Whenever my husband and I watch movies with a plot relating to a commercial airplane – Sully and Air Force One are favourites – he can’t help whispering in my ear during the movie: “They can’t do that in real life.”
Commercial pilots will be the first to tell you whether sound technicians have used the incorrect engine sound for a military Hercules, or whether the special effects team have inaccurately shown a Boeing 747 with a tail ramp. Likewise, a professional diver, mining engineer or explosive ordnance technician will be the first to say whether the technical details in a work of fiction have been inaccurately portrayed.
The same happens in historical fiction. Historians, especially those who specialise in a particular era or topic, will quickly state whether an historical event or item, whether it is a building, vehicle, clothing or food, has been represented with even a hint of inaccuracy.
Do writers have a responsibility to be historically accurate when creating fiction?
Comprehensive research is a crucial part of writing historical fiction so that it has an authentic feel for its chosen setting. But novelists are not history teachers. Novelists, above all, aim to create stories with engaging characters involved in compelling situations. They need to capture the essence of the era, not have their book feel like a regurgitated series of facts. The story should be believable and logical with an authentic flavour of the era.
Fiction gives the author the power to speculate and pretend, to breathe new life into past experiences and people. The term fiction, after all, refers to something invented or untrue. It refers to prose that describes imaginary incidents and characters, including a reinterpretation of past events and historical people.
In her novel The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton deftly blends fact with fiction. The main character, Petronella Ooortman, was a real person and her doll house can be viewed in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. However, Burton states that there is little of Oortman’s biographical life in the novel except for her doll house and, when creating the character, she “made her younger than her husband, a country girl, a fictional creation.”
The blending of fact and make-believe is used by historical novelists to fit the story they create. They may give an historical figure an alternative backstory, confidante, dwelling place or occupation. Aspects of the setting may be altered – for example, extending the life of a centuries-old historical building complex by several decades as I did in my novel The Engraver – to better suit the plot or characters. Some are significant changes while others may be tweaks. If such poetic licence helps create a more compelling story, more intriguing characters, a past which is vivid and fascinating, a story that feels believable…so much the better.
For those who have expertise in a specific field, suspend your disbelief, soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the fictional story.
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