quite possible to connect the same facts in different ways, by means of different stories. In this anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, different stories are emerging. Was Napoleon a megalomaniac dictator and warmonger? Or was he, instead, the saviour of France against aggression from the old monarchies of Europe? This debate is both about professional history, and also about stories.

Napoleon

Truth and facts are not necessarily the same thing. That argument would, of course, allow a writer of historical fiction to argue that, by manipulating the facts, they were uncovering a deeper truth, an artistic truth. I feel a little uncomfortable with that argument. I suppose that’s why I’ve opted for an approach in which the readers are left in no doubt that they are reading fiction. Indeed, they never need to know that a lot of research went into the writing of the book, and simply enjoy it (I hope) as a story. Though by the time they get to my Joan of Arc character, Marta, most will probably think “hmmm, I know this story”. They may then wonder whether there is any “truth” in the way in which the Dauphin character, Aurthur, decides to manipulate and then betray her. Some readers may also recognize the strong parallels between the fictional battle of Aldkhor and the real battle of Agincourt, but it doesn’t matter to me if they don’t.

I have now started work on the sequel to A Prize of Sovereigns. It starts about a year in fictional time after the end of the first book. In historical time, it has jumped around 100 years. Clearly, I couldn’t do that, and maintain the same cast of characters, if I was writing historical fiction according to the canons of the genre. But the forces that drive both books responds to a view of history that wouldn’t be necessary if I was writing fantasy. In fantasy you can do anything you like, and of course dragons and enchanted blades are de rigueur. There are no dragons, or elves, or enchanted blades in my books. So, I don’t really believe I’m writing fantasy. Historical fantasy is a convenient genre label. But perhaps, one day, there will be a recognized genre called “historical mash-up”, and then I will with, a sigh of relief, re-shelve my work there.

I guess what, in my own mind, distinguishes what I’m trying to do from fantasy is that I’m interested in exploring the question about history “why did that happen?” and that is the unbending logic that my story has to be true to. I do think that there are forces which drive history, but they’re often hard to see through the accidents of who happened to gain power at a particular time, and the vagaries of their personalities. By creating my own little world, I can strip away those accidents and vagaries, and pursue the underlying story. It’s my own little model historical system in a narrative Petri dish. Are the “facts” correct? Many are, though they may be out of sequence and attached to different characters than those of real history. So, it isn’t a factually correct history. But is it “true”? I’d like to think it has a kind of truth.

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