Fact or Fiction?

Tessa Harris argues that historical novelists can take liberties with the facts if necessary, but they must admit to it. Please welcome Tessa Harris, author of the just-released novel Beneath a Starless Sky as well as the Doctor Thomas Silkstone mysteries and the Constance Piper mysteries to the blog.

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When the UK’s Culture Secretary asks Netflix to flag up that its hugely successful drama series The Crown is actually just that – a drama, not a documentary – and several historians weigh in to criticise the depiction of events and characters, the ensuing wider debate surely must include historical novelists, too. 

If you’re one of the tens of millions of viewers of The Crown, the drama based on the life of Queen Elizabeth II and the royal house of Windsor, then you will know that the screenwriters have, on occasion, bent the facts for dramatic purposes. Writers of historical novels sometimes do the same thing. But that begs the question: is it acceptable to sacrifice the truth for the sake of a more compelling story? 

While The Crown may be well researched, and based on real historical events, it is also a work of drama and storytelling. It is not a documentary. As royal historian Robert Lacey recently wrote in the Radio Times: “What you see is both invented and true.”

So how do you balance historical fact versus fiction? How far can you go to fill in the blanks left by contemporaneous accounts? What liberties are acceptable? International best-selling author Bernard Cornwell once put it this way: “If you are wanting to write historical fiction I always say, you are not an historian. If you want to tell the world about the Henrician reformation, then write a history book but if you want an exciting story, then become a storyteller. Telling the story is the key.” 

Personally, I always think of writing historical fiction as a bit like crossing a river over steppingstones. It’s up to the writer to bridge the gaps between the stones by imagining and creating plausible settings and scenes between the protagonists. Private moments, conversations and even the relationships between the characters, who may or may not have existed, can breach the gaps that exist between these steppingstones of fact.  

This is what I’ve tried to do in my new novel, set in the 1930s in the build-up to war and spanning Western Europe and America. It features, among other real-life characters, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Fred Astaire and Adolf Hitler.  I was, of course, treading a well-worn path, but I was very much indebted to some brilliant biographers who had travelled before me. Reading original letters and diary entries also proved invaluable in shaping my portrayal of the real characters. Like most writers of serious historical fiction, I try my best to stick to the facts but sometimes there just aren’t any, so we novelists invent them. On other occasions, in order to move a story on, or to allow for unity of place, events may be concertinaed, or settings relocated. 

Sometimes, the truth can also be stranger than fiction. In my new novel, for example, if I had invented a plot line whereby the former king of England was about to be kidnapped by the Nazis, or bribed to act as Hitler’s puppet king, most readers would think it too fanciful. And yet secret documents discovered by the Americans after the war, reveal that this was exactly the case and that the plan was codenamed “Operation Willi.” 

In the episode of The Crown where the queen confronts her errant uncle about his past misdeeds and the existence of the Marburg Files, the facts were spot on, but of course it’s not always the case. When the novelist does tinker with recorded history, however, all is not lost because we writers of historical fiction have a secret weapon at our disposal. I’m talking about the author’s notes.

In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, Bernard Cornwell also recently confessed: “I do play merry hell with history at times, but I always admit to it.” To many readers historical fiction is a gateway to reading real histories and biographies. An author’s notes can be seen as a memorandum informing the reader if any historical facts have been altered and, if so, how. The notes can also signpost further reading. In my Dr Thomas Silkstone mystery series, for example, I included a glossary of archaic terms and interesting historical snippets and recommended factual books.  

One of the major problems for The Crown is that the later episodes are still relatively fresh in peoples’ memories. The same problem occurs the later the historical novel is set. You are much more likely to have readers complain if you get your facts wrong if your story is set after World War 1, for example. That’s why Simon Jenkins, again writing in the Guardian, argues that because The Crown’s latest series deals with  contemporary history and people who are still alive, its liberties with the facts are less a case of artistic license than an example of “fake news.”

The Crown’s creator, Peter Morgan, has never met Her Majesty. I have – twice. In private, she struck me as human, but aloof, although she did have an enchanting laugh when surrounded by those with whom she feels at ease. Like all writers of historical fiction, she also has to tread a fine line between believing it is her God-given mission to rule over her ‘subjects’ until her death and being a down-to-earth head of state. The creators of The Crown, in my opinion, have done a good job in distilling the essence of the constant battle between personal and public that besets the monarchy. Writers of historical fiction must do the same, but always own up when they take liberties with the facts. When ambivalence exists over whether a book deals in fact or fiction, publishers may helpfully print the words “a novel” underneath the title on the cover. Maybe in this case, something similar on the opening credits might read: The Crown, a drama.  

Beneath a Starless Sky, by Tessa Harris, is published by HQ and will be out on E-book on December 9, 2020, price $3.99 and 99p in the UK.

Beneath A Starless Sky is out in e-Book, price 99p on December 9 and in paperback and audio on February 4, 2021, price £ 8.99.

To celebrate the release of the gripping and utterly heart-breaking Beneath A Starless Sky, author Tessa Harris will be going live on HQ Stories facebook page in conversation with Mandy Robotham, the international bestselling author of The Berlin Girl, on 9th December at 3pm GMT. Don’t miss it! Set your reminder here: http://ow.ly/lnr050CBRsL

Tessa will also be talking about why historical fiction matters on 10th December. Follow this link to register

Many thanks for sharing Fact or Fiction with us, Tessa. Best wishes for Beneath a Starless Sky.

Beneath a Starless Sky by Tessa Harris

Munich 1930. Lilli Sternberg longs to be a ballet dancer. But outside the sanctuary of the theatre, her beloved city is in chaos and Munich is no longer a place for dreams.

The Nazi party are gaining power and the threats to those who deviate from the party line are increasing. Jewish families are being targeted and their businesses raided, even her father’s shop was torched because of their faith.

When Lilli meets Captain Marco Zeiller during a chance encounter, her heart soars. He is the perfect gentleman and her love for him feels like a bright hope under a bleak sky.

But battle lines are being drawn, and Marco has been spotted by the Reich as an officer with great potential. A relationship with Lilli would compromise them both.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

8 thoughts on “Fact or Fiction?”

  1. Personally, I feel very uncomfortable with bending known facts, but the point of a historical novel, to me, is to fill in, as you point out, those gaps in the record where we simply do not know what happened: there we can and I believe ought to use our imaginations to fill in the possibilities with plausible and story-uplifting invention.

  2. And, having met Her Majesty (twice! -would it be prying if I asked for details?), did you feel that she considers herself a head of state subject to her Parliament, or with the actual power to dissolve the Parliament, if needed? I thought that a constitutional monarchy these days made the monarch merely a figurehead?
    (and if you are still interested in that guest blog, I do hope to get it done in a few weeks, if that is still a match with your blog plans for the next few weeks/months or so?)
    Best,
    Shira

  3. Hi ShiraDest,
    I absolutely agree. I don’t bend the facts either, but some authors don’t seem to mind.
    As far as my meetings with the Queen go, I was the editor of a regional magazine and was twice invited to a cocktail party after the annual Windsor Horse Show, held in the grounds of Windsor Castle. As I said, the Queen is inscrutable, usually maintaining a neutral expression, although when in the presence of the horse fraternity, it’s clear that she relaxes.
    In answer to your question about the monarch’s powers, last year the Prime Minister asked the Queen to dissolve Parliament early, much to the dismay of those in favour of remaining in the EU. This quote is taken from The Guardian newspaper.
    Could the Queen have refused the privy council’s request?
    Technically, yes under the royal prerogative. But in reality it would have been extremely difficult for her to do so. Corbyn (the leader of the Opposition at the time) has written to her saying that “there was a danger that the royal prerogative is being set directly against the wishes of a majority of the House of Commons”.
    I hope this answers your question.
    Best wishes, Tessa

  4. I found the scene on the subway in Darkest Hour where Churchill (Oldman) gives an endearing speech to his fellow citizens heart-warming and so misleading. I think fiction writers/creators owe it to the gullible audience to identify the fact from the fiction. Definitely. Facts don’t always flow like Hollywood movies.

    1. Such an interesting example, Gabriele. I saw that movie – loved it – and it occurred to me that that particular scene was probably a made-for-the-big-screen moment, but there was no way to know for sure! Thanks for stopping by.

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