I’ve been thinking about the relationship between readers of historical fiction and the writers of these popular books. How much of their stories should be fact and how much should be fiction? The genre is, after all, historical fiction, which, I think, gives writers the license to use their imaginations. But what happens when readers take issue?
Dictionary.com defines historical fiction as “narratives that take place in the past and are characterized chiefly by an imaginative reconstruction of historical events and personages.”
Goodreads adds to this definition by explaining that:
“In some historical fiction, famous events appear from points of view not recorded in history, showing historical figures dealing with actual events while depicting them in a way that is not recorded in history. Other times, the historical event or time period complements a story’s narrative, forming a framework and background for the characters’ lives. Sometimes, historical fiction can be for the most part true, but the names of people and places have been in some way altered.”
There is also a term called “alternate history” in which writers speculate what could have happened if certain events ended differently.
Are you, as a reader, bothered by a writer’s imagination if the story portrays well-known leaders, heroes or organizations in a not-so-nice way?
Consider The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. How much is fact and how much is fiction? Are there really clues hidden in the works of Leonardo da Vinci and is the Priory of Sion—a secret society whose members included Sir Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo, and Da Vinci—accurately portrayed? Does the author’s imagination take away from the story, or enhance it?
How about Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier? Not much is known about Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer and his relationship with the girl in this famous painting. Is it scandalous to suggest he had an affair with a servant girl from his own household?
I recently re-read the 2015 historical mystery, Second Street Station by Lawrence H. Levy in which there are many American historical figures from the late 1800s, including Thomas Edison. We all think of Edison as the inventor of the electric light bulb and many other important discoveries that have greatly enhanced our lives. In his book, Levy incorporates some lesser-known facts about Edison, including the inventor’s favorite drink, Vin Mariani, a popular cocaine-laced wine that helped him work around the clock. Levy also portrays Edison as a highly competitive and vindictive businessman, who orchestrated the public electrocutions of dogs, calves and an elephant to demonstrate the dangers of alternating current, which was developed by his chief rival, George Westinghouse. (Read all about the War of Currents here.) And Levy also ties Edison to an unsolved murder of film pioneer, Louis Le Prince, who was the first person to record motion on film and received patents on his devices before Edison. Levy isn’t the first to suggest Edison had something to do with Le Prince’s disappearance, but it’s likely new information for the casual reader.
These books are all great choices for a book club discussion because of the questions they raise. Many of the questions can’t be fully answered. I think that’s why they make great stories!
So can fact and fiction get along in the same novel?
I think so. What do you think?
Thanks for visiting – come back soon!