“The historian serves the truth of his subject. The novelist serves the truth of his tale.”

Nicola Griffith blogged yesterday about the historical novel she’s writing and different approaches to writing historical fiction:

There’s the hey, anything goes, just use the period as window dressing around a fab story camp, and there’s the never, ever, don’t evereverever, contravene what is known to be known people. (There’s an article in MACLEANS.CA that lays this out by illustrating the difference between the attitudes of Hilary Mantel and Kate Pullinger.)

Here’s an even more interesting piece from Magistra et Mater: an historian explains why she no longer reads historical fiction.

Me? Well, I love getting things right. I’ve done a lot of research on Hild and her time (some casual, some deep and complex). But I’m a novelist; I also occasionally can’t resist just fucking with things. Sometimes, though, it seems I fuck with things in just the right way–and those are fabulous moments when I know I’m really beginning to get a feel for the period. (At least in some senses.)

This seemed like a good opportunity to mention some related issues I’ve talked about in my classes on creative research for writers:

  • The research process is completely different for each writer and project. Some authors do the minimum necessary and fake the rest, others completely immerse themselves or become experts on their subject or period. There isn’t a right or wrong way–you have to figure out what works for you.
  • Think carefully about what you really need to know, why you need to know it, and what you can just make up. What degree of accuracy and authenticity are you trying to achieve? What can or should you fictionalize?
  • Decide what game you’re playing. Make conscious choices about straying from history or reality when it serves your story and your characters, but understand that some readers and critics will be unhappy about it.

John Scalzi touched on this in his recent blog post about science fiction worldbuilding. For him it’s about plausibility, keeping “the audience engaged all the way through the work without once saying, ‘now, wait just a minute…'”:

Other worldbuilders will have to answer this one when talking about their own works, but as for me, in general, I try to build my worlds at least two questions deep — that is, you make your creations robust enough to stand up to a general question and then a more specific followup question….

And for about 90% of your readers, that’s going to be sufficient rationale. For about 10% of your readers, it won’t be, but at some point, and simply as a practical matter, you realize that some folks aren’t going to be happy with your worldbuilding no matter how far you drill down, and that you can just sort of accept that as the cost of doing business in a geek-rich field like science fiction. To a very real extent, what you’re aiming for is sufficiency, not completeness.

Here are a few other links about writing historical fiction:

An interesting August 2009 BBC radio broadcast in which “Mark Lawson examines the differences between factual and fictional writers of history and between academics and populists in the telling of stories from our heritage. Writers Antonia Fraser, Margaret MacMillan, Philippa Gregory, Hilary Mantel, Sarah Dunant and Tristram Hunt join Mark to discuss the best ways of exploring the past.”

Susan Vreeland’s thoughts on writing historical fiction.

A 1998 essay by Anne Scott MacLeod, “Writing Backward: Modern Models in Historical Fiction,” about revisionism in historical novels for children:

But people of the past were not just us in odd clothing. They were people who saw the world differently; approached human relationships differently; people for whom night and day, heat and cold, seasons and work and play had meanings lost to an industrialized world. Even if human nature is much the same over time, human experience, perhaps especially everyday experience, is not. To wash these differences out of historical fictions is not only a denial of historical truth, but a failure of imagination and understanding that is as important to the present as to the past.

And on a lighter note, there’s History-Spork, a very funny blog in which historians review Hollywood movies.

By the way, the title of this post comes from a quotation attributed to historical novelist William Martin:

The historian serves the truth of his subject. The novelist serves the truth of his tale. As a novelist, I have tools no historian should touch: I can manipulate time and space, extrapolate from the written record to invent dialogue and incident, create fictional characters to bring you close to the historical figures, and fall back on my imagination when the research runs out.

Does anyone happen to know the original source of this quotation?

Update, 11/13: I emailed William Martin directly to ask about this quote, and he says it is indeed his, and it appears in the February 2000 issue of The Writer magazine. Thanks to the Seattle Public Library’s electronic databases, I was able to find his essay, which is titled “First-Person Narrators in Historical Fiction.”

2 responses to ““The historian serves the truth of his subject. The novelist serves the truth of his tale.”

  1. Pingback: Sterling Editing » Written on the internet

  2. I am so glad I found this post. When I read historical fiction, I always hope that much of what I am reading is built upon solid research. I guess that’s because I’m a bit greedy and like to feel I’m getting an education in history along with an entertaining story.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s