An interesting question was raised a few days back from my friend Giulia, that manages the Liberi di Scrivere lit blog (only in Italian, sorry).
The question was, more or less
how much leeway do we have when writing historical fiction?
Meaning, how much can we change, distort, manipulate or basically rewrite historical fact to fit our narrative?
Now, I’m sure my friend Claire covered this subject somewhere on her Scribblings blog (and if she did not, she should), and Giulia’s question received lots of answers, some I liked, some I liked a lot less.
And right now I’d like to expand on my answer, that did go more or less like this:
Stick to history but remember there’s two ways of handling factual events when you are writing historical fiction.
The first is to write around history, using the dark corners and the interstices to develop your narrative. Clio, the Muse of History, is one that takes a lot of days off, and the historical record is filled with dull moments when nothing happened, or so it seemed. You can make those moments exciting by setting your story in there. You can explore the peripheries of the ancient world, leaving the main historical action in the background, using a few choice details to add color and make your work “historical”. This is what is usually done for most historical novels, and for quite a bit of historical genre fiction.
The other way is to make things up, and keep going, only making sure that the whole confection remains internally coherent. This second system works better for fantasy and other “alternate reality” stories, but still provides ample maneuvering space for more “realistic” stories. In this sort of narrative you can tweak dates, turn a rainy day into a warm sunny one, mix and match characters, and have a young John Dee (1527-1608 or 16091) meet an old Rabbi Loew (1520-1609) or, if you are feeling cheeky, a very old Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519).
Granted, you have to fall into the realm of fantasy (or science fiction), or satire, but it can be done, as long as you maintain the internal coherence of your story, and you defuse whiny readers sobbing in their hankies and mourning suspension of disbelief by making it impossible for them not to realize this is a fantasy story, and such strangeness could happen given the premises.
Which brings me back to that old favorite of mine, the Jesuit priest (Society of Jesus founded in 1540) taking part in the First Crusade (1096-1099).
That is a huge historical blunder, unless you have stacked the deck from page one, and the reader has been provided a coherent, if fantastic, reason to accept that, OK, the guy is time-displaced somehow.
It’s fantasy, morons! is not an acceptable reply, as it is not acceptable wait until you read volume two, you morons!
The rules must be clear from the start – mysterious as you want, but there must be a little (or big, your call) something that sets the reader’s senses tingling, something that as soon as he slams into your apparent blunder outrage is replaced with, yes, of course, time displacement!
Fact is, this is not a mathematic, you know, it’s not a set of formulas or recipes.
It takes a certain amount of instinct – anyone with a long acquaintance of the fantasy or science fiction fields will be able to dream up rationalizations, gimmicks and what not.
The bottom line is coherence & plausibility.
Me, I like both approaches, because they fit different kind of stories.
I can use the real world and explore its peripheries (like in the Aculeo & Amunet stories) or I can create a whole new world from a historical one by tweaking all the right bits (like in my story in Alternative Air Adventures), or ride the dangerous boundary between the two (like in The Ministry of Thunder). In this last case, I like to think that not only Clio does take a lot of days off, but there’s places where she’d never set foot anyway, nor would her sister Urania. In such places, anything goes.