Historical Fiction: History or Fiction?

I’m an art-historical novelist, so I’m very familiar with the on-going debate at the center of historical fiction:

Is it the novelist’s duty to serve
the HISTORY or the FICTION?

Readers expect to learn something from historical fiction  — to be exposed to a real event, a specific time period, or historical figure. But they also expect a good story. So where’s the line?

Different authors fall on different sides of this debate. Some say the historical novelist has a duty to adhere strictly to historical facts. Others argue you can turn Christopher Columbus into a zombie as long as a few details of the time and place are accurate. There are as many different opinions on this topic as there are historical fiction writers.

I love history. To write Oil and Marble, I traveled to Italy; read every book I could find on the two artists, Florence, and the time period; drew up detailed historical timelines and comparison charts on currency; tacked maps of 16th century Italy and pictures of each character to my wall; and, before including a character eating an elderberry fritter, went to the library (I NEVER use Wikipedia!) and found a book to tell me whether such sweet treats really were eaten during the Renaissance. I’m a research junkie. Sometimes I fear I did TOO MUCH research (discrepancies between historians and all those details bogged me down)… But, eventually I had to put all of that research aside and disappear into the fiction.

Because I know where I fall on this spectrum of history versus story:

My duty is to the story.

I am not an historian. I am a writer of fiction. I live in Hollywood and have worked in the entertainment industry for fifteen years. I always bend toward STORY.

Historians are bound by facts. Novelists get to shuttle those facts aside sometimes to tell exciting stories. I want my readers to be so enthralled by my story that they are compelled to read more about Renaissance Florence, the lives of Michelangelo and Leonardo and their art.

And I want to get into the hearts of the human beings at the center of those stories.

I care about how Michelangelo felt when he first saw the Duccio Stone, not the exact date of when he first saw it (we don’t know the answer to that question anyway. How Michelangelo landed the Duccio Stone commission is lost to history). I am much more interested in how Leonardo felt when he failed to fly, than who was there to watch (he recorded a test flight in his notebooks, but there’s no mention of how it went or who attended. I have to assume the test failed, for if he succeeded, he surely would have recorded the moment). 

Scholars must keep their historical distance, but a novelist can go BEYOND mere fact. A novel can take you into the room with Michelangelo — help you feel what he felt — when he began the David. A novel can let you BE Leonardo when he paints Mona Lisa’s smile…

Sometimes, that means leaving out historical facts that bog down the text or confuse the issues; changing a date of an event by a month or two to fit the story; or embellishing an historical detail for dramatic effect.

If a HISTORIAN told the story of MY LIFE, I am sure he or she would tell it differently than I. The historian would focus ONLY on the facts: the date of my birth, the identity of my parents, the big moments in my life that were recorded by newspapers or maybe in emails, the historical context in which I lived. Whereas I — the human being — might have forgotten some things about my life that the historian has on record. Or I might twist some of those “facts” around, seeing them from MY perspective, not the perspective of history. Many things might’ve happened to me that a historian would never know. And I might add a thing or two to my story that didn’t factually happen to me, but I BELIEVE happened to me. It’s how human memory works. It’s how we build the story of our lives.

It’s also how I build novels.

So while I aim to stay true to history, I am less concerned about sticking to “just the facts, ma’am” than exploring the emotional and spiritual truths of these very real, human characters. Often, I feel like Michelangelo and Leonardo get lost in a flood of history. They come out looking more like genius giants than real men. And Leonardo and Michelangelo were both very real men — flawed, afraid, brave, vulnerable, emotional, human men. And I will happily skip a few facts to get to that truth.

###

Here are two of my favorite posts on this topic, both from The Guardian:

For more information about historical accuracy in my novel (which events are based on the historical record and where I took artistic liberties to serve the story and the characters) please check back with this section of the blog soon: History Behind the Novel

 

 

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