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Obligations of H.F. Writers to be Factual

For discussions of historical fiction. Threads that do not relate to historical fiction should be started in the Chat forum or elsewhere on the forum, depending on the topic.
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MLE (Emily Cotton)
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Interest in HF: started in childhood with the classics, which, IMHO are HF even if they were contemporary when written.
Favourite HF book: Prince of Foxes, by Samuel Shellabarger
Preferred HF: Currently prefer 1600 and earlier, but I'll read anything that keeps me turning the page.
Location: California Bay Area

Post by MLE (Emily Cotton) » Wed September 29th, 2010, 3:54 pm

[quote=""wendy""]This is an interesting question I have recently grappled with as a writer. I am currently working on a novel set against the Lancashire Witch Trials of 1612 and originally stayed very close to the known facts as documented in the trail transcript (allowing for the necessary bias of the clerk). My agent felt I needed to include more fiction because the characters were pretty awful and tended to wallow in their own misery. She added that no one would want to read such a joyless tale! So I am rewriting from the pov of a more sympathetic (imaginary) character - but now risk being held accountable for historical innacuracies and manipulation of the facts. So what is the answer? I look forward to hearing your suggestions. Thanks -[/quote]

Entertain me. Invent a fictional character who is peripherally associated with the witch trials and have something readable happen to him or her in the midst of the doom and gloom.

I work with NGOs who deal with horrific things happening around the world, I don't need fiction to teach me how awful people can be to each other. I need fiction to remind me that sometimes some of them aren't, and give me a lift to go out and keep fighting the good fight.

Why do you think that the fairy-tales found across cultures always tell about how, for one hero at least, everything came out right in the end? If all cultures have enjoyed and used this format, maybe there's something in it that touches the core of what it is to crave stories.

annis
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Post by annis » Wed September 29th, 2010, 7:53 pm

Wendy, I do think that fiction needs some positive moments to make it appealing to the reader, even if the story is basically pretty grim. I’m reminded of Rhona Martin’s two novels set in Tudor England and featuring some horrific incidents resulting from the paranoia surrounding suspected witchcraft. They are well-written and compelling - Gallows Wedding won a Georgette Heyer prize for historical fiction-- but so unremittingly bleak that they make very depressing and off-putting reading. I think it’s probably significant that Martin only ever wrote one novel after the publication of Gallows Wedding and its sequel Unicorn Summer, though she did, perhaps rather surprisingly given how quickly her own novels became OOP, write a non-fiction book on how to write historical fiction.

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Michy
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Post by Michy » Wed September 29th, 2010, 8:05 pm

I agree with Annis. I favor books with what I call bittersweet endings; that is, not happily-ever-after. But even then there must be a glimmer of hope for the MC, no matter how slight, just something that tells the reader that the MC isn't going to be stuck forever in whatever unhappy state the book ends, but that there is even a tiny flicker of light at the end of the tunnel for them.

gyrehead
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Post by gyrehead » Wed September 29th, 2010, 9:15 pm

[quote=""Russ Whitfield""]But if they don't add these notes then they're attacked for inaccuracy and not knowing what they're on about. Its hardly a smoke-screen - its just saying what you say at the end - "this is fiction. I changed this, this and that." [/quote]

I think you missed my point. I'm talking about specific instances (of the thirty or so HF release this year I've read I'd say half are guilty). If an author takes the effort to print notes at the back that essentially lauds his or her research on an issue only to get immediate ancillary research flat out wrong and refuses to point that out? It is either the author being a outright idiot or extremely disingenuous. Not sure which is worse.
I also think that someone's huge gaping historical inaccuracies are often not as huge and gaping as they might appear. Proper research often reveals a lot of conventional historical wisdom isn't quite correct. But then you get the would-be savants who come along and attack an author for being inaccurate when in fact he or she is bang on the money.
Sadly not a single one was bang on the money. What's worse? They were squish on the play money. It's nice to be generous to an author but when in 12 books this year alone I've found huge stinkers of outright fantasy mixed in with the author's proudly asserted mastery of the facts? Yeah. No. Doesn't wash for me. Never will.

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Miss Moppet
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Post by Miss Moppet » Wed September 29th, 2010, 9:49 pm

[quote=""boswellbaxter""]I don't particularly enjoy such "historical entertainments." (I'm reading one now, and though it started off promisingly, it's getting too far-fetched.) But I have a lot more respect for an author who freely admits to tampering with known facts than for one who tampers with known facts but who refuses to admit it.[/quote]

That's how I feel. I think the Queen Elizabeth/Mary Queen of Scots situation is a good test case. It obviously makes for a better story if they have a confrontation at some point, only, they didn't. I would actually be interested to read a well-written Elizabeth/Mary confrontation, anachronistic though it would be, but I don't want to read a Mary Queen of Scots novel that goes completely off the rails and has Mary moonlighting as a goose girl, or whatever. Do I think the Erickson books should be taken off the shelves? no, because others might enjoy them, but I don't want them sold to me as something I should take seriously.

Russ Whitfield
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Post by Russ Whitfield » Thu September 30th, 2010, 8:22 am

[quote=""gyrehead""] Yeah. No. Doesn't wash for me. Never will.[/quote]

I guess if you're finding your reading of historical novels more annoying than entertaining, maybe try another genre - like heroic fantasy. Its close enough to hist-fic I think. Try David Gemmell - he's done some wonderful novels - "Lion of Macedon" or the "Troy" series are brilliant.

Cheers

Russ

M.M. Bennetts

Post by M.M. Bennetts » Thu September 30th, 2010, 9:43 am

[quote=""Miss Moppet""]That's how I feel. I think the Queen Elizabeth/Mary Queen of Scots situation is a good test case. It obviously makes for a better story if they have a confrontation at some point, only, they didn't. I would actually be interested to read a well-written Elizabeth/Mary confrontation, anachronistic though it would be, but I don't want to read a Mary Queen of Scots novel that goes completely off the rails and has Mary moonlighting as a goose girl, or whatever. Do I think the Erickson books should be taken off the shelves? no, because others might enjoy them, but I don't want them sold to me as something I should take seriously.[/quote]

This is a bit off the point, but I'd be quite interested in seeing someone recognise that Mary Queen of Scots had to be quite a little scheming survivor. For heaven's sake, she survived the court of Catherine de Medici. You'll never get me to believe that she came out of that place not knowing how to get on in the midst of political intrigue of the murderous variety and then some. They were dropping like flies in that place--she can't not have noticed and picked up a few tips. Sorry, but...

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wendy
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Post by wendy » Thu September 30th, 2010, 1:50 pm

Thanks for the advice. I can work wth this idea!

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Ludmilla
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Post by Ludmilla » Fri October 1st, 2010, 2:06 pm

[quote=""MLE""]The old market was not very sensitive about accuracy. I am watching how the instant availability of information-sharing on the internet is changing that...[/quote]

I think you are right, MLE. I still read enough older fiction to think that authors had much more room to play with because of what was not widely known by a vast segment of their audience (subject matter specialists, people who've read everything will naturally be harder to please, be more jaded). I think easy access to information in today's internet age has changed what we assume to be common knowledge among the general population, when in fact, what is considered common knowledge can be quite variable. I run into people all the time who think that what is common knowledge for them should be common knowledge for everyone else, and that simply isn't the case, probably never will be the case. I hope we never become that homogenized. How very boring and scary that would be!

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Katherine Ashe
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variable facts

Post by Katherine Ashe » Tue October 12th, 2010, 10:31 pm

Ludmilla's "I think easy access to information in today's internet age has changed what we assume to be common knowledge among the general population, when in fact, what is considered common knowledge can be quite variable" -- makes a good point.
The internet, etc. often gives the impression that there is a single set of indisputable facts regarding a point in history, whereas the original material may be as varied as the conflicting testimonies of eyewitnesses in a courtroom. Historians choose the threads they prefer, sometimes giving a nod to disagreeing evidences. In any case "facts" frequently are subject to interpretation.
Given this unfirm ground beneath what is openly declared to be fiction, and the basis for dismissing works out of hand becomes instead, in many cases, a basis rather for discussion.
But I too find irritating, and cause to stop reading, any book that brings 21st century attitudes into long ago times.
The problem of language is more complex. Did Roman soldiers swear? Thanks to Mount Etna there's plenty of surviving graffiti to suggest ripe language was common in ancient Rome.
How should speech in a past time be rendered plausibly? There were modes of speech appropriate to the different classes in the past. I like to see English rendered in HF books with some recognition of that, as speech should be fashioned to the personality of each character. But are these issues of accuracy?
I join those who feel that a book should be judged on its own terms, not on what is presently thought factual. Even facts, over time, have a way of changing. Historical fiction I believe is best judged by whether the author entertains and renders a period plausibly. And that must be something for each reader to decide -- or wrangle over here.

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