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.

Character, a deeper dive Part 2

Whether your novel is set in World War II or Ancient Rome, historical events take on significance when we know the people involved with and affected by them. Tuesday’s post and this post are not about crafting compelling characters – I make no claim to being a master of the writing craft. Rather, these posts are my attempt to illustrate what’s different and unique about creating historical characters.

As one reader survey participant said:

What stands out for me in this comment: shared humanity, appropriate to their period, and resonates down the centuries.

Combine that with Elizabeth George’s comment about compelling characters.

My takeaway is that authors need to explore a character’s conflicts, miseries, unhappiness and confusion in ways that are true to their historical time period while still resonating with today’s readers.

How does an author reveal character? Through dialogue, events of the character’s past, through actions taken or not taken, through the opinions of others, through personality quirks and telling details. Even names can be revealing. Beyond these aspects, a character is what s/he wears, what they collection, what they read, the relationships they have, the possessions they collect or covet, how they spend their time and so on.

Furthermore, we can reveal character through what George calls the ‘external landscape of the person’ – looks, dress, home, vehicle, possessions, physicality. And through the ‘internal landscape of a person’: emotions, psyche, soul, wants, needs, reflections, speculations, obsessions, monologues,  strengths and weaknesses. Similarly, the voice of a character is shaped by their education, position in society, personal and family history, prejudices, biases, inclinations, desires, belief system, purpose, and goals.

To be historically believable, a character’s external and internal landscape as well as their voice have to reflect their time period.

Let’s return to Elizabeth George’s character prompt sheet – not because an author must have all these details sorted out before beginning to write, but in order to appreciate how history has a bearing on creating authentic characters.

Political leaning – what were the politics of the day? How would a character’s position in society reflect those politics? Would a character be at odds with his/her family’s prevailing political stance?

Hobbies – no point choosing tennis as a hobby, if tennis hadn’t yet been invented. Perhaps a 19th century man might take up photography because it was newly invented? If reading is a hobby, the character in question must have been in a position to be educated enough to read. And so on.

What s/he does when alone – long hikes in the woods might be a forbidden activity for a woman whose maid always attends her. Defying that code of behaviour reveals more about a character than it might in another station in life or another time period.

Significant event that molded the character – here is another opportunity to reflect the historical period. Did Pompeii erupt when your character was a small child? Was the character’s father killed when the Japanese invaded China in 1937? Did the character’s mother abandon him on the church doorstep during the Spanish flu?

Significant event that illustrates the character’s personality – this too is an ideal opportunity to reveal character and history.

What other details about a character can reflect the historical time period? A few suggestions:

  • the kind of person s/he strives to be
  • lies and pretences
  • career/job
  • where s/he grew up and where s/he lives now
  • social circle
  • style of clothing
  • grievances both general and specific
  • what s/he does when thwarted or treated unjustly
  • what s/he excels at, his/her accomplishments
  • perceived flaws
  • habits and quirks
  • secrets
  • fears
  • social, political, moral and philosophical issues the character feels are important
  • taste in books, music, art, theatre
  • possessions
  • leisure activities
  • sources of happiness

I’m sure you can add more to the list! I’ll leave you with one more quote:And if, as Hemingway said, we’re creating people, we have to bring to life the times during which they lived.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION. FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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 Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

 

Character in Historical Fiction – a deeper dive

We’ve had two posts about character in historical fiction: The Character-Driven Story (a contribution from Mary F. Burns) and Character – the historical fiction variety. Today, I’m going to further explore character – one of the seven elements of historical fiction – using author Elizabeth George’s character prompt sheet.

In Write Away, Elizabeth George provides the topics she covers in her prompt sheet. A caveat here based on comments received: I’m not advocating this particular prompt sheet, nor am I advocating planning your characters in advance like Elizabeth does. I’m more seat-of-the-pants in terms of my characters. What I am trying to illustrate is the aspects authors can explore to add authenticity to HF characters.

 

It seems to me that many items on Elizabeth’s prompt sheet offer the opportunity for a writer to bring a historical perspective.

Name – what names were popular in the middle ages or the early twentieth century? Of course, location is also a factor.

Height/Weight/Build – these could reflect nutrition of the time as well as social norms. Curviness in a woman might be considered highly attractive in some time periods, so a thin woman might feel unattractive.

Educational background – what were the prevailing norms for education in the historical period of the time? Were girls educated? Were boys expected to leave school at a young age to help support the family? Was an educated woman considered unattractive? Dangerous? Who taught the children? Were boys sent away to school? Were working class children uneducated? Were religious institutions involved in education? Were activists calling for public education?

Sexuality – no doubt there are books written about this! Or PhD theses. Sexual norms could have a critical impact on a character’s behaviour, so it’s important to understand what they were and then choose how they affected your character.

Family – family size, family structure, sibling relationships, family values and expectations all have a historical element. These can feature in a character’s back story, motivations, damaging incidents and so on.

Core need – the single need at the core of who a character is. “We’re born with them and during our lifetimes, we mold most of our behaviour to meet our core need. This is something essential to a person, an automatic striving within him that, when denied, results in whatever constitutes his psychopathology.” — Write Away by Elizabeth George

Some core needs are universal and irrespective of time period. The need to be loved, for example, or the need for a father’s approval. The desire for competence. Others may be influenced by time period or historical events shaping a particular era.

Ambition in life – clearly this needs to reflect historical times rather than modern day times. And similarly take into account a character’s station in life. An 18th century woman would not yearn to be CEO of a major corporation. It’s unlikely that a 12th century peasant would yearn to command an army.

Gait – at first I thought that the way a character walks would not be influenced by history. But what about a geisha? Or the young Queen Victoria who was disciplined to walk in a composed, stately manner even as a child?

Laughs or jeers at – while some of these choices for characters can be universal, others would reflect the historical time period. Men during Oliver Cromwell’s time would laugh at different things or people than men of the early twentieth century.

Philosophy – we can think of this as the guiding principles a character lives by. It defines who we are and what we stand for. One’s philosophy often reflects upbringing, religion, societal values and these, in turn, reflect the times.

All of these and more help transport readers in time and place. In a subsequent post, I’ll look at the rest of the prompt sheet plus some additional items to consider.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION. FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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 Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.