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How far can historical fiction be stretched?

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How far can historical fiction be stretched?

Post by Kohadenal1 » Sat April 28th, 2012, 6:03 pm

Hi, I'm new to these forums, so if my question is ignorant, I hope you'll excuse me. I tried researching this issue, but I didn't find what I was looking for, so I thought I'd just ask.

I'm writing a book centred in seventeenth-century England, during The Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. One of the things I'm struggling with is that I don't know where exactly the line is drawn between history and fiction. For example, let's say I write about a fictional conspiracy to kill Cromwell. Ultimately, the conspiracy fails. I have, therefore, not changed history - Cromwell doesn't die, and history remains on it's due course. However, a conspiracy to kill Cromwell, although not a significant event in history, is a notable one, and would have been recorded. Do I have the right to fictionalize such an event? This is just an example of this idea - how much room to I have to fictionalize in historical fiction?

Likewise, when it comes to inventing characters - what type of characters can I create? Obviously I cannot create a historically important person, but can I create a reasonably important MP? Even if the character is not in a position of importance, if it happens to be a position which we know who was in that position at that time, and I instead invent a fictional character for that position, is that allowed? (If you are curious why I do not just use the actual people who were alive then for these positions, they do not fit the requirements for the plot I'm writing).

With regards to Oliver Cromwell, do I have the ability to write anything at all about him that didn't happen? On the one hand, writing that he went to some insignificant event that he really didn't is not at all historically altering. On the other hand, considering that this was the single-most important person in England in that era, can I write any fiction at all about him?

Once again, I apologize for any ignorance on my behalf.

Thank you in advance.

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Post by boswellbaxter » Sat April 28th, 2012, 6:59 pm

It's fiction, so you can stretch the facts as far as you want, invent any characters you please, even turn Cromwell into a vampire. What really is important is what matters to you as a writer and what type of audience you're trying to reach. Personally, I prefer historical fiction that sticks closely to known facts, so I would probably avoid a novel about Cromwell that twisted known history. On the other hand, some readers love novels where the author plays fast and loose with history, but be aware that authors who write this sort of historical fiction risk taking flak from those readers who are familiar with a particular historical period and hate to see facts distorted.

If I were you, I'd write the type of novel you like to read. (Welcome to the forum, by the way!)
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Post by Misfit » Sat April 28th, 2012, 7:41 pm

I'm one of the readers who prefers keeping things accurate. If you are going to *rewrite* history, I'd recommend doing it with a fictional character and not a historical person like Cromwell. Like Sharon Penman says, do not defame the dead.

I have a romance I read recently, and while I don't expect as much historical period details as I would in a straight historical novel, I wasn't quite prepared for the 1867 characters to rummage through a box of museum artifacts labelled Czar Nicholas the Second. Aiyee!
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Post by EC2 » Sat April 28th, 2012, 8:11 pm

It all boils down to how your personally feel about writing things involving major characters that didn't happen and it also depends on your audience.
I used to write stories with imaginary protagonists and the latter interracted with real people in scenes that quite obviously would never have happened. In my first novel, my imaginary heroine was an illegitimate daughter of Henry I, but since Henry I had at least 21 illegitimate children, I thought my particular one would be okay in the historical tapestry. Sharon Kay Penman did the same with her character of Rannulf in When Christ and His Saints Slept etc and starred Prince John in one of her murder mysteries. Numerous authors have their imaginary characters interacting with those who really lived.
I would say just be very aware of what you are doing and don't warp history out of true to serve your plot.
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Post by Mythica » Sat April 28th, 2012, 8:19 pm

Anything is "allowed". You're entitled to write whatever you like. The question is only will it appeal to readers?

Personally, I think conspiracies are one of those things that could theoretically have remained secret and not been recorded. So I think you could get away with that but I would be clear in an author's note that it is an invented conspiracy. Like many others, if I'm reading about actual historical figures, I'd prefer to read about something that actually happened. But if a book is very written with an engaging plot and interesting characters, I will enjoy it regardless.

Inventing characters can be risky. On one hand, they should add to the story but on the other hand, they can't be so important that it alters history. Some wind up being a pointless addition because they don't play a big enough part, others seem to dominate too much and the actual history gets lost. But Sharon Kay Penman, one of the biggest and most respected names in historical fiction, certainly pulled it off with her fictional character Ranulf in When Christ and His Saints Slept.

So in the end, I'd say a good author who can weave a fascinating story with multidimensional characters can pull off virtually anything and still make it enjoyable to many (though not all) readers.

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Post by DanielAWillis » Sat April 28th, 2012, 9:14 pm

Bottom line: you are the author and it is your story. You may stretch it as far as you wish. However, be aware that if it gets to the point of totally ridiculous you may have difficulty finding an audience for it.

From what you spelled out in your inital post, you sound like you are in pretty safe territory. There were actually numerous conspiracies to off Cromwell. He hated by a large portion of the population. As his rule went on people came to release what Puritanical really meant, they hated him more.

As far as your fictional character, it is a novel. You can have one of the characters be the Grand Duke of Outer Mongolia and that is okay. In the end, most of your readers will not be adequately informed about the nobility and royalty of the 17th century to know if the person is real or not.

Things I would recommend avoiding:
1. Using a title that does not make sense. For example, there are no Grand Dukes in the English titling system.

2. Becareful of anarchinisms. This is probably just my personal pet peeve, but it aggravates the Hell out of me to read about events in the 17th cenutry and someone whips out a tool that wasn't invented until the 19th.

3. If you make references to some foreign country, make sure it existed in the time period you are talking about. (Belgium did not exist in 1750).

These are only suggestions which you free to follow or ignore. Again, it is your book. But if you follow these three things, you should be able to get away with stretching the historical event however you need to for the sake of your story.
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Post by SGM » Sun April 29th, 2012, 5:15 am

Good luck on the venture. This is the period of history that I am working on and is probably one of the most interesting and disputed about (by the acadmics) eras. My interest is really just a bit early in the 1620s, probably because it includes James I as well as Charles and there actually were quite a few Parliaments held in which the MPs were actually elected. After the purge of 1648, I start to lose interest in Parliament and focus on the ideas of the NMA.

I don't know whether the assassination attempt is central to your plot but you will find that you are not the first to incorporate such an idea into a novel. See Henty's Friends Though Divided, nor to include a fictional MP. So I wouldn't worry about that. However, I would have thought it was exactly the right time to be writing about anarchisms (!) and one of the few in the history of my country when you could say that. But I would try to make sure that the ideas espoused by your characters fit with the time and their social status. Although in my reading of some of the letters and diaries of the time, I am often surprised at the tone and sentiment of the seventeenth-century English people and recognise them as well as I would someone who lived next door to me today and contrary to popular modern conceptions not everyone was a budding Daily Mail reader. But that may just be my take on it.

The thing I really can't stand is when writers don't understand the nature of the relationship between the nations of Charles/Cromwell's multiple kingdoms and what James I's Great Britain actually was.

Good luck with the constitutional issues. I am still working on those.

PS: Are you taking a Tory, Whig, Revisionist or Post-Revisionist stand on this?
Last edited by SGM on Sun April 29th, 2012, 7:43 am, edited 12 times in total.
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Post by Kohadenal1 » Sun April 29th, 2012, 8:04 pm

Thank you for all the replies. Obviously, I do not intend to rewrite histoty, but I do have a clearer idea now.

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Post by LoveHistory » Tue May 1st, 2012, 3:31 pm

3. If you make references to some foreign country, make sure it existed in the time period you are talking about. (Belgium did not exist in 1750).

Note: Belgium the country did not exist at that point but Belgians the people did. I believe they were considered a tribe or ethnic group. People have been known to quibble about this point. I'm not one of them, I'm just aware of the "controversy." :)

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Post by Gordopolis » Tue May 1st, 2012, 3:37 pm

I've come to this decision point a fair few times.

Usually it's a compromise between of having my story flow perfectly and being confident that I can back up my tale with a reasonable 'spine' of facts.

When I hit this point, I'll try to put myself in a reader's pov and ask at what point I would say 'Hold on, that's just taking it too far!' and then I'll switch back into my writer's pov and see if I can rebuff the challenge.

My 2p, but the bottom line is - it's fiction

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