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Where Do You Draw The Line On Fiction In Historical Fiction?

A photo of a copy of Queen's Gambit and The Other Boleyn Girl

How much fiction in a historical novel is too much? How little is too little? As a person who reads a lot about the past, these questions are in my mind constantly.

As you will likely know by now – or, if you’re a new reader, you’ll find pretty quickly – I’m a stickler for historical accuracy. Granted, I’m a bit of a perfectionist, but it is the historian in me that takes precedent in this case. It can irritate me if too many liberties are taken without a later discussion (I love detailed acknowledgements and bibliographies), but I do enjoy speculation. I don’t mind bias if it is obvious and accounted for. I do mind it if it is presented as fact.

Of course this mainly concerns historical books that are based on true events and real people, however a novel that is entirely made-up except for the era it’s set in of course needs to be accurate about that setting.

If there is too little fiction in a book, then I often wonder what point there was in the author writing it. Yes, I do think that, in fact what I really wonder is why they didn’t simply go one step further, expand on their research, and write non-fiction. (I find it interesting how it’s easier to notice that there are ‘too many’ non-fictional books on one subject but that it takes quite a few more fictional books to realise the same there.) There are many novelists who would make fine ‘bona fide’ historians, indeed I can’t help but think it’s the idea of the necessity of letters after one’s name that has resulted in more fiction than non-fiction, for all that fiction is incredibly enjoyable.

I digress. There need to be enough gaps in the history to warrant the fiction, else many liberties must be taken. The problem with liberties is that they are difficult. In taking them, an author must take care that what they write sounds believable. Likewise with liberties you want to still be respecting the people about whom you are writing, most especially if they were good people. (Of course ‘good’ is often down to the individual’s opinion.)

I admire writers of historical fiction. They have to find gaps, research, be accurate but not too much, be entertaining and unique but not take too many liberties.

The books that inspired this post were The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory, and Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle. Both concern the wives of Henry VIII – Anne Boleyn and Katherine Parr respectively – and a comparison became inevitable when Fremantle was recommended by the publisher to fans of Gregory.

It’s no secret that I am not a fan of Gregory. I found her book a bit too extreme in its hatred of Anne Boleyn and Gregory presented her views as facts. As someone who has continually weighed up the evidence – at school, at leisure – I’m on the side of those who believe Anne was innocent. And whilst I enjoy reading the opinions of those who think differently, there is discussing your opinion and then there is being malicious.

Where Fremantle is concerned I enjoyed the work. I see how a comparison was made, but the difference with Fremantle is that the dislike is firmly in her characters’ court. If Fremantle has any controversial opinions she is respectful and objective about them. Fremantle actually makes Elizabeth I quite the villain, which is incredibly controversial, but she keeps it to the page and provides a plausible explanation for it. And she brings in popular opinion, too. Her work creates a sort of mental discussion with both sides included.

There is often a thin line between acceptable and unacceptable, and a historical fiction writer takes on a lot more than just the requirement for a good story when they sit down to write.

Historical fiction books, those that concern real people and events, are a little like fan-fiction. They sate the appetite of history lovers, who feel the loss of what has been forgotten very keenly. They educate new ‘fans’, often leading readers onto a course of study (for this reason in itself writers have to be careful). In order to be enjoyable to as many people as possible there must be a degree of accuracy and accountability.

I draw my own line at the deliberately controversial for which there is no evidence. I continually enjoy speculation that is believable and fills gaps.

Where do you draw the line about fiction in historical fiction?



September 4, 2013, 8:03 am

What an interesting discussion… My line wavers depending on how well I know the period, I have to admit. If it’s a period that I’ve studied academically and know very well (the Italian Renaissance is the main example) then I am a stickler for accuracy. I think one’s take on the whole thing will differ depending on what one thinks historical fiction is for. Personally, I read historical fiction to get a fuller, more colourful picture of the past than I can get from pure history books (and because I like novels). But if the author is careless and I spot facts which are wrong, then that can often ruin the spell of the whole book for me. I’ve thought on several occasions that if an author can’t be bothered to stick to the facts, why did they bother writing historical fiction at all? Why didn’t they write a historical fantasy, change the names and give themselves a free rein? Excessive speculation can have the same effect. The film Anonymous, for example – I know it’s not a book – was so speculative, with absolutely no justification, that it sent me into high indignation (the Elizabeth I parts, not the Shakespeare-wasn’t-Shakespeare parts). The Marlowe Papers, on the other hand, is an example of taking the facts and suggesting an alternative reading of them and, though I don’t agree with the argument proposed, I thought that was absolutely brilliant.

Having said that, I always enjoy it when an author takes a slightly different slant on a story – for example, in having a fictional character as protagonist to explore a famous situation from a new point of view. The problem is that some periods have been done to death in fiction and a new book has to be really different or unusual to compete. I haven’t read Sarah Dunant’s new book, for example – I think she’s a good writer, but a new book about the Borgias will have to do something new and interesting to stand out, *while* respecting the facts. It’s a tough job to get all the facts right. It’s even tougher not to let them weigh the story down, and to weave an original and unexpected story around them. (Good God, I sound like Gradgrind, don’t I? Facts, facts, facts.) And yes, I know I harp on about Dorothy Dunnett a lot, but she’s the master of that kind of writing.

Having said all that, historical fact is often only that which most people have said loudest over the years; and writing history itself isn’t all that far off writing fiction – especially in the way gaps have to be bridged.


September 4, 2013, 8:21 am

I don’t read as much historical fiction as may be you so probably can’t add a great deal to the discussion. This is a great topic though and has really got me thinking. I think I can definitely agree that author’s really need to get the setting correct. If that’s not right what hope have you got with the rest of the story. I haven’t personally read anything historical that been particularly biased or controversial but I do think you’ve made some great points.


September 4, 2013, 10:28 am

I think that bit about fan-fiction is spot on. Through historical fiction, I can revisit the same characters many times over, but every occasion is a bit different, from a different angle, with different biases and conclusions and ideas. Fan-fiction is the perfect analogy.

As for my own line, I’ll be honest that I’ve always preferred following fictional characters implanted in non-fictional worlds. It’s a cheap, easy compromise. The author gets to have the fiction side through the minor observer, and ultimately the presentation of the main historical figure will end up being subjective in a fairly objective way.

Jo @ Booklover Book Reviews

September 4, 2013, 12:18 pm

Great post Charlie. I like the gap filling fiction, because where something sounds plausible and presented as quasi fact I will add it to my knowledge base on the time period. Shamefully fiction is the means by which I have gleaned much of my knowledge of history so I would prefer not to be mislead unless it’s signposted that’s what is happening. I actually talked a bit about the important fact vs fiction balance in my recent review of Mary Hamer’s ‘Kipling & Trix’ :

Laurie C

September 4, 2013, 12:30 pm

I don’t read much historical fiction and I’m not knowledgeable about history, but this issue of historical accuracy in fiction is a bugaboo of a book club member I know so it pops up often! I’m actually just reading The Engagements and the description of a car accident that happened in the early 1930s made me wonder whether a character of that social class would have been driving from one state to another or wouldn’t he have taken a train, so I had to google it to find out if that was historically accurate or not. (It seems it was.)


September 4, 2013, 3:25 pm

Thank you for explaining to me why historians don’t like Gregory’s novels! I’m not aware of having a line–I enjoy fiction in whatever context, the weirder the better (Turtledove’s The Guns of the South).


September 4, 2013, 7:25 pm

Generally, I avoid fiction that is based on Historical figures, I too, am not a fan of historical inaccuracy.

In regards to Gregory, I know she puts a lot of research into her novels (she’s a Doctor of something I believe) and anything else is an interpretation. But she puts a lot of effort into fact checking. I still don’t like her books though. For someone who is a fan of writing about influential historical women, she really didn’t like Anne Boleyn, not sure why.

If it is stated as such, I don’t mind a bit of creative licence, but I would be concerned that readers may assume the history being presented is fact if it is not made clear. There is a lot of debate among historians about what may or may not have happened in the era Gregory writes about.

On Anne, I don’t think she was innocent, but she wasn’t a bitch, she just wanted what any woman should be entitled to, a fair equal shot at power.

Jenny @ Reading the End

September 5, 2013, 1:10 am

This is not particularly to my credit, but I tend to be more forgiving of historical fiction authors who share my affections and dislikes for the historical figures in question. Even with the Freemantle book, where you were comfortable with her portrayal of the characters, I’m guessing it would annoy me because of how much I like Elizabeth I.


September 5, 2013, 2:50 pm

I tend to be uncomfortable with historical fiction where real people are the main characters, partially because it is hard to tell without research what is real and what the author totally made up for their story.

But I’ll agree that what I love most with historical fiction is a nice afterward, explaining where liberties were taken and offering a bibliography.



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