As a writer of historical fiction, I’m sometimes asked how much “real history” I put in my books. My stock answer is: ALL history is fiction. This sometimes baffles people, but most often irritates them. Please allow me to explain.
What is “real history” anyway? Science tells us that there are two types of biases: the bias that comes from an observer’s viewpoint, and the deliberate bias that comes from motivation.
As to the first, was the historian actually at the event he/she is describing? Did they see the action, or hear the words spoken? In almost all cases, they are recreating an event from documents and verbal testimony of “eyewitnesses”, who (if they were really at the scene, unlike many who claim to have been) may have been extremely limited in what they actually witnessed. In the best of cases, they are not trained observers or recorders anyhow. Such second-hand accounts are sketchy at best; think of the Warren Commission Report. Examining that report today, we find many inconsistencies, uncertainties, and downright deliberate falsehoods. If we cannot even know exactly what went on with a modern event that was witnessed on television by millions of people, how can we know what went on in events hundreds and thousands of years ago?
As to “primary documents”, have you ever written a memo about a corporate event you were involved in, or a letter to a friend relating some incident in your life? Just between you and me, were you totally honest about what happened? Did you paint yourself in the glaring light of “truth”, or perhaps embellish your role just a tiny bit? Did you ever once make the other guy the hero? Yeah, well, all of those olden time folks who wrote their memoirs, or letters to friends, or whatever, did exactly the same. Even if they tried to be accurate, have you ever had someone read your memo and tell you they were unclear on what exactly you meant to say?
For the second, the old saying” “The victors get to write history”, has a lot more meaning than the surface value. In some cases, many of the ancient monarchs hired historians to write of their exploits–that becomes little more than propaganda. In many cases, such as Shakespeare’s “Richard III”, it was politically and financially expedient for him to explain events in a way that would be pleasing to the sitting monarch, Elizabeth Tudor.
Speaking of whom, when doing research for “The Shakespeares and the Crown”, I read some historians who claimed Robert Dudley (later the Earl of Leicester), son of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, was born on the same date as Elizabeth, while some said up to a year before her. Since the christening dates of all peers were recorded, how can they be that far off on a prominent figure in Elizabethan history! Those are the primary documents we’re relying on.
Even if a person does not have a religious, political, financial, or other motivation in “slanting” what happened, writers of history still have personal biases for or against an individual or a particular side in a conflict that colors the way in which they portray the events. For example, early historians portrayed Christopher Columbus as a courageous hero who “discovered” America. Later historians say he never set foot on American soil, and committed genocide and slavery in the Hispaniolas. How about the great emancipationist, Abraham Lincoln? It turns out he was no more a fan of African-Americans than Governor George Wallace. We have recently learned that it was his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, who constantly urged him to grant equality. His original plan to get solve the “black problem” was to ship them all to a new colony in South America.
When writing my novels, I do as much research as possible, but find so many conflicting accounts and opinions that it’s difficult to gain a clear picture of what “really” happened. So, my view of historical fiction is to go with what the historians tell us as much as possible, but realize that they were no more “there” than I was, and my version of what happened, within the bounds of known data and logic, is just as valid as theirs. Maybe more so: at least I label mine as fiction on the cover.