Feather's Six Degrees of Veracity
edited: Thursday, October 14, 2004
By Feather Schwartz Foster
Not "rated" by the Author.
Posted: Tuesday, December 16, 2003
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Various levels of fact in historical fiction.
Anyone who enjoys writing historical fiction needs to consider where actual truth ends and fiction begins - and what kind of fiction it is.
Naturally, if you wish to create your characters from scratch and merely place them in an historical setting, such as creating a fictional Revolutionary War soldier's homecoming, you have a lot of latitude. You can do almost whatever you like. But if you want to use real, people, such as George Washington coming home to Mount Vernon after the Battle of Yorktown, you need to have a fair degree of accuracy.
ABSOLUTE TRUTH: If, for instance, in your research you come across a snippet of information, authentic, verifiable and footnoteable, that "Martha Washington went for a walk and it started to rain," you have a definite fact. This is true . It can be proven.
LOGICAL TRUTH: All this is, is an extension of logic. If "MArtha Washington went for a walk and it started to rain," the logical truth would be that "she got wet."
EXPANDED TRUTH: This is probably the most common kind of historical "truth." You take the absolute truth and expand it. For instance: "Martha Washington went for a walk. It started out to be a pleasant day, but after a half-hour there was a slight chill in the air and the sun went in. She looked up and noticed the sky was darkening, and within five minutes it started to rain." It is the truth of course, and fairly logical. This is what happens when it rains. It was merely expanded to show the details of the day. You can make it last pages and pages if you like.
CONDENSED TRUTH: This is another common occurrence in historical fiction. The author combines,condenses, merges and consolidates people, places and events. One could easily describe the Battle of Monmouth by combining actual facts gleaned about other battles. In an academic scholarly work about the Battle of Monmouth, this could not be done, of course. But in a work of fiction, it might be ideal.
CONJECTURE: Aha! This is the most interesting (to me, at least) part of historical fiction. THis is presumption. This is putting thoughts and/or actions into an historical person's head or life. For instance: "Martha Washington went for a walk (blah, blah) and it started to rain. She got wet, and worried that her new shoes would be ruined." Or, "Martha Washington went for a walk....and hoped that one of the servants would remember to close the bedroom window."
We have absolutely no idea what Martha might or might not have thought. We have no idea if her shoes were new. Or if the window was open.
The objective of a good conjecture should be its plausibility. It is entirely plausible that Martha washington might be concerned about her shoes. Shoes were expensive and hard come by. It is plausible that a window might have been left open. It would not be plausible to have Martha Washington wondering if she left the windows open in her car. A good conjecture is also one that is pertinent to the character. For instance, if George Washington went for a walk and it started to rain, he would not worry about his shoes. But he might express relief that it was a respite from the drought, or concern that they had been having too much rain lately.
WRONG: Then, of course, there is wrong history. Giving the wrong name to a real person - something that happens frequently with minor characters. Putting people in the wrong place when the right place is well known. "George Washington returned to Mount Vernon after the Battle of Yorktown - he had always loved Mississippi." Definitely and inexcusably wrong. "Martha Washington went for a walk and it started to rain." This is wrong, but then again, would anyone care?
It is up to the author to decide where accuracy needs to be - and where fiction might work better.