Fact and Fiction

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.

5 thoughts on “Fact and Fiction

  1. In my view, if a novel gets someone’s attention enough to want to go on and find out more what does it matter if it is accurate or not? Mary Stewart’s Crystal Cave / Hollow Hills led me to King Arthur, which led to my writing career.

    Something has to trigger the “want to know more” factor – why not a well written book? I wish more history teachers would use fiction.

  2. Helen, I reckon this is a discussion which should be held in person round a roaring camp fire with bowls of mead – relaxed and jolly, loud and laughing. Because there’s probably going to be as many opinions as there are writers and readers. It doesn’t bother me a bit that stories are made up, whether historical or not, but as you rightly point out on your blog, there are many aspects to accuracy, and I really can’t bear the ones which may hay with truth (reality is a different matter).

    As John Gardiner says in ‘The Art of Fiction’, one must never snag the fictional dream or remind the reader that this is a story. When an author freely puts Leonardo da Vinci in China because he feels like it, I have to put the book down. For sure my ‘want to know more’ factor has not been triggered. First and foremost a story – any story – must be credible, and blatant disregard for fact destroys credibility quicker than anything. But the degree of a writer’s license is a personal thing. I wish I could put the execution on a Thursday, which suits the order of the story, rather than on the Tuesday when it happened. That I can’t is just nerdishness on my part and one of the reasons which each of my novels took ten years to write.

    I guess I’m in the Josephine Tey stream. In ‘The Daughter of Time’ her aim was to put right the wrongs which, as she saw it, history had done to Richard III. I had a similar intention, and didn’t feel able to do it academically, so I used fiction. But in doing that, and in my obsessional adherence to fact, I went on a life-long journey of discovery I shall never regret. My only regret is that I’ve come to the end of it. As I scout about for a new project, I’m definitely putting ‘story’ above accuracy, and I’m getting round my obsessiveness by looking for a period about which very little is known!

    And while we are around that camp fire, we could get on to what novelists discover by imagination that will never be glorified by the name ‘fact’ and yet makes everyone quiver with that feeling that it must have happened that way. That’s when it’s absolutely great to be a historical novelist, isn’t it?

  3. Oh, this is the sort of thing which you know but can’t describe! Let’s have a go… A Marxist-Leninist logical positivist (you know the kind) would say that life is a series of accidents that bear no relation to each other. A Jungian would say that everything is related and meaningful, that there is the operation of cause and effect which can turn lives into fairy tales. Basically, in a novel, the first page sets up the last one. John has a goal. Perhaps he doesn’t know what the goal is and the novel is his emergence from darkness into light. Or may be it’s an adventure story, and all events conspire to obstruct his passage to the goal. Or it’s a treasure hunt, and he doesn’t know what the goal is until he has solved all the clues. Is this making it any clearer?

    There are two excellent books on Story. One is Robert McKee’s book of that name (Story). It’s specifically written for script writers but its wisdom is general. Then there is Joseph Campbell’s The Hero of a Thousand Faces. Campbell discovered that all the world’s myths conform more or less to one model, and he analyses what that is. It is here that you will see that your own life is in fact a story, that you are its hero, that there are mentor figures, villains, gatekeepers in it. It’s a wonderful realisation.

  4. That’s probably why Marxist/Leninist novels are so boring and Jungian novels (using the terms loosely) are so wonderfully absorbing. I actually believe things are related to each other, quite profoundly. That’s why really well-researched novels, if they are also psychologically astute (also part of the job of research, IMHO), are usually far more interesting to me than romanticized novels that don’t bother to get the history right. When a novelist plays fast and loose with the history in order to flog an oversimplified or romanticized point, the characters are usually quite flat and behave in ways that make it impossible for me to believe in them. Of course, there are also historical novels in which the author deliberately takes liberties with the facts in order to make subtle metaphorical points – when this works well, it is generally because the author has a deep understanding of the time period and knows quite well what really happened, but in the condensed space of a novel wants to shift the factual truth a bit in order to more effectively present a larger truth about human nature or the cycles of history.

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