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.

Have passport – will do research

Kathryn Brewster Haueisen combines a degree in journalism and a career as a pastor to write about “good people doing great things for our global village.” [Love that sentiment.] She’s a descendant of two of the Mayflower passengers and a grandmother to three young people with Native American heritage. When I learned that she’d written about the Mayflower journey and what happened when the English met the Pokanoket people, I just had to invite her onto the blog. Over to you, Kathryn.

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Since Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale of Two Cultures was my first attempt at writing historical fiction, I attended a few workshops to hone my skills. One presenter emphasized repeatedly how crucial it is to visit the places we write about. I was researching the background of the story before COVID-19 became a dreaded reality. I love to travel, especially to England, where the Mayflower journey began for the English culture. As I learned along the way, the Pokanoket people were the other culture.

In 2017 I visited many of the popular London tourist sites and then inserted a bit of tour guide trivia into a scene set in London. I also ventured north to the village of Scrooby, located about 50 miles south of York, along the old North Road that connected London and Edinburgh. This is where the Mayflower story had its roots. At least that is where the story started for William and Mary Brewster, two of the central figures in my retelling of the religious and political events that serve as backdrop for the famous voyage.

I am twelve generations removed from this couple. Before becoming the spiritual leader of the Pilgrims, Elder Brewster served as bailiff at Scrooby Manor. Not much of the grand old manor remains today, but in the 1500s, it was a thriving stop over for royal messengers and high-ranking officials traveling between London and Edinburgh. The Bishop of York, who owned the estate, played a role in the Mayflower story. 

There is little to see in Scrooby today, but the church where William and Mary married in 1591 is in good condition, still in use, and only a few yards across the lawn from the remnant of the manor. Walking around the church yard and village gave me a sense of what it might have been like for my ancestors to take their afternoon strolls.

I didn’t expect to ever get to Leiden, where the Brewster’s and several dozen other Separatists lived as refugees from 1608 until they sailed in 1620. They left England to escape almost certain imprisonment and perhaps execution as religious heretics. They joined other English refugees in Amsterdam for a year; then moved down the road to Leiden in 1608. However, in 2018 my husband wanted to sail on a genealogy research cruise from England to New York. I eagerly agreed, as long as we built in time to also see Cambridge and Leiden. 

William studied briefly at Peterhouse, part of Cambridge University. Though I couldn’t go inside Peterhouse where he lived and studied, I wandered around the grounds and took a tour of the Cambridge University system. What I learned on that tour helped immensely in writing about that part of William’s life.  

I fell in love with Leiden. Many details in the completed manuscript are the result of an afternoon I spent at the American Pilgrim Museum, run by renowned historian and Pilgrim expert, Dr. Jeremy Bangs. I walked the same places the Pilgrims did. I was astonished to discover a plaque over an archway of an alley named after William Brewster. The plaque states this was the site of the Brewster home and William’s printing business. He got in trouble with the authorities for publishing anti-Established Church of England documents and smuggling them back into England. Strolling around the University of Leiden, I envisioned William, and his dear friend Pastor John Robinson, walking there and perhaps discussing their plans to establish a new religious colony. 

My goal in writing this book was to include the perspective of the Natives who encountered the new English settlers wandering around the shore of Cape Cod after they arrived in November. To research that part of the story I visited Plimouth Plantation in Massachusetts. The living museum recently changed its to Plimouth * Patuxet, to honor the Native name for the place we know today as Plymouth. After spending a day wandering through the museum and both the English and Wampanoag villages, I had an eye-opening interview with the head of the Native village. 

Before I signed off on the final manuscript, I told Green Writers Press Publisher Dede Cummings we needed another Native to review it. I’d already spoken with several Natives, and paid a Native sensitivity editor to review portions of the book; but no one from the Native community had actually seen the entire manuscript. 

A friend in Rhode Island put me in touch with three generations of descendants from the great Pokanoket leader – Massasoit Ousa Mequin. They corrected some of my misinformation and filled in gaps in my research. They then wrote the forward to the book. Of all the places I visited, and all the backstory I learned along the way, meeting this family remains the highlight of the entire endeavor. We are convinced our ancestors knew one another and worked together to ensure the safety and wellbeing of both cultures

Today, we, their descendants, share this same philosophy. In the forward they wrote, “We truly believe that this book has been written in good faith and in holding to the renewing a dream that our ancestors aspired to, that both our people can prosper in this land in peace and fellowship.” Aquene (Peace), Sagamore Po Wauipi Neimpaug, Sachem Po Pummukoank Anogqs, and Tribal Historian Po Menuhkesu Menenok.

That workshop presenter was right. The best way to write authentically about history is to first visit places where it happened and speak with people who live there today.  

Many thanks, Kathryn. I’m sure many readers will be fascinated with your novel.

Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale of Two Cultures by Kathryn Brewster Haueisen ~~ For thousands of years two distinct cultures evolved unaware of one another’s existence. Separated by what one culture called the Great Sea and known to the other as the Atlantic Ocean, the course of each culture’s future changed irreversibly four hundred years ago. In 1620 the Mayflower delivered 102 refugees and fortune seekers from England to Cape Cod, where these two cultures first encountered one another.  The English sought religious freedom and fresh financial opportunities. The Natives were recovering from the Great Dying of the past several years that left over two-thirds of their people in graves. How would they react to one another? How might their experience shape modern cross-cultural encounters?

The book is available now wherever books are sold, including www.bookshop.orgwww.amazon.com, and the distributor, http://www.ipgbook.com  .

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.

The Appeal of Historical Anthologies

Today, I welcome friend and fellow author Cryssa Bazos to the blog. Cryssa and a wonderful group of authors have collaborated on Betrayal, which has just been released. Make sure you snap up your copy soon – it’s a free download available through Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and Apple Books.

Here’s Cryssa to talk about the wide appeal of historical anthologies.

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Since its beginning, the anthology was used to showcase poetry collections, but over time it expanded to include short fiction. There has been a recent resurgence of anthologies that has followed a trend towards shorter fiction. With social media permeating every aspect of our lives and a general explosion of streaming and online binging, our attention span has understandably shortened. Anthologies are now experiencing a renaissance, thanks to the changing needs of readers. But can they appeal to historical fiction readers?

Size once mattered for historical fiction. It was accepted that it usually took a great many words to build the past credibly. There are histories to weave in, contexts to set, and details of everyday life to showcase. Fans of the genre generally favoured large, plummy tomes, where they can lose themselves for days without surfacing in the present world. Consider favourites like Sara Donati’s Into the Wilderness series, or any of Sharon Kay Penman’s work. 

But a collection of historical short fiction can still offer a rich experience. Here are a few considerations to tempt the historical fiction reader to explore the genre through an anthology. 

1. Bite-sized stories

Computers and the internet were supposed to make our lives easier and more efficient, but there is so much more vying for our attention. Not everyone has time to read more than an hour here or there, in between appointments and meetings. This is where historical anthologies shine. They offer a taste of the past which can be consumed in one sitting. A reader doesn’t need to make a lengthy commitment as they would to a series or a nine-hundred page novel.

2. Variety

The anthology has the advantage of being able to bring different authors together in one collection. Stories may be connected by theme, as in the case of our new anthology Betrayal where the stories explore treachery and betrayal in its various forms. Stories may also be linked by a historical artefact, like a piece of jewelry, that moves through each story and touches the various characters through the ages. A collection may also explore a single historical event through differing perspectives. Regardless of how the collection is organized, the reader is given an opportunity to thoroughly explore history through various lenses. 

3. Discover a new author

Everyone has their favourite authors, the ones whose work they will auto-buy the moment they learn of a latest release. Sometimes it’s hard to take a chance on a new author particularly for an established series. Anthologies give the reader the opportunity to find a new author with bite sized stories. At times the work can link to an author’s series, but even if it doesn’t, the author’s style may speak to the reader and spark an interest in their work. 

4. Discover a new era

It’s easy to get rooted to our preferred reading, and anthologies offer an excellent way to test the waters of a new historical era. It’s great way to travel back to a different time and learn more about histories you would otherwise not explore.

Historical anthologies may be short fiction in a genre that prizes lengthy stories, but they are hardly lightweights. Instead, they are highly concentrated nuggets to savour and enjoy. There’s no better time than the present to expand your reading and dip into an anthology collection. You may discover a portal to another era, guided by a fresh new author. 

Cryssa Bazos is an award-winning historical fiction author and a seventeenth century enthusiast. Her debut novel, Traitor’s Knot is the Medalist winner of the 2017 New Apple Award for Historical Fiction and a finalist for the 2018 EPIC eBook Awards for Historical Romance. Her second novel, Severed Knot, is a B.R.A.G Medallion Honoree and a finalist for the 2019 Chaucer Award. Visit her website for more information. 

About Betrayal

Betrayal, treachery, treason, deceit, perfidy—all names for the calculated violation of trust. And it’s been rife since humans trod the earth.

A promise broken

A mission betrayed

A lover’s desertion

A parent’s deception

An unwitting act of treason

Betrayal by comrades

Betrayal by friends

Could you resist the forces of misplaced loyalty, power hunger, emotional blackmail, or plain greed? Is there ever redemption, or will the destruction visit future generations and even alter history? These questions are still with us today.

Read twelve tales by twelve accomplished writers who explore these historical yet timeless challenges from post Roman Britain to the present day. 

Betrayal is a free download available through Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and Apple Books. 

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.