Bending the Facts when Writing Historical Fiction
There is no historical record of any sexual encounter between William Wallace of Scotland and Princess Isabella, wife of Prince Edward (later Edward II) of England. In fact, historically, Edward II sent his wife to France to negotiate with her brother, King Charles IV. While there, Isabella had an openly-acknowledged affair with one Roger Mortimer.
This story, the real historical account, is dramatic and fascinating, but for the movie Braveheart, the writers engaged in some fact-bending. I, for one, did not complain. I understood it to be a piece of historical fiction, and the limber facts in the story were largely entertaining without offending even a purist such as myself.
There are Rules
There are “rules” when writing historical fiction, but many rules are flexible. Some, not so much. For example, if the story takes place in 12th Century Europe, there really isn’t a nation called Germany. The characters might live in Saxony or Bohemia, but not Germany (See map.). If the story included a nation that wasn’t extant, the author would have to come up with a feasible way for this to have happened in order to make it work for historical fiction. So the fact of non-nation-hood could be bent, but only in a plausible manner.
So one might say that “Plausibility” is a rule that one should adhere to when writing historical fiction.
There are “Facts”
Facts, in history, are often presented by the most powerful party. The “winning side” in a war, the literate people who penned the old stories. Sometimes, these “facts” are misleading but we have learned them here and there and they shape the frames of our stories to one degree or another.
When we write historical fiction, we are at liberty to bend them.
I am going to use myself as a shameless exemplar, because even when I write an article, I “write what I know.” What I know is the 9th Century. And what I’m writing is Ireland and Norway.
The facts as I know them include the following:
Ireland was largely a nominally “Christian” nation at that point, having accepted the Roman tonsure for their monks and everything.
The early Norse raiders began their incursions at the end of the 8th Century, just on the coastal settlements at first.
Norway wasn’t called Norway. It was called Nordweg. And Ireland was Éire.
These aren’t the facts I’m bending. I’ll be bending the facts such as the names of lesser Irish kings and their kingdoms in the greater kingdom of Ulaid (Ulster). I’m adding a village that doesn’t hold to the Christian faith at all, though it is close to a monastery. There is an invader in Irish history—a Norseman called Tuirgeis (alternately Thorgest, Turgesius, or Turges)—who conquered what is now Dublin and proclaimed himself to be High King of Ireland. I’m taking his story and tinkering with it, changing a few details and adding some when I can’t find them. He is introduced in my upcoming novel Éire’s Viking, but not as a main character.
Is it all plausible? Well…yes, I think so. Except maybe for the supernatural accents I’ve tucked into the story. Those…well, I call this a work of historical fiction with a dash of the supernatural. I am being honest.
Why So Serious?
My brother and I are historical purists in many ways, so I am very careful when I bend facts. On twitter, I follow many historical accounts and I respect their work highly. For me, historical fiction is serious storytelling. I work hard at it, I enjoy it, I immerse myself in it. I want to tell a “maybe” story. A story that could have been, perhaps, that no one knows, yet. Introducing modern readers to people who might have been walking the earth more than a thousand years ago. It’s an honor and a responsibility for me to know that readers suspend their disbelief enough to take on my “maybe” as their “reality” for the duration of the story.
So yes, I take historical fiction seriously. But I also have a lot of fun.