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.


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.


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 Path to Story

There are many ways that a story comes about. Author Kieran Donaghue relates the imagined intersections of the Church, family and personal histories that became his novel German Lessons.

Church History

While Germany is the home of the Protestant Reformation, a substantial proportion of the German population has since the time of Martin Luther remained adherents of the Church of Rome. At the time of the rise of National Socialism in the 1930s, almost one third of the German population was Roman Catholic. The Catholic Church therefore had a vital and direct interest in National Socialist Germany.

In the minds of many historians, the Church egregiously failed the test which National Socialism represented. The most common focus of criticism is the purportedly weak response of Eugenio Pacelli (Pope Pius XII) to the systematic murder of European Jews during the Second World War. Defenders of Pacelli point to evidence of hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives saved through the Church’s actions, but critics maintain that he could and should have done much more to prevent the Holocaust. The current Pope has reacted to the ongoing controversy by announcing that the Vatican Archives on the Pontificate of Pius XII will be opened on 2 March 2020, eight years ahead of schedule.

The Vatican’s response to the Holocaust understandably stands at the centre of the criticism of its stance towards National Socialism. But the Church’s actions leading up to and immediately following the Nazis’ accession to power in 1933 are also of significant interest. It is this early period of Church-Nazi relations that forms the historical background to German Lessons.

Prior to March 1933 the Catholic Church was a vigorous opponent of National Socialism. Hitler feared this opposition, and once in office made overcoming it one of his highest priorities. He raised the prospect of a concordat (a legal agreement specifying the rights of the Church in Germany), something he knew the Vatican was keen to achieve. In return Hitler sought a withdrawal of Catholic opposition to his regime, from both the Catholic political parties (the Centre Party and the Bavarian People’s Party) and the Church hierarchy. 

The Nazis were strikingly successful in defusing Catholic opposition. On 23 March 1933 the votes of the Catholic political parties were crucial in passing the Enabling Act, which empowered Hitler to govern for the following four years without recourse to parliament. On 29 March 1933 the German bishops published a statement formally withdrawing their opposition to National Socialism, paving the way for Germany’s Catholics to support the new regime with a ‘clear conscience’. A concordat between the Vatican and the German Reich was signed on 20 July and ratified on 10 September 1933.

A large proportion of Germany’s Catholics reacted with relief to the Church’s accommodating position on National Socialism, willingly embracing the ‘new Germany’. But many Catholics reacted with dismay, unable to reconcile the Church’s teaching on faith and morals with the words and deeds of the Nazis.

The history sketched here is largely settled, although there remains some debate about how central the prospect of a concordat was in influencing the Church to moderate its opposition to the Nazis. German Lessonsdoes not take a position on this question. Its task is rather to depict how a small number of ordinary Catholics, German and foreign, laypeople and clergy, perceived and responded to the events that were to have such disastrous consequences for Germany and for the world.

Family history

As a young man in the 1930s my father studied to be a priest. He went straight from school to the seminary, first in Australia and then to Genoa in Italy. He returned home in the mid-1930s and rejoined life outside the seminary.

In Genoa one of my father’s fellow seminarians was a German, Ludwig Lohmer. Ludwig had difficulties with Italian. He taught my father some German, and they became firm friends.

When I started to learn German in high school my father told me a little about Ludwig. He said that they had lost contact, but he was planning a trip to Europe and would try to locate his old friend. But my father died before be could make this trip.

After my mother’s death several years later I found among her papers two letters written in German and addressed to my father. One of the letters was from Ludwig; four pages of closely written but quite legible handwriting. The letter describes his life since his ordination to the priesthood in 1937: a difficult period in the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland before the war, an easier period (primarily due to the lack of language difficulties) in eastern Germany during the war, flight from the Soviet army in 1945, and a fulfilling if demanding job as a priest ministering to displaced German Catholics in south Germany after the war. Ludwig thanked my father for a care package already received, but stressed the difficult material conditions he continued to face two and a half years after the war (‘our ration cards give us too little to live and too much to die’). He respectfully asked if my father or other ‘good Australian Catholics’ could provide additional help.

The second letter was from a woman who worked for the Catholic charity Caritas in Stuttgart. She had also received a care package from my father, and thanked him in moving terms for his thoughtfulness. She also gave details of her life: the death of her father in the First World War, the loss of her mother in the interwar years, and the death of her last remaining family member, a brother, in an air raid in the last days of the Second World War. She thanked my father for ‘building a bridge’ to a defeated country and its despised people.

It was through Caritas that my father and Ludwig Lohmer resumed contact after the war.

In German Lessons I make use of the relationship between my father and Ludwig to establish the fictional rationale for the protagonist’s (Frank Hannaford’s) trip from Australia to Germany and to help establish the social context of Frank’s life in Germany. But beyond this there is no relationship between the fictional Father Klein, particularly his relationship to National Socialism, and any information available to me about Father Lohmer.

Many thanks for sharing the story behind the story, Kieran. I wish you great success with German Lessons.

German Lessons by Kieran Donaghue ~~ A novel in which the events take place during the period Autumn 1932 – Spring 1933. Frank Hannaford, a young Australian from a sheltered Catholic background, is searching for a deeper version of himself in 1930s Germany. At the university and in an organisation of young Catholic men he finds friendship and a new confidence in his own resources. A German identity begins to form, surprising and delighting him. But he also struggles with the unexpected possibilities of love, and with political events and commitments he does not fully understand. The Nazis come to power, previously strong opposition from the Catholic Church evaporates, and Frank is left floundering, at odds both with himself and with the young woman whose friendship he most values.


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.