History and Historical Fiction

I suppose you'll get conflicting answers depending who you ask, but here's my take on the difference between history and historical fiction:

History deals with what's probable, historical fiction works with what's possible.

There's a big difference between these two!

A book of history is based on what we know for sure happened, and for the many gaps, experts do their best to paint in what most probably happened. You're going to get conflicts of opinion because the experts weight the available evidence differently, and personal interpretation comes into it, but no matter what, everyone's arguing for their own view of reality.

Historical fiction is about what's possible, not what's most probable. The historical fiction writer selects the interesting or dramatic within the wide range of possibilities that might have happened, unlikely as some of the options are.

For example I have Pericles commissioning Nico to find the killer of Ephialtes. There was a for-real Ephialtes, and he was for-real murdered, but there is not the slightest evidence to suggest Pericles commissioned an investigation. On the other hand is there anything to prove he didn't? No. Good, so this plot is fair game for an historical mystery writer.

This can become a grand game of what-is-the-most-outrageous-thing-you-can't-prove-didn't-happen. For example I mentioned the other day the possibility of killing someone beneath the hooves of stampeding mules at the Olympics. I could kill someone that way, in theory, because no Classical Greek ever actually wrote, "I went to the Olympics last week and funnily enough no one died beneath the hooves of stampeding mules." But I won't because there's a limit to the credibility I can stretch you, and that might be a trifle over the top, even for me.

The key element is it's a game. In fact, it's a game within a game, because if you're writing historical mystery then there's a murder for you the reader to solve, there's real history to deliver, there's warped possible history to interlace with the real history, which is fun for me, and there's the game the reader gets to play spotting the places I got it wrong.

I do have to get it wrong in places. I estimate the number of details in each book is in the low hundreds; it's impossible I could get them all right. The most accurate historical fiction writer ever was probably George MacDonald Fraser with his Flashman stories, and he famously placed the Duke of Wellington's wife at the opera three years after her death. If he can't get perfection, I certainly can't, but I try.

I do think it necessary the historical fiction writer not break known history. So for example if I wrote a story in which the Athenians conquered Rome, that would be naughty. Something like that isn't historical fiction, it's alternate history, which is a quite different genre closer to fantasy. But where there's uncertainty, and I'm allowed to pick and choose from the possibilities, no matter how unlikely they might be, you can be reasonably sure I'm going to pick whatever's funniest.


Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

Dear Gary,

I write both history and fantasy fiction. They overlap in odd ways. There are bits of real history in Pixie Warrior. Some of the characters were real people, and within limits I gave them the personalities they had.

Fletcher Walker and his wife were real. Mrs. Walker sent support checks to my grandfather when he was at the University of Nevada. Her views on swearing and such are in the book. There are other similar bits. I use the real to give my stories life, an appearance of reality, even if the main characters seem otherwise improbable or mythological. [Notice I said seem? I'm really a pixie, but you knew that -- right?]

You well define the work of an historian. Doing anything else but chronicling what can be known and making good guesses about the unknown is almost the limit of an historians work. Hunches and guesses should be clearly identified as that. Speculation is speculation, not history. Analysis should be cautious and based on what can be known rather than on what can be guessed at.

It is easier for me to live up to that standard because I research more recent events. Someone who works with ancient history has more challenges because the gaps between the known and the mysteries are wider and harder to fill.

Would you like to guest post on my blog. Write something for me on the challenges of historical research for a writer of fiction. Email it to me. I’ll post it with a link to your blog.

Mimzy said...

A moment of blasphemy: I'm not big on historical fiction. Now before you perma-ban me from your blog I have to say that most of the historical fiction I find always seems to be set in England during the Regency, the Middle Ages or during Henry the Eighth's rule. I've always found it more interesting to actually read the books from these periods (although I shall never again try to read Chaucer untranslated. After awhile I was able to understand him, but it was like trying to read another language without a dictionary).

That said, as soon as work's over I'm going to run out to the library and get the first Flashman book. Partly because you seem to recommend it, but mostly because the Duke of Wellington was one of those fascinating historical figures who I'd really like to meet if I ever get that time machine working. :)

Now back to work before the boss realizes that he's paying me to surf the net!

Gary Corby said...

Hi Mimzy,

I do definitely recommend the Flashman stories, but there are a couple of things I better warn you about with Flashman:

Firstly, the Duke of Wellington makes only a minor appearance from time to time. However just about every other famous person from the Victorian period is a character in one book or another, so you won't feel lonely.

Secondly, Flashman is a cad, a bully and a bounder, who despite being an utter coward finds himself at the forefront of every military disaster of the 19th century. (He led the Charge of the Light Brigade and fought at the Little Bighorn.) Flashman has only three talents: languages, horsemanship, and fornication. All three activities make a regular appearance. If political correctness is important to you, then you want to avoid Flashman at all costs. (He describes Florence Nightingale as "well titted out"!)

Somehow Fraser has managed to insert Flashman into a long list of major historical events, even well documented ones, but has done it without for a moment disupting real history. The man's knowledge of the period was simply amazing. Oh, and Charlie Chaplin was a Flashman fan.

Gary Corby said...

Sure thing, Sha'el. I'll see what I can do.

Tabitha Bird said...

I don't write history, neither probably or improbable, but I liked your break down of it. I think I get the difference. I always wondered. Actually I think those who choose to write historical fiction are indeed brave. So much research needed. Thanks for the insights and thanks for visiting my blog again. I agree with you about the quality of a book written in under two weeks. I'd only be participating for the chance to lock myself away and write for three days ( I have kids:)

Jen C said...

As a fellow historical fiction writer, I feel your pain! My main characters are all fictional, but they are in a factual setting with factual events. There are factual characters, but of course they have to be taken with a grain of fiction too.

It can be stressful trying to make sure you don't make any crucial mistakes! I also wonder how well people will understand that I had to make some things up for the good of the story...