At the recent book release event at Left Bank Books, the question was raised if I am ever tempted to bend history. After all, I write fiction. I said no, that sticking to history is important to me.
Thinking about it since, I have to backtrack a little. I took the question to mean am I ever tempted to substitute a wholly fictional history for genuine history. I mentioned James Michener, who wrote dense, lengthy historical novels with such authority that one could be forgiven for believing things actually transpired that way. It is difficult to see where what really happened parts from what Michener intended as story. And surely here and there details get confused or altered or contoured to fit the narrative. Is this bending history?
History itself is somewhat malleable in the telling. Why else would we have so many books about the same events and periods? Interpretation of known events and extrapolation about the gaps in our knowledge occur all the time. What we think it meant plays a huge part. Is this bending history? How are we to regard those works that have been superseded by new information that overwrites what was once thought to be The Facts?
The challenge of historical fiction, it seems to me, is to be true to the spirit of a period. (In much the same way as in science fiction we strive to be true to the idea of science even when creating a whole new branch or reinterpreting for our purposes known science.) If there are events which occurred that form the background of our narrative, we are, I think, obligated to accept them as essential and not throw them out because we would rather something else had happened. If we occasionally put words in a historical character’s mouth he or she never said (because we have them talking to a fictional character that never existed in the first place) we have to be careful not to change that figure’s character. We’re walking on the eggshells of consistency and a careful tread is required.
I realized after the event mentioned above that I could have given a fuller answer. Because I have written alternate history, which is a form that not only bends history but quite often twists it all out of shape, supplanting what happened with a might-have-happened, I should have said that, yes, sometimes I am very tempted to bend history. Just not when I’m trying to write history.
Which leads me to another part of the conversation wherein I posited that historical fiction and science fiction can be seen as the same sort of endeavor, just taken in opposite directions. SF can be taken as history that has not happened yet. To a certain extent, it has to follow the same rules as historical fiction, namely period consistency. And it has to unfold the way we recognize as historically plausible. Furthermore, with historical fiction, it is not inaccurate to say that as we go back in time we are visiting another country. Go back far enough, another world. Further still, and we are in alien territory. The extrapolations necessary to create characters that live and breathe in the world of two, three or ten centuries ago are not that different from imagining humans in a very different world of a thousand years from now.
So a certain amount of bending happens, whether we wish it or not, in order to make room for the actual fiction. The best outcome is a work in which our fictional characters walk among the historical people as if they could really have been there, disturbing the timeline hardly at all. If here and there a bit of a tug or push is necessary to make the story work, well, we should bend it back by the end.
There’s more to consider in this and going forward I will be thinking about it. No doubt the history of my fictions will be bent a little in the process.