We’re addressing a major writing pet peeve of mine today: historical fiction that isn’t historical.
Don’t get me wrong. You can classify your unpublished manuscript or published novel as historical fiction regardless of how well you follow the non-fiction facts.
That’s why Writing Rule #52 uses the word “should” instead of “must.”
Historical Fiction Should Be Rooted in Past Realities
When most people read historical fiction, they expect to be engaged and entertained while still learning something new or reaffirming something old.
This genre is supposed to be very reality-grounded, with fictional characters, fictional plots and fictional dialogue wrapped up in non-fiction settings that dictate every single story element. It’s the writer’s job to make the story operate within history. It’s not history’s job to make the story fit.
Despite the ambiguity of Writing Rule #52’s opening line, there’s nothing uncertain about those closing sentences. It is the writer’s job to conform to history, not vice versa. There are no ifs, ands and buts about it.
It’s only a question of who’s in charge of firing historical fiction authors for doing that job poorly.
I wish I was. Go figure. I would have long-ago fired several, including one initialized SD.
SD is a traditionally published storyteller in more than one way. While her Amazon author bio describes her as an award-winning historical women’s fiction writer, she isn’t afraid to play fast and loose with even the most well-established details about the past. I’ve only ever read one of her books before, but one book was more than enough to tell me about her literary character. Or lack thereof.
As of January 18, 2018, the novel I read was ranked #1889 in Amazon's “Books > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Historical > Biographical” category. Though I’m sadly sure it was a lot higher up on that list in 2011 when it was first released.
This so-called historical fiction read is about Cleopatra’s daughter after her mother’s death. Brought to Rome in chains, she and her twin brother are kept secluded in a bleak palace of sorts, left to miss Egypt and hate Rome.
Which is understandable. The real-life Cleopatra’s daughter probably did resent her captors. But here’s what’s not so understandable about what this historical fiction author wrote:
The claim that women’s rights were solidly established in first-century Egypt, whereas it was non-existent in first-century Rome
The claim that slavery in first-century Egypt wasn’t really slavery – not like in horrible, horrible first-century Rome – and that Alexander the Great went about conquering everyone in sight for the main reason of spreading enlightenment, rainbows and peanut M&Ms to all
The claim that the Roman Emperor Augustus was out to destroy all worship of the Egyptian goddess Isis, when Rome deliberately and calculatingly adopted aspects of every culture it conquered in order to better assimilate and placate its new subjects.
The list could go on. But suffice it to say that SD took a real-life person as her main character, real-life people for many of her secondary characters, and entire real-life societies for her setting… then forced them all to do her bidding.
That’s a historical fiction job done disgracefully and a historical fiction writer high on her own power instead of a love of learning and helping other people to learn.
It’s only fair to say that no historical fiction author is ever going to get every detail correct. History is such a diverse study, filled with just as many opinions and perspectives as facts. Yet there are still facts to be found if a historical fiction writer is willing to look for them.
SD either didn’t bother to do that, or she did and didn’t care to include those details in her story.
Either way, she can technically be classified as writing historical fiction all she wants. But that doesn’t mean she should be.