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.

COVER REVEAL for The Rose Code by Kate Quinn

Today, I’m delighted to share the cover for The Rose Code, Kate Quinn’s newest novel – release date March 9, 2021. It has a wonderful colour scheme, an intriguing female figure – don’t you love the red dress and pearls? – and a back drop that suggests the computers used for WWII code breaking.

Kate’s novels are well known for larger-than-life characters, page-turning tension, and superb writing. Her ability to transport readers in time and place has earned her high praise from readers and reviewers. This new novel follows Kate’s highly successful novels, The Alice Network and The Huntress, and I can’t wait to read it.

The New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Huntress and The Alice Network returns with another heart-stopping World War II story of three female code breakers at Bletchley Park and the spy they must root out after the war is over.

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn ~~

1940. As England prepares to fight the Nazis, three very different women answer the call to mysterious country estate Bletchley Park, where the best minds in Britain train to break German military codes. Vivacious debutante Osla is the girl who has everything—beauty, wealth, and the dashing Prince Philip of Greece sending her roses—but she burns to prove herself as more than a society girl, and puts her fluent German to use as a translator of decoded enemy secrets. Imperious self-made Mab, product of east-end London poverty, works the legendary codebreaking machines as she conceals old wounds and looks for a socially advantageous husband. Both Osla and Mab are quick to see the potential in local village spinster Beth, whose shyness conceals a brilliant facility with puzzles, and soon Beth spreads her wings as one of the Park’s few female cryptanalysts. But war, loss, and the impossible pressure of secrecy will tear the three apart.

1947. As the royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip whips post-war Britain into a fever, three friends-turned-enemies are reunited by a mysterious encrypted letter–the key to which lies buried in the long-ago betrayal that destroyed their friendship and left one of them confined to an asylum. A mysterious traitor has emerged from the shadows of their Bletchley Park past, and now Osla, Mab, and Beth must resurrect their old alliance and crack one last code together. But each petal they remove from the rose code brings danger–and their true enemy–closer…

You can pre-order The Rose Code from a vendor of your choice at:  https://bit.ly/3k4t8o5

Add to your Goodreads list at https://bit.ly/2XBJgUD

Sign up for Kate’s newsletter at https://bit.ly/2DfrgIz

Earlier in the year, Kate Quinn was on the blog reflecting on her writing career. She had this to say on what she loves about writing historical fiction:

It’s a way to examine universal human issues through a lens of the past–and a way to make people realize that humanity has not changed, even if it dresses in different clothes and uses different language than we do in the modern era!

 

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.

When it comes to research – How much is enough?

This provocative title – for both readers and authors – comes from today’s guest, Katherine Kayne author of debut novel Bound in Flame, described as historical romantic fantasy and set in turn of the century Hawaii. [That’s the turn from 19th to the 20th century.]

Kayne writes: “Old Hawaii was ruled by chiefs and chiefesses called ali‘i. By 1810 the rule of the island chain was consolidated to one man, Kamehameha the Great, later known as King Kamehameha. Once the western notion of a monarchy took hold, Hawaii was ruled by kings, and finally one queen, for eighty years. That is until the islands became caught within the twin coils of international diplomacy and capitalism. In the late 1890s, the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown by a group of mostly American businessmen, with military backup from the United States. A kingdom was lost.”

When it comes to research – How much is enough? ~~ by Katherine Kayne

Damn. It happened. I’ve been told these things happen to all authors but still… I’ve been told that this is inevitable when you write historical but here I sit…with a note from a reviewer calling me out on a research point. And double damn, they MIGHT be right.

It’s a minor point, mind you. And the reviewer likes the book anyway. But I am still kerfluffled.

My debut book was just up for pre-order, the ARCs had been out for maybe six weeks when the note arrived. “I like your book very much and I will recommend it.” Relief floods me. Because I’ve been told that early on these things are unpredictable. Dicey even. Sometimes early reviews seem overpopulated with nasty-grams. Then I see the final sentence.

“But” followed by an explanation, polite but firm, of a research point I may have missed.

I know this happens. Sometimes the reviewer is right. More often they are off base at least a bit. Or missing a nuance. Authors possess varying levels of grace in how they handle such events. It is now my moment to determine how much grace I possess.

So here I am, new to the author game, at sixes and sevens. What to do? Yes ladies and gentlemen, I have questions. I pray that all of you have some answers.

Question #1 – How much research is enough? I admit that one of the things I love about writing historical is the thrill of the hunt. The rush of the capture of that nugget (the more obscure the better) the neatly knits up your dangling plot twist. I for one have been known to do a happy dance a la Snoopy upon such discovery. Who hasn’t?

But there is a problem with research. The act itself is without a doubt a most pleasurable distraction from actually writing the book. And provides a comfortable dodge when loved ones ask how the book is going. “I’m still doing the research.

So how do you know when to stop?

Question #2 – How much do you document? One thing I have learned is that there is research and then there is RESEARCH. For me the capitalized variety are the ones I document. Up to this point they have been the things upon which the plot turns or that I think might be questioned or that I know I will never find again. But Is that enough?

Here again I find that there is a time and distraction problem. How to document? Note cards or Scrivener? File folders or Evernote? I unfortunately have never met an office supply I did not like. Or an app. So the research for this current book spans multiple media.

And still, even though I am CONVINCED that the point made by this reviewer is invalid, I can’t prove it if I can’t find the damn thing in the book/app/clipping/folder where it is hiding.

What do you document? And where?

Question #3 – Do you even respond to these things? I follow lots of authors I admire on social media. That means over time I have witnessed a variety of responses to reviews. They range from just ignoring the commentary to responding with detailed citations.

Fortunately this comment came to me in a personal note so responding will be easy. But what if it had been in the body of a review? My author friends with multiple books tell me two things. First, never read your reviews (easier said than done). Then never respond to them (hide my keyboard). My friends tell me readers find it creepy if authors respond. That reviewers have their own community and authors should not intrude.

So how do you defend a research point? Or do you just get over yourself and let it go?

Unfortunately, getting over myself is not my strong suit.

Let me just say this. I have learned enough to know that I am grateful for each and every review I get, even negative ones. The last thing I set out to do was write a bland book. Who does? So every time a reader cares enough to take the time to write a review of the book it’s a win.

But still, my researcher’s heart wants to jump in when it comes to the history. What about you? What do you think? I look forward to any comments you might have.

Many thanks, Katherine. I hope many readers and authors who follow this blog will chime in with their thoughts.

Bound in Flame by Katherine Kayne ~~ Letty Lang is a suffragist of the most fearless kind, with a bullwhip, big plans, and ancient power she doesn’t understand. Will a fast horse and a stubborn man derail her dreams?

Banished to boarding school to tame her wild temper, Leticia Lili‘uokalani Lang sails home to Hawaii, bringing her devotion to animals with her. She’ll be among the first female veterinarians in history—most remarkable in 1909 when women still cannot vote.

With one mad leap into the ocean to save a horse, Letty sets another destiny in motion. She is a mākāhā, a Gate to the healing fires of the land, her beloved ‘aina. Letty must fight to harness the ancient power that lives within her, fueled by her connection to the islands. But the price of power is steep. Her inner flame burns hot—hot enough that her kisses can actually kill, a precarious inconvenience since the horse’s owner, Timothy Rowley, lights another kind of fire.

Can Letty learn to master her power to have a chance at life and love? Or is the danger of the flame too great?

FOR MORE 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.