Facts or Fiction?

A couple of days ago, fellow author Paul Genesse sent me a nice long e-mail

Two Takes on History

discussing his reactions to my novel The Buried Pyramid.  He complimented me for my use of Egyptian material, both historical and mythological, noting that although he is an avowed “Egyptophile” I had included some elements he had never seen used in that fashion before.

Well, of course, I was tickled.  Additionally, Paul’s comments got me thinking about writing historical fiction. I specifically found myself wondering if there is a point when too much accuracy gets in the way of the story?

When I was writing The Buried Pyramid, I researched my material on several levels.  My novel is set in the late 1870’s, so first I needed to make myself familiar with that time period.  I’ll just give one example of the complexities.

When looking into what type of clothing my characters would be wearing, I learned that this was a period of transition in women’s fashions.  Unlike today, older generations often held on to the styles of their “day,” while the younger people were more adventurous.  Therefore, I needed to be familiar with both older and cutting edge fashions.

I remember my copy editor querying me about the point where Jenny goes to the bazaar wearing a “daring” ankle-length gown.  The copy editor asked if I meant something shorter.  However, at the time in which my novel was set, especially for a young lady of good reputation, an ankle-length skirt was very, very daring – just like Jenny herself.

The Buried Pyramid offered me challenges far beyond fashion.  Most of the book is set in the 1870’s.  However, there’s a point where events get very, very weird.  For that section, I needed the most up-to-date information available about ancient Egypt.  Therefore, I had to divide my Egypt research into two parts.  One was for the Egypt – both ancient and “modern” – that my characters would know.  The other was for an ancient Egypt as close “real” as I could get.

Happily, I have a friend who shares my enthusiasm for matters of Egyptian history.  He loaned me armloads of books, including travel journals written by people who were in Egypt at the same time my characters were.  I had a wonderful time immersing myself in the material.  I even learned some elementary hieroglyphs and their varied meanings.  Fun!

One problem with about writing historical fiction is that some historical realities are distinctly unpleasant.  Here I’m not talking about the things everyone brings up, like body odor or the prevalence of disease.  I’m talking about social attitudes.

Here, I think, is one of the places where an author risks alienating readers.

One of my favorite examples of this problem is illustrated by the attitude shown towards two specific social customs in two popular Roman mystery series: the “Novels of Ancient Rome” written by Steven Saylor and the “SPQR” mysteries written by John Maddox Roberts.  These books are both set near the fall of the Roman Republic.  In a couple of cases, the action even centers around the same events.  However, in my opinion, Roberts does a far better job of getting into the mind set of a Roman of that time period.

Saylor’s main character is uncomfortable with slavery.  He frees a slave and – if I recall correctly – even marries her.  He’s basically a twentieth century American in a toga.

Roberts’ main character, Decius, is completely comfortable with slavery.  He keeps slaves and is unsentimental about them.  When Decius sets up housekeeping on his own, his family gives him a couple of elderly retainers, much as today parents might give their kids the old furniture from the storage unit.  Decius is happy to have these slaves – even if he wishes he could have younger slaves, and, especially, slaves who hadn’t known him from the time he was a child and so feel free to nag.

Admittedly, Decius is something of an eccentric.  He actually cares “who dunnit” and why, whereas his family is mostly interested in what political advantage can be gained from murders and other scandalous events.  However, except for this, he is very much a man of his time.

Decius is young and lusty, quite capable (especially in the earlier books) of getting into affairs that aren’t exactly wise.  However, when the time comes for him to marry, Decius is not led by either his heart or his desires.  He knows that for a Roman marriage is a means of social advancement and of cementing ties for his family with other families.  He’s lucky that one girl among those who are suggested as suitable – the niece of a rising politician named Gaius Julius Caesar – is also quite to his liking.

No marriages to slaves for him!

Later on in the series, Decius does free his body slave, a young man named Hermes, but not out of any sentiment that slavery is wrong or that Hermes “deserves” to be free.  Decius simply decides that it would be advantageous to him to have Hermes be able to function as a freedman, since slaves were barred from certain areas.

Demonstrating the responsibility of Roman slaveholder to house slave, Decius waits until the somewhat impulsive young Hermes is ready for the responsibility of freedom.  He also comforts himself with the awareness that legally Hermes will remain his client, bound to him within the complex rules that govern client-patron relationship.  Thus, Decius will not lose a valuable associate, nor will Hermes be out of a job.

I guess you can tell that I prefer Roberts’ more historical approach, but the success of Saylor’s series (and that of Lindsay Davis, set somewhat later in Roman history) shows that there are plenty of readers who think otherwise.

I want to take a further look at dealing with unpleasant social realities, but first I’m going to let you get a word in edgewise!  How historical do you need a historical novel to be for you to enjoy it?  When does history get in the way of fun?


10 Responses to “Facts or Fiction?”

  1. Alan Robson Says:

    Oh – how long is this essay allowed to be? You’re pushing my buttons again (you do it so well…)

    I really don’t like historical novels where the viewpoint character is my next door neighbour in period costume. I’d much rather the characters are true to their time, uncomfortable though that may make me feel when filtered through today’s political correctness attitudes. So to that end I can thoroughly enjoy (say) Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels and appreciate their philosophical approach to problems that (say) Horatio Hornblower might well have brought a twentieth century bias to. To that end, O’Brian’s novels have an artistic integrity that Forrester’s do not. Which, paradoxically, doesn’t mean that I don’t like the Hornblower novels — I love them! But they are modern novels in historical skins.

    The problem is how do you bring a foreign society alive (SF writers face this problem all the time and that might be the reason why many SF fans are also historical fiction fans, the genres have so much in common). My very favourite historical novelist is Henry Rider Haggard. He does ancient Egypt so well — he was my first introduction to the Egyptian myths and I have yet to find anyone who does the history better. Sorry Jane — I really loved “The Buried Pyramid”. But I loved Haggard’s “Cleopatra” more.

    It’s a modern phenomenon — Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson (unreadable though they are to modern eyes and ears) never made that mistake. Their characters are products of their times, not of their author’s times. Even Dickens managed to restrain his nineteenth century exuberance when he wrote “A Tale Of Two Cities”.

    Elizabeth Peters is a more modern hybrid case in point (though I see so many Haggard references in her books that I almost feel *obliged* to love her stuff). She manages her historical periods very successfully. Her archeological mysteries are enormous fun but they have a historical integrity that gives them a curiously compelling attractiveness — her books reinforce the points that you make so cogently.

    Oh heavens above — I’m rambling. I’m pretty sure that you and I are of one mind on this. Historical integrity is much more important than modern biases.

    And thank you for introducing me to the SPQR novels. I’ve loved every one that I’ve read.


  2. Dominique Says:

    At the risk of sounding indecisive, I feel like both types of historical fiction can make for a good read. I mean certainly the historically accurate version will be considered more literary, but I think a good story and plot that takes place in an exciting historical environment is always worth reading (even if the author takes some liberties).

  3. Peter Says:

    “How historical do you need a historical novel to be for you to enjoy it?”

    For me, if it’s not attempting to get the historical mindset right (to the best of our understanding of it, anyway) it’s got no business calling itself a historical novel (granted, I can see “contemporary novel tarted up in faux-historical drag” being a bit long for use as a marketing tag.)

    There’s an interesting bit of recursion that arises when you have a historical-within-a-historical and are faced with not just getting across the period the book’s set in, but that period’s understanding of an earlier era – certainly people in (picking an example not at all at random) 1870 had a different understanding of classical Egypt than we do today – which raises the horns of a dilemma. Do you model the historical^2 period on the protagonist’s understanding or the modern one?

  4. heteromeles Says:

    I’d say it does depend. Most of us relate to the Pharaohs, and I think most people of my generation certainly remember that when they made mummies, they pulled the brains out through their nostrils (comedians have even made a joke out of this). Because of this, I think most of us can relate to the pharaohs. We saw them as kids. While I won’t say this is easy, I do think it’s doable, because most readers have some basic familiarity. For example, Roberts could use SPQR in the title, and most of us know that the novel is about Rome.

    But could you write a novel about being a farmer in the Nile delta? Or a slave in Rome? Or a tin trader in one of the bronze age Egyptian dynasties, especially if that trader travelled to Crete? That’s where things might get much more difficult.

    The other, big difficulty is that there’s a huge amount of history out there that we don’t know. Putting it into a novel without lecturing is an interesting challenge.

    One example I’m working on right now is the period when Korea was colonized by Japan. My bet is that most people reading this probably don’t know when this happened (1905-1945), but it’s an amazing bit of history. The Koreans went from a stagnating, corrupt, ultra-confucianist Hermit Kingdom (North Korea’s isolationism is *not* a new policy), to being dropped into the blender of industrial age imperialism when Japan decided to colonize it (this would be akin to the US annexing Mexico), to being arbitrarily partitioned by the US at the onset of the Cold War (the current border cuts across two provinces that had been in place for centuries), to the whole mess of the Korean War, and the totally unexpected industrialization of rural, backward, rebellious South Korea in the last 40 years–following the Japanese model. I’ll admit I didn’t know any of this either, six months ago.

    But how much to put in a novel without turning the thing into a textbook? I was playing with the idea of how a Taoist hermit from the Korean mountains could end up in the US, and now it looks like said hermit might well have been helping Kim Il Sung’s guerrilla band infiltrate from Soviet Russia back in the early 1930s.

    I’m pulling this out as an example of history we don’t know, and I really respect the authors who manage to bring this kind of history to life in a novel.

  5. Sally Says:

    While I may enjoy an historical novel that is a modern novel in drag, the ones that really knock my socks off are the ones that take me to another time, one that I can believe in. Anything that smells off may send me away to do a bit of research–was a word that caught my notice really in use at that time period?–which takes me out of the story.

    Story is what a novel is about. If you are going against known historical fact (and there’s nothing inherently wrong with this) you have to work that much harder to make things plausible. If you break the rules it seems to me you need to do a damn good job of it.

    Or you can just tell the story that occurs to you, without doing the underlying research. It just won’t be as well grounded.

    On the other hand, as Daniel Abraham once said in a critique, “History is no excuse.” Again, story is what a novel is all about. If historical detail doesn’t serve the story, leave it out (something I have to fight with myself about at times).

  6. Paul Says:

    Earlier, I might have said I could tolerate a historical with modern characters in costume. In fact, I have enjoyed some. But I just this week finished a popular contemporary novel with a plot point involving translations of writings by a woman in ancient Egypt. The “translation” used modern expressions that, for me, just ruined my suspension of disbelief. To Alan’s point about SF, I’ve had some novels similarly ruined for me when characters in the far future use terms in vogue right now. With all this said, I guess I come down on the side of historical accuracy, or as much as we can get while telling a good story.

  7. Paul Genesse Says:

    This is a great discussion and historical novels for me must make the attempt to capture the mindset of the time. If they’re too modern, or are filled with anachronistic phrases they don’t work at all for me.

    I read an amazing historical by Janet Morris, called “I, The Sun” which was about the greatest leader of the Hittite Empire. It really captured a fascinating point of view. Wilbur Smith’s Egypt novels are great as well (River God, Warlock), though his version of third person omniscient POV took a little getting used to for me, whereas Jane’s 3rd person omniscient POV was great in Buried Pyramid was so easy to adjust to. Anyway, I love historicals, and for me, Mary Renault’s novels in ancient Greece are incredible: The King Must Die, The Bull From the Sea, The Last of the Wine.

    Now, back to writing my own historical . . .

    Paul Genesse

  8. janelindskold Says:

    Neat comments… However, as a “ghost” said, the reality is that many people want the easier read.

    And Sally’s comment was right, too. If something is historical but doesn’t serve the story, then leave it out. I know I go nuts when someone forces me to appreciate their research into, say, menus when the food doesn’t matter!

    • Paul Genesse Says:


      I totally agree. It’s sad, but most of the research doesn’t make it into the book, and that’s how it should be. Only put in what really matters to the story.

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