History by Any Other Facts Is Fiction

Not historical
Historical or not? No, the image is obviously altered. But what if I told you this couple were married, that is their child and made up a story about them that was logical and might be true, could be true? Would that be “historical?”

File this blog post in the Complaint section. I can’t help it. This is something that needs to be said.

I have a philosophy of writing that is simple: if it’s fiction, call it fiction; if it really happened, call it history. Don’t confuse the two.

I research, research, research to arrive at the most accurate representation of my fictional characters and their times as I can. I’ve said before and will say again that I find it impossible to call a work of fiction “historical” just because it is set in an earlier time period. To be historical, a work of fiction must be historically accurate. In my opinion, inaccuracies of fact, plot and characterization automatically classify a work of fiction as imaginative, not historical.

It is much easier to portray characters who behave in ways nobody would in the historical time period. When an author frees him/herself from being factual, writing is fast, easy and intellectually dishonest. Imaginative inaccuracies may not even impact sales at all. Many readers won’t even know!

But I can’t do that.

Write It Right

Early in my efforts toward writing my series Before the Civil War, two men challenged me to make my writing fact-based. One of them, Dick Smart, a Civil War reenactor, invited me to encamp with the 19th Alabama Infantry Regiment reenactors so I could learn from personal experience how it feels to do innumerable things I otherwise would not understand. I had demurred, not being much of a camper. Dick said, “Okay, if you don’t want to write it right.” Then, I knew I had to do it. My books had to be factual. I couldn’t guess. I had to know.

Charles Rice, also a reenactor, read an early version of Vacant Chairs, my first volume in the series, and challenged my use of kerosene. He didn’t think it had been invented in 1851. I realized how much I had assumed! And I couldn’t assume anything. I had to know. (Chuck was right.)

These experiences caused me to react as I did to the introduction of a book I read today. At least, the author was honest. He says right up front that he does not do research. He says he takes his information from the historical research of others and changes the stories to fit his needs.

Imaginary Truth

So, he represents his books as history but says they aren’t fact-based. He uses historical events and people, so his books appear to be historical. But what happens, how it happens, why it happens and definitely his conclusions are written to suit his purpose, not to conform to facts. He says that, right up-front. Hmm.

The dust jacket and title indicate the works are historical, not historical fiction or fiction. Just history. Another hmm.

He says he re-uses the work of others without footnotes or credit of any kind. Another hmmm.

He’s made a career of this.

Do readers care? Apparently not. The one work I looked at had multiple re-printings.

It seems to me that this is revisionist history at its worst. If the word history does not mean an accurate representation of the facts about an event or person from the past, what does it mean? Has history become fiction? What, exactly, does an author owe to his/her readers as far as presenting information as the truth?

I believe it’s an educated guess that many readers of the fictionalized history I read today believe what they read is true. The book has shaped their perceptions of the past and they may pass the information on to others as the truth. If that is the case, has the truth about those events and people now become suspect? Is truth now seen as wrong and the inaccurate seen as right?

Maybe some places, but not here.

This image is in the Public Domain. You may freely use my altered version of the original if you post the notice that it is not historically accurate.

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One thought on “History by Any Other Facts Is Fiction

  1. I have a sneaking suspicion that most readers are looking for an intriguing story and will allow for some loose interpretation of the historical facts. It’s frustrating to see books like that filed under the historical genre, but all you can do is be proud of how accurate your own books are.

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