Paula, a reader who lives in California, has recently been in touch. She teaches art history in high school and wants to know how much of my novels is factual, how much fictional, and whether they can be used as teaching aids.
From the outset, perhaps because I was so young, so nervous, so amateur, I decided to stick to the facts as much as I could. That decision led me into a depth of research beyond that required even for a PhD! Eleven years later, I surfaced…
It became obsessional to find the truth, especially as I soon discovered that ‘facts’ are too often just fossilised fictions: someone’s interpretation where, over time, the disclaiming ‘perhaps’ or ‘may be’ has disappeared. I had to learn to distinguish truth from lie with a diviner’s intuition: an invisible antenna which lit up when something seemed true. This was particularly the case with Poliziano, who was not only murdered but suffered a character assassination which still infects our histories. I even saw some of this nonsense repeated in an otherwise highly scholarly work on Pico published just a couple of years ago. Sixteenth century lies repeated in the twenty-first, by a scholar who really should know better! It’s very easy to get myopic-on-your-topic. Unlike scholars, novelists have to be as broad in their reading as possible. My bibliography covers over 700 titles. One day I’ll put it on the website (but not today).
Many historical novelists have gone another way and put the story first, and I was certainly advised to do this, but given the choice I will always choose to do something the hard way. I had to burrow – deeper and deeper – into the material to find the real story. Some do not believe that lives adhere to story structure. In my experience – both in my own life and that of my characters – they do. If you can find that story-shape in your characters’ lives, it is my contention that you have found the truth.
Using fiction as a teaching aid is absolutely fine (I mean, it works in literature classes!). I didn’t connect with history at all until one enlightened teacher gave us a list of historical novels to read. Through that I discovered Mary Renault and Mary Stewart, and through them I fell in love with history big time. After all, using fiction gives the opportunity to challenge the students to discover for themselves what is true or made up – a great introduction to the art of research!
I always use ‘historical notes’ to warn readers where I have followed imagination rather than documentation, because I wouldn’t want anyone thinking something happened because it said so in the story. Generally speaking, imagination took the lead with the protagonist (who is fictional) and the female characters (about whom pitiful little information is available). Otherwise I stuck rigorously to the facts – with my moon phases and dates and times of events. Sometimes this really screwed my story line but whenever I made the necessary sacrifice and rewrote the scene, the story improved like kneaded dough – swelling under my hands with its own life.
Coincidentally Helen Horlick has written on this topic this week – and at much greater length. She has a lovely section on howlers where other authors didn’t do enough research. See Helen Hollick’s Muse and Views on http://helenhollick.blogspot.com.