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How far can historical fiction be stretched?

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Matt Phillips
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Post by Matt Phillips » Thu May 24th, 2012, 7:38 pm

It may be the last thing you want to do at this point, Kohadenal1, but the answer may lie in more research. As boswellbaxter and Daniel have suggested, you may have options for tweaking your premise that you're not aware of. Brainstorm alternatives to the plot devices that don't seem to work in your period, and direct your research toward finding out whether those alternatives might be plausible, as Bev says. You might be surprised what a wide range of possibilities further research might reveal for you.

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Post by Shield-of-Dardania » Mon May 28th, 2012, 4:56 am

In his Troy trilogy, the late David Gemmel turned a lot of things inside out and upside down. His Trojan princes were golden haired rather than dark haired, befitting and mirroring the image of Troy as the rich city of gold, his Helen quite plain and his Paris a bookish wimp. David's Priam was a randy, drunken old lecher, his Hekabe a dark, dangerous, ruthless schemer and his Odysseus an ugly, loyal but vindictive talespinner.

Playing on the belief that Troy was a vassal, or junior ally, of the greater pan-Anatolian Hittite Empire, David had Hector leading a contingent of Trojans to the Battle of Kadesh between Egypt and the Hittites, fighting on the Hittite side, of course. From where Hector came back injured on a strategic part of his anatomy, making him no more a perfect specimen of manhood, unable (secretly) to consummate his much vaunted marriage to Andromache. A frustrated Andromache one day ends up making love to a hallucinating Aeneas, hopelessly sick from some strange illness and entrusted to her care, and she ends up conceiving Astyanax as a result.

David even had a young Moses playing a significant role, under the pseudonym Gershom, travelling to Troy, becoming a ship's captain and close confidante of Aeneas, while on the run from his adoptive father the pharaoh of Egypt for having committed an offence punishable by death.

Now, the actual historical time difference between the Trojan War and Moses could have been a century or more, while that between the latter and the Battle of Kadesh could have been a bit closer, perhaps even the same generation. But that didn't stop David from crafting a story mixing them all in.

Now that, to me, is boldness, audacity and creativity. And I'm sure that many people found enjoyment from it as a result of David's fearless storytelling. It's not a history textbook that they're looking for, they can get that from their local library. What they want is fun, recreation and entertainment. You can't dictate to readers what to read or like. It's not your call, it's theirs.

Perhaps the time setting for your story doesn't give much room for playing around with. I think I can feel your difficulty, Kohadena. Have you created your characters yet? If you haven't, you could start to. Get them talking to and interacting with one another, feed them, empower them. They will grow and help build your story for you. Funny but true. Sometimes a story's characters may combine to give the story's creator (i.e. the author) a long pursued solution. Surrender yourself to your story. Let it be your master. It will tell you what to do.

Maybe you could create an epilogue to your story, perhaps a temporary one, maybe comprising scenes of a modern day descendant of your Protectorate-era protagonist researching the history of his ancestor. Then create some friends for him. Maybe your temporary epilogue fella, or a friend of his, would find an answer for you. Who knows? Anything is possible.

Just make sure you save up, in several different places, your months of work, Kohadenal. 1 copy in PC, 1 copy in laptop, 1 copy in USB, maybe 1 copy in e-mail, sent to yourself. If you get stuck, no problem. Just go to sleep for a while, a week, a month, just ruminate. A writer's sleep is not necessarily wasted time. It can be productive, gestation sleep. Perhaps you'll wake up with a solution.
Last edited by Shield-of-Dardania on Mon May 28th, 2012, 11:01 am, edited 15 times in total.

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Post by hackcyn » Mon May 28th, 2012, 11:49 am

[quote=""Kohadenal1""]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.[/quote]

Can I suggest that you also find a plausible reason for why the assassination plot is not in the historical record? ie a way for it to be covered up? I can't see anything wrong with taking the approach you outline at all, but I think the closer you can get to historical fact with real figures the better.

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Post by hackcyn » Mon May 28th, 2012, 11:57 am

[quote=""Kohadenal1""]What I'm going to ask now might seem a little blasphemous to some, but I'm kind of getting desperate.

The book I'm writing, instead of being a book that deals with the major events and people of the time period (The Protectorate), is, instead, a fictional story dealing with fictional characters, set during The Protectorate. As such, the main historical elements I'm trying to focus upon are those that would effect individual people in those times - methods of speech, social etiquette, schools of thought, etc. Other elements, whilst being historically exceedingly important, do not have a need to be mentioned in the book, at least not more than in passing.

I mentioned this by way of introduction to give you some understanding to my question. The book is intended to be a mystery. When I first envisioned the plot, it was before I had anything more than a rudimentary understanding of the time period. After having done some research, I realized that the 'police' system (for want of a better word, considering that there were no real police then) that existed then was such that the basis of my plot won't be able to work. I've been working on this for some days now, and the only solution I can think of is to invent that the system had changed in those days, in a way it really hadn't. I can explain how it happened, and it won't be historically altering, but in the end of the day, it didn't happen. (It would sort of like be saying that the theory of gravity was discovered 50 years before it really was).

As mentioned before, it sounds blasphemous, and honestly, kind of ridiculous, but I'm at my wits end. I don't want to mess around with how things were, even the smallest details, but I don't want to throw months of work out the window either. I don't think this can be called Alternative history, Justin, as to the best of my understanding, alternative history is somewhat more alternative than this. It's sort of like somewhere in between, ending up being nothing.

Anyway, there's my issue. I know boswellbaxter said I can do as I wish, but I have little interest in being burnt at the stake for rewriting history.

Does anyone have any ideas?

Thanks a lot, and I do hope I'm not burdening anyone with my petty issues.[/quote]

How much have you looked at real investigations into plots and crimes during that period? It would definitely be worth looking at some famous murders and crimes of the period. About sixty years earlier there was the Essex plot against Elizabeth, for example. There must be something that happened during the protectorate that you can draw on. News books and chronicles from that period were quite common I think.

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Post by hackcyn » Mon May 28th, 2012, 12:31 pm

Have you read about Miles Sindercombe? From Wikipedia:

First Sindercombe rented a house in King Street in Westminster where they intended to shoot Cromwell when he rode past in his coach. However, they noticed that it would be a difficult place to escape after the attempt, so they abandoned the plan.
Next Sindercombe rented another house near the Westminster Abbey using the name "John Fish". He intended to shoot Cromwell with an arquebus on his way from Westminster Abbey to Parliament on 17 September 1656. However, when a large crowd gathered outside, Boyes panicked and left and the attempt had to be abandoned.
Sindercombe's group then intended to shoot Cromwell when he left for Hampton Court, as he customarily did every Friday. They intended to shoot Cromwell's coach while it was going through a narrow passage. As it happened, Cromwell changed his mind on that particular Friday, and the plotters waited in vain.
The next idea was to shoot Cromwell when he was walking in the Hyde Park. They broke the hinges of the park gates to facilitate their escape, and John Cecil began to follow Cromwell and his entourage. However, Cromwell became interested in Cecil's horse and called him over. Cecil lost his nerve and could not shoot him. He afterwards claimed that the horse was ill so he could not have escaped.

They sound hilariously incompetent. :)

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My first post, and as a late comer to the discussion:

Post by R.W.Ware » Mon July 23rd, 2012, 4:53 am

One of my favorite Historical Fiction writers is Bernard Cornwell. He has been known to move battles to different dates--and sometimes rearrange the order--and create nonexistent towns and battles for the sake of his story. The two keys, for me, are Verisimilitude and Historical Note. The latter is the way to tell your readers that although you know the real facts (which is sometimes the most important part) you changed some things for the sake of a good yarn. The former is the point of an historical milieu: to put the reader into it, believably, and give them the feel of what life must've been like. This, to me, is what is going to make the story enjoyable or not. I can accept some modernizations with language and such, even battles rearranged or created, if it immerses me in the tale.

The worst kind of Historical Fiction, for me, is when it becomes so dry and uneventful that even a high school textbook is more exciting.

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Post by LoveHistory » Mon July 23rd, 2012, 6:49 pm


The worst kind of Historical Fiction, for me, is when it becomes so dry and uneventful that even a high school textbook is more exciting.[/quote]

Personally, I like history textbooks. Though I don't spend as much time reading them as I used to. :D

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Post by Misfit » Tue July 24th, 2012, 2:09 pm

This might be going slightly OT since the example I'm going to give is a contemporary novel, but I hope it also makes the point why IMO the writer should take care to know their setting - if you can't do that then please write what you know. I've just finished the second of the three Fifty Shades books, thankfully via library loan so I didn't line any pockets. I certainly didn't expect high fiction going in, but the Seattle setting really piqued my interest and I couldn't resist seeing it through the eyes of a Brit (no offense to the UK residents here).

I assume most of you know these books were originally written as fan fiction, a spin off of Twilight, with the characters moved from Forks to Seattle and sexed up. They were eventually picked up by publishers, the names changed to protect everyone from you-know-what and the rest is history. I'm not even going to address the bad writing, repetition (I'm going to kill that inner goddess), or even the constant mind numbing sex. I'm going to talk briefly (this post is getting longish already) about the poor effort that went into the Pacific Northwest setting. If she couldn't be bothered to get her facts right, she should have just dumped her characters in London.

  1. Grey is flying helicopter from Portland, OR back to Seattle. As they take off, a comment is made that they are now entering US Airspace :confused:
  2. The time frame is June, where the sun sets around 9PM, yet Ana is always oohing over the sunset around 6PM
  3. Apparently Puget Sound (more like a bay or a fjord) is the open ocean and waterfront homes are coastal homes. Lol.
  4. Professional business people in downtown Seattle drink bottles of "Bud". In the hotbed of microbrews... (BTW, no one ever ever cards Ana, though she's barely 21).
There's more, but I have to run shortly. I guess my point being is whatever period/place you are writing about, should care be taken to get it right, or have someone who knows spot check you? Weren't these books supposed to have been edited before they started spewing them out and lining their pockets with gold?
Last edited by Misfit on Tue July 24th, 2012, 2:14 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Post by R.W.Ware » Thu July 26th, 2012, 3:37 am

That's why story is king. Proven time and again: If it's salable and there's a market audience, prose and detail are forgivable. Twilight was made possible by the long line of Buffy fans who lacked their weekly fix when the series and reruns were done. Ironically, Stephenie Meyer had the same teacher (David "Farland" Wolverton) as Brandon Mull and Brandon Sanderson. Look at the mega-success of Dan Brown, J. K. Rowling and Stephen King if you need more examples of faulty prose and/or discarding the truth for the sake of plot or story.

Besides, now writer is perfect. You can find flaws in anyone's work.

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Post by DianeL » Fri July 27th, 2012, 10:53 pm

Not one of the Buffy fans I've ever known could stand Twilight - the main draw of Buffy was a strong feminine lead, which Twilight definitively and utterly lacks. Too, there was a gap of about two years between the end of Buffy and the publication of Twilight. Fans were able to fill the void with other Whedon outings and other addictive television, I've never even heard of anyone using Twilight as a successor for Buffy.

Misfit, I'm very much enjoying the US airspace tidbit. Holy frijoles.
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