Fact Versus Fiction

This week I’m attending the Kauai Writers Conference to take a “master class” called “Bringing History to Life.” This entails 12 hours of classroom time led by authors Whitney Scharer and Priya Parmar, both of whom have written acclaimed historical novels. 

After introductions and getting an idea of both the breadth of historical fiction being written by the students, and our needs for the class, the discussion seemed to circle around the tension between fact and fiction in this particular corner of literature. Whitney said that invariably when she speaks to groups, someone wants to know, “How much of your book is true?” That’s a hard question to answer. My reply would be a succinct, “All of it is true. Sixty-eight percent of it is factual.”

But this question does remind us that readers like historical fiction because of the historical facts. They read to learn as well as to be entertained. They want a story underpinned by the real, though they’ll accept a certain amount of made-up stuff. But as Priya said, “History is essentially unknowable, because we weren’t there. All you can do is be true to your story and its emotional landscape.”

History is essentially unknowable.

This probably comes as a surprise to those of us who got good marks on our history exams. But from a literary standpoint, if history is unknowable except for the (probably biased and incomplete) facts that someone thought to write down, then how much is a novelist free to make up? Where is the tipping point at which the author loses credibility by going off the known track of history?

In an interview published in the BBC History Magazine in June 2017, Hilary Mantel said, “If you want to foreground real people as actors in your story, you must know as much about them as a biographer would, and then add value by taking the story where the historian and biographer can’t go: into the private aspect of the individual, the unshown and unshowable. … You are allowed to speculate, and to fill gaps, as long as you do it plausibly.”

Priya Parmar shared that for each novel, she comes up with a frame, a rubric, a code for herself to manage the mix of fact and fiction. For this book, this is how far off the track I will go in service of my characters, real and imagined. 

On a continuum that has Hilary Mantel on one end and E. L. Doctorow on the other, I fall on the Mantel end. I want to be able to point to the facts in my book, and say, “This is what we know happened. And this here? This is what could have happened because of what did happen.” 

We were asked to come up with our own code or rubric for our current project, which in my case, is The Comforter. So, here’s my line in the sand:

“My approach to the facts is to include events on the dates they happened, and use people’s words as they were quoted in newspapers and in the letters they wrote. Facts will form the bones under the personalities and behaviors I create for the people of Holy City. My fiction will fill the negative spaces between the facts.”

It was a good exercise to work through, because this is a question that bothers more experienced historical fiction writers than I. It’s almost a relief to have it worked out in my mind. To give myself permission to write what I believe could have happened, and by doing so, create an emotional landscape of living people as an overlay to the physical landscape still existing at Holy City.


November 5, 2019

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