Historical Musings #71: Do you agree?

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction!

I was struggling for inspiration for something to write about this month, until I came across a quote shared by Waterstones on Twitter:

“History tells us what people do; historical fiction helps us imagine how they felt”
– Guy Vanderhaeghe.

This quote resonates with me because it perfectly describes why I prefer reading historical fiction to reading historical non-fiction. Guy Vanderhaeghe is not an author I have come across, but it seems he has written several historical novels set in Canada and the American West. I decided that for this month’s post I would find some more interesting quotes by authors on the subject of historical fiction, beginning with these two on the overlapping of genres:

Historical fiction is actually good preparation for reading SF. Both the historical novelist and the science fiction writer are writing about worlds unlike our own.
– Pamela Sargent

I have always regarded historical fiction and fantasy as sisters under the skin, two genres separated at birth.
– George R.R. Martin

I don’t read a lot of science fiction, but I’ve often felt that there are parallels between historical fiction and fantasy, mainly in the level of detailed worldbuilding required and, as Pamela Sargent says, a sense of unfamiliarity and strangeness. Sometimes fantasy can almost feel like historical fiction and vice versa; in fact, George R.R. Martin’s own A Song of Ice and Fire series is inspired by Maurice Druon’s Accursed Kings, a series of seven historical novels telling the story of Philip IV of France and his descendants, a line of kings “cursed to the thirteenth generation” by the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, whom Philip sent to burn at the stake. Then there are authors who blend history and fantasy together in the same novel, such as Katherine Arden in her Winternight trilogy, or Guy Gavriel Kay in books like Tigana and Under Heaven.

However, I don’t really agree with this next quote, also by Martin…

As much as I love historical fiction, my problem with historical fiction is that you always know what’s going to happen.
George R.R. Martin

I understand that writing historical fiction must be more restrictive for an author than writing fantasy, but for the reader, unless they have studied the time period or have read about the same subject many times before, they’re not necessarily going to know what will happen. I love reading about historical periods, settings and people I know absolutely nothing about – it’s a good way to learn something new and I try to resist googling things as I read so that I can be surprised by the twists and turns of the story. On the other hand, reading about something unfamiliar to you can cause other problems, as described here by Hilary Mantel:

What really disconcerts commentators, I suspect, is that when they read historical fiction, they feel their own lack of education may be exposed; they panic, because they don’t know which bits are true.
– Hilary Mantel

How can you know ‘which bits are true’? Unless you have time to look everything up, sometimes you have to trust that the author will have done their research and ensured that their novel is as accurate as they could possibly make it. It’s frustrating when you spot something that is clearly wrong or anachronistic, because it makes you wonder if there are other inaccuracies in the book that you haven’t noticed. I agree with what Kate Mosse says here:

I am not a fan of historical fiction that is sloppy in its research or is dishonest about the real history.
– Kate Mosse

I’ll leave you with two more opinions from Barry Unsworth, author of the Booker Prize winner Sacred Hunger, and historical romance author Stephanie Laurens:

Writers of historical fiction are not under the same obligation as historians to find evidence for the statements they make. For us it is sufficient if what we say can’t be disproved or shown to be false.
– Barry Unsworth

Overall, I adhere to the one guiding rule any author writing historical fiction should follow: whatever you describe has to be possible. It may not be common, obvious, or even all that probable, but it absolutely has to be possible.
– Stephanie Laurens

What do you think? Do you agree with any or all of what these authors have to say?

Quotes courtesy of BrainyQuote.com

30 thoughts on “Historical Musings #71: Do you agree?

  1. Cyberkitten says:

    One of my favourite historical authors was (and honestly probably still is) Alan Furst – he writes mostly about WW2 or just before but from an espionage point of view. As a mixture of two of my favourite genres and within one of my favourite historical periods its pretty much a slam-dunk for me. Until I read one of his books some years ago with some sloppy, and easily researchable, mistakes. The scene in question revolved around an agent in France overlooking a harbour filled with barges getting ready for Operation Sealion, the ‘planned’ invasion of England after the disaster of the France campaign. I remember a very exciting set piece where a flight of Bristol Blenheim light bombers attack the barges coming in at 50 feet and racing away at high speed. Later that night some high level bombers drop their ordinance on the bay and town and the agent speculates – as he cannot see them – that they might be Lancaster bombers… At which point I said to myself: Erm, hold on there! Lancaster bombers only flew for the first time a year or two AFTER this supposed event. A quick Google search (yes, I know!) confirmed that the author was wrong and that no one at the publishers (or any assistants) had spotted this glaring error and corrected him. I couldn’t help thinking – what else has he got wrong? It kind of put me off him since then, that nagging doubt.

    • Helen says:

      That’s a shame. It does make you feel differently about a favourite author when you come across something like that. And of course, a lot of readers wouldn’t have your knowledge of the subject so would just assume the book was accurate.

  2. whatmeread says:

    Although I was always interested in history, I did poorly in classes until I got to college because everything boiled down to learning names, dates, and battles, and I am not a memorizer. I have to say that most of the history I’ve learned is from historical novels, although of course I am not always aware of what in them is true and what is poorly researched or made up. This interest, though, has brought with it a renewed interest in reading more historical nonfiction, so all in all, my education in history has improved since school and largely through fiction.

    • Helen says:

      I’m not good at remembering dates and names either – I find it much easier to retain information that I’ve read in a novel rather than in a nonfiction book.

    • Calmgrove says:

      I did my school history in the 60s when one of my teachers was exactly about this kind of rote learning of names, dates and so on. Then a younger colleague joined the staff and his advice — which I’ve always remembered since — is that it’s not knowing ‘facts’ (because of course careful historical research can always throw new light on what we thought we knew or took for granted, and therefore establish new facts at odds with ‘facts’) which is important; it’s knowing how and where to look for facts that’s the real imperative.

      In other words, the research comes first, and that comes the interpretation of what may have happened in the past. That’s why critical thinking, especially in this day and age when ‘alternative facts’ are peddled online and by troublemakers, is crucial.

      It’s also why I got interested in archaeology because I learnt first-hand how uncovering new material can result in questioning received wisdom and reinterpreting past assumptions. The very best historical fiction, in the hands of visionary and innovative writers, can also through new light on what we thought we knew of history.

  3. elainethomp says:

    There’s also the problem of what people think “they know that just aint so” and they complain about supposed inaccuracies that aren’t. Say the author had a character in 13xx wearing glasses. They were invented by then, but how many people know that? I only have that as an example because I ran into it and double checked, since the author is usually pretty good at getting things right.

    For the complaint of you know what’s going to happen, the author can make it interesting in HOW it comes to pass. Or do what, say, Dunnett, did, by throwing in a fictional character to make things not happen that didn’t but were attempted. (Lymond, #2, the whole plot, basically.)

    • Helen says:

      That’s true – I can’t think of any specific examples at the moment, but I know there have been times when I’ve been convinced that an author has got something wrong and when I looked it up was surprised to find that it was right after all. I always double check before mentioning anything like that in my reviews! And yes, I don’t mind if I know what’s going to happen as long as the author finds a way to make familiar events feel fresh and interesting.

  4. Calmgrove says:

    My chief unease about the few historical fiction titles O tend to read these days is precisely the “something that is clearly wrong or anachronistic”.

    I mayn’t be one of those who “feel their own lack of education may be exposed” (as Mantel suggests) because I can manage with a few liberties that attempt to fill in gaps in the historical record; it’s mostly details like anachronistic language that breaks the spell for me, phrases that only really make sense because they reference modern concepts and technology.

    • Helen says:

      Anachronistic language is one of my pet hates in historical fiction. Some otherwise very good books have been ruined for me because of language that feels too modern or inappropriate for the period.

      • Calmgrove says:

        I remember when I first got disgusted with — when a conversation included the phrase “upward learning curves”, a figure of speech which wasn’t to have currency for another century!

      • Pam Thomas says:

        Mine too. I once looked at a random page in a well-known novel about the Tudors, and found Henry VIII saying, ‘You gotta be kidding!’ Needless to say, I didn’t buy it.

      • Cyberkitten says:

        I found the modern sounding conversations in The Afghan Campaign by Steven Pressfield somewhat off-putting at first but then thought that it was a really good plot device. The Greek soldiers spoke exactly as you might think ‘grunts’ spoke in Vietnam or even modern soldiers do today. There wasn’t anything *exactly* anachronistic about it – they didn’t use modern military terms as such – but it felt “modern”. I think this is the only case I’ve experienced where that actually added to rather than detracted from the narrative.

  5. piningforthewest says:

    It’s important for me that the author does a lot of research, but manages to unload it or infodump in an entertaining and smooth manner. But it’s also important that they know what they can leave out. Anything anachronistic is a real turn-off for me.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I think the research needs to be woven naturally into the story and not just included for the sake of it. Anachronisms always annoy me and can put me off reading more books by an author.

      • Pam Thomas says:

        As a massive lover of Dunnett, I have to tell you that over the years, her army of devoted fans have uncovered one or two ‘creative falsehoods’. But we forgive her, because 99.99% of her research is spot on.

        • Helen says:

          99.99% is good enough for me! I can forgive a few creative falsehoods, but not poor research and fact-checking – I read a book a while ago with people in 11th century Scotland wearing kilts and another where the author mixed up the names of not just one but two of Margaret Beaufort’s husbands.

  6. Pam Thomas says:

    I think the research in a historical novel is like an iceberg – you don’t see the vast bulk of it, but it’s there all the same, gliding along under the water, and without it the whole edifice would topple over. My mantra has always been, ‘OK, these events may not actually have happened, these people didn’t really exist, but they COULD have done – they’re true to their setting and their time.’ I much prefer to view things through the eyes of fictional characters, because you can bring in fresh angles and attitudes. Novels about well known historical figures risk boring me, because I know what happens. If I never read another book about a wife of Henry VIII, it won’t be a day too soon. Enough!

    • Helen says:

      I prefer to read about fictional characters too – or lesser known real ones whose stories haven’t been told a million times before. Although I do find the Tudors interesting, it’s disappointing that so many authors are continuing to write about Anne Boleyn or Elizabeth I when it’s so difficult to find a different angle or anything new to say.

  7. GoAnnelies - In Another Era says:

    For me the core of historical fiction is indeed that events as depicted in the book could have happened. And I don’t find reading about the same events so that you know how it ends boring at all. People knew how they Titanic movie will end don’t they? Even before they watched it the first time in the cinemas. I love the different interpretations about the same events.

    • Helen says:

      The Titanic is a good example! As long as the author can find a new or interesting way to write about the event, I don’t mind knowing how it will end.

  8. stargazer says:

    Very interesting post! I think historical fiction needs to be relatively correct, otherwise what is the point, the author might as well make up a fictional world. On the other hand, I also think the author has some degrees of freedom, after all we are talking about fiction, not documentary.

    I see the parallel to fantasy in some cases. The great battles which unfortunately have dominated our history can often be found copied in epic fantasy. However, fantasy is many different things and the parallel doesn’t always hold.

    • Helen says:

      I agree. I expect the basic facts to be correct, but the story doesn’t need to follow the history exactly, otherwise you might as well be reading non-fiction.

      Yes, big battle scenes tend to be a parallel between fantasy and historical fiction – and of course, a lot of epic fantasy novels are set in a world that feels like medieval Europe. It does depend on the type of fantasy, though, and sometimes there are no real similarities.

  9. FictionFan says:

    Interesting! I do agree that historical fiction goes beyond the facts to how it must have felt to live through them, but I don’t agree that it’s similar to fantasy. In fact the current trend for historical fiction to contain supernatural stuff is something I largely avoid, since if it’s supernatural it ain’t history! Knowing what happens is an issue for me if the book is simply recounting a biographical character’s life for example, (assuming I know about the character’s real life, that is), so I prefer when an author concentrates on a fictional character, like Shardlake, or a less well-known one, like Will Fowler, and lets us see the famous characters at a distance through their eyes, if that makes any sense. And on the rare occasion that I do know the actual history, it jars totally if the author changes facts to suit their invention.

    • Helen says:

      I think a lot of epic fantasy, like Tolkien (and George R.R. Martin, although I haven’t read him), is inspired by medieval history and that’s mainly where I can see some parallels. The modern trend for historical fiction with supernatural or magical realism elements doesn’t always work for me either – I have a review scheduled for tomorrow that’s an example of that! And yes, I like to see famous people from the perspectives of other characters too. It makes things more interesting if you already know the biographical facts!

  10. Tara M says:

    I think the quote that resonates with me the most is the one from Guy Vanderhaeghe. I always enjoyed history in high school, but it was quite boring. To be able to read historically accurate novels with fully fleshed out characters and motives and dreams helps bring history to life in a way that teaches and entertains. I feel as if more history classes should adopt some historical fiction novels into their curriculum. I definitely wanted to recommend a historical fiction book that I recently finished called “Matilda Empress” by Lise Arin. The book highlights Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, Matilda and the author clearly did a lot of research to make this book as historically accurate as possible but also giving Matilda a believable voice. As the daughter of England’s King Henry I, Matilda is due to inherit everything, including the empire. However, when her father passes away her cousin Stephen, takes the throne resulting in civil war. To make things even more interesting the two are involved in a love/hate, on again off again love affair. See? You don’t even need fiction to have an amazing story! It’s all right there in history! If you want to check it out here’s the author’s website – https://www.lisearin.com/
    This was a great post — thank you again

    • Helen says:

      I love the idea of historical fiction being taught in history classes! I enjoyed history at school too, but reading about it in fictional form certainly makes it more entertaining.

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