Rewriting History? (Part 1)

July 2, 2010

Tags: historical fiction, changing history

At the end of May, I went to the Bloody Words mystery conference in Toronto, where I met some wonderful people and (I hope) acquired one or two new readers. As part of the BW programming, I was a member of the author panel discussing the topic “Rewriting History: How much can and do historical mystery writers play with historical facts & people—should facts take a back seat to story?”

Sylvia Warsh, our moderator, started things off with the following quote:

“We must never become slaves to the history; we must be prepared to jettison, rearrange, conflate, to play as fast and loose with the facts as we need to to create good fiction.”

OK, I’m a complete, self-described history geek, as both a writer and a reader, and to me, that quote (by Sarah Bower, a former UK editor of The Historical Novels Review, no less) felt like fingernails scraping across a blackboard.

Our panel agreed that writers of historical fiction (HF) really do have a duty to get the facts right. Is working your tail off to do the research and get the historical facts correct, for a period mystery, any different from getting police procedure right in a contemporary mystery? If you get the procedure wrong in your otherwise gritty, true-to-life novel, real-life cops who read it will laugh at you (at best), or, if your goofs are bad and numerous enough, chuck the book across the room (such book to be known, in future, as a wallbanger). And if the historical novelist gets the history and the details of daily life wrong enough often enough, real-life historians and/or history buffs who read her novel will also--you guessed it--send the book flying, against the wall or straight into the recycle bin.

We also agreed, and I do think this is important, that many, many people, the non-history-geek people, learn--or at least remember--most of their history from novels and movies rather than from dull high school or college courses. I, for example, know late-18th-century France to the point of insanity, but certainly never read any “formal” ancient Roman history--what I “know” about ancient Rome is from some kids’ history books I read when I was ten; I, Claudius; the excellent historical mystery novels of Steven Saylor; and various sword-and-sandal epics. And if people who don’t know much about a period and its history are going to be learning about it from YOUR novel, then don’t you owe them correct history, if only to keep them from dutifully repeating the erroneous “facts” they’ve learned from a novel in front of someone who does know the history (and who, we hope, will not then explode into derisive laughter)?

(OK, I’ll be the first to admit that moviemakers seem to have no need at all to provide accurate historical fact when making a period epic. How many people are there, I wonder, who saw Braveheart and now firmly believe that medieval Scots wore plaid kilts, or that William Wallace secretly fathered King Edward III, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera? Cuz neither are remotely true. Look it up.)

But I digress. We won’t even try to reform moviemakers--who are, after all, hampered by demands of their target audience (those 18-to-25-year-old males) and production costs--and stick to writers of HF, mystery and otherwise.

So let’s agree, to start off, that big, obvious changes to historical events are verboten if you and your readers care about history, unless you’re writing historical fantasy or alternate history AND (and I cannot stress this enough) you label your novel as fantasy. Because anyone who writes a story in which (for example) Marie-Antoinette escapes the guillotine had better be writing historical fantasy/alternate history, or else anyone with a tenth-grade education will look up from the book and say “Whaaat?” And that’s because everybody, but everybody who reads at all, even people who are not sure exactly where France is, knows Antoinette 1) was the queen of France or the queen of somewhere, 2) had big hair, and 3) got her head chopped off by guillotine (more on guillotines some other time, speaking of getting stuff wrong). And saying Antoinette didn’t lose her head will immediately label you an ignorant idiot--even if you were only an idiot insofar as you never bothered to tell the reader that what s/he is reading is fantasy.

Fine. Changing big, known, in-your-face historical facts is out (unless you are writing fantasy, but from now on, we’ll stick to discussing non-fantasy, non-alternative HF). What about changing lesser facts to make your story work? What about changing teeny weeny unimportant facts? What changes can you get away with, and what changes will promptly label you as either a cheat or an ignoramus?

First of all, I think we have to admit that the art of fiction is, essentially, that of telling lies. And HF is, by its very nature, lying about history and changing the facts (in a small way), because we are inserting a fictional character into historical events, and/or manipulating historical figures, major and minor, to suit the plot--essentially turning historical figures into fictional characters--and making up exchanges between them. If your fictional Marquis de Blancmange has an audience with Marie-Antoinette in Paris in 1791 about some relatively minor matter important to your story, you are changing historical fact because, obviously, the real Antoinette never held that audience (and presumably was doing something else on that day). But is that change a significant one? Well, no. You’re allowed to make that minor change in history of inserting your fictional character into a real scene, by virtue of the conventions of historical fiction.

However, if you’re specifying the date of that audience and you’ve thoughtlessly made the day June 21, 1791, the very day that Antoinette, Louis XVI, and their children were not in the Tuileries Palace in Paris at all, but actually traveling in an over-large, ridiculously conspicuous coach, trying to dash off to the border and flee the French Revolution, then you are changing history in a big way, and readers familiar with the period will catch it right off (instant wallbanger). But that would be a really stupid blunder, because if you did your research, you ought to know that fact, right? And if you knew that fact, why did you choose to contradict the historical record and put Louis and Antoinette somewhere else? You’d better have a really good reason, buddy, and even then, most people who know the dates just won’t accept it--it’s too important a date.

So perhaps that should lead us to consider the question of “is this historical alteration that the author has given us a deliberate change or a stupid mistake?” Because even if you know exactly what you’re doing, and have thought hard about changing this bit of history to suit your story, most readers who also know the history are going to see it as just a dumb mistake unless you give them a good reason not to.

When I, the reader, come across a thumpingly wrong fact about background, daily life, and so on in a historical novel, I tend to automatically assume that the howler is an unwitting error by a sloppy hack writer who didn’t do his research. A book in which a medieval knight, ca. 1300, sits down to a hearty meal of roast beef (right) and potatoes (wrong!), and finishes it off with a nice pipeful of tobacco (wrong! wrong!), will get flung across the room and I will promptly resolve never to read anything else by that ignoramus. Because this is obviously a stupid mistake made by a writer who doesn’t know his basic facts of historical daily life; there is no earthly reason why the writer should have felt he NEEDED to include New World vegetables and plants in his story, set 200 years before the European discovery of the Americas. Unless, that is, his story is about some intrepid, fictional medieval explorer who discovered America before 1300 and brought plants back with him (in which case the author had better convince us exactly why this discoverer failed to get the news out, because otherwise he has just contradicted the big, known, in-your-face historical fact of Columbus, 1492, and all the rest of it).

OK. 1492 is indeed a big, known historical fact. Any reasonably well-read reader of HF knows, or should know, that potatoes, corn (maize), chili peppers, squash, tobacco, and so on, are New World plants and could not possibly have been enjoyed by ancient Egyptians or medieval Europeans (or, for that matter, medieval Hindus, despite the popularity of the chili pepper in India today). Readers with a slightly deeper knowledge of history may be aware that it took time to get the news out about these new foods, and these plants were not well known in Europe until at least the mid 1500s, and sometimes much later, so that having your French peasant eat potatoes in 1575 is also out (French nobility enjoyed potatoes as a delicacy in the 1600s, but the peasantry did not adopt them until the mid 1700s or even later).

Readers who bore their families and friends with a really thorough knowledge of minor trivia of history will also catch teeny but highly annoying errors like having Elizabeth I sipping afternoon tea in, say, 1560. Tea is Asian, of course, and probably was available at a high price in Europe in the Middle Ages as a medicinal herb, but was not popular as a beverage in England until at least the mid 1600s, when organized trading companies were established and lowered the price of exotic commodities somewhat. (And “afternoon tea” as a custom among the upper classes came in a few decades after that.) If you DO have Elizabeth enjoying a cuppa, you’d better explain why (she’s taking tea as a curative drink on the advice of a doctor?), or else the well-versed reader will just assume you made a dumb mistake because you didn’t take ten minutes to look up the history of tea in Britain. (This kind of background stuff is now all in Wikipedia, O writers: it’s not hard to find any more. Go look it up before perpetrating a dumb mistake.)

To be continued . . . when we provide a list of Commandments for Historical Novelists on Changing (and Not Changing) History.


  1. August 3, 2010 1:50 PM EDT
    That quote at the beginning of the post made me want to scream! No historical error (either by mistake or intention) has ever caused me to throw a book (it's not the book's fault!) but certainly glaring errors may preclude buying that author's work again.

    I love to write, but I love history more so I spend lots of time agonizing about getting things straight and trying to figure out where the allowable leeway is in a historical novel. But it's always on more minor things. I think the most daunting genre to write is historical. It's a delicate balancing act from start to finish.
    - BK Jackson

Selected Works

An annotated edition of Charles Dickens's classic novel.
A Writer’s (and Editor’s) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, and Myths
Standalone Historical Novels:
Biographical fiction about Charles-Henri Sanson, Paris's public executioner
A reimagining of Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities
The Aristide Ravel French Revolution Mysteries:
Book 1 of the Ravel Mysteries

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