History vs. Fiction

posted in: Writer's notebook | 1

“The historian’s problem is always the separating of fact from fantasy,” wrote film historian Robert M. Henderson. That should make everyone who writes “reality-based” historical fiction his arch enemy, including me.

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My novel “The Ben-Hur Murders: Inside the 1925 Hollywood Games'” certainly qualifies as historical fiction. It shows some fictional characters interacting with famous people against the backdrop of real, historic events.

How dare I muck up the facts and traipse across Mr. Henderson’s neat historical carpet with my muddy lies?

Of course, it’s never as black-and-white as that, is it? Historians can never have all the facts. They debate them all the time. And even when facts are well documented, things like motive and intent are open to interpretation. Two historians may basically agree on the facts and still draw different inferences, arrive at different meanings, can they not?

A good historical novel will acknowledge the known facts but then construct some fictional framework around them to dramatize and illuminate what is known.

While the approaches and methodologies differ, the historical novelist and the pure historian both are attempting to rescue what has come before. We share a desire to bring distant eras to life through vivid characters and incidents, and to illuminate them in a way that makes the lessons of the past pertinent to our lives today.

It seems to me that historians and writers of historical fiction have more in common to celebrate than to squabble about.

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