I got into a conversation recently about whether historical fiction should be “prohibited” if it wasn’t “accurate.” (The discussion started over swearing in historical novels, but spread out from there.)
As a historical novelist… yeah. No.
I think that, of course, historical fiction should be as true to its time and place as it can be. But writing a story set in another time with 100% accuracy isn’t for historical novels — it’s for textbooks. (And even then, it isn’t possible, since so much of history remains up for debate.)
In fact, writing fully accurate historical fiction isn’t always possible. Or even advisable. So I’m glad there aren’t any HistFic cops out there to beat down my door.
There’s a lot that’s almost impossible to find out about life in former times. Dates, names, and outcomes of big battles, marriages, deaths — the important, history-making events of the ruling classes — are easy to learn. What people in a particular part of rural Japan would have had for breakfast in May, 1571? Not so easy.
And even those battles and things don’t always cooperate to allow you to tell the best possible story.
In Bright Eyes, my latest Seasons of the Sword novel, one of the historical characters had changed his name by the time in which the book is set. But if I used the correct name, it was going to be too much like that of another historical character, and I was worried that similarity would confuse readers. Also, the new name was a very famous one — and I didn’t want to give away what happened to him later to the historically literate. (Mind, if they’re real Japanese history buffs, they already know. But why make it easy, right? 😉)
Historical fiction isn’t pretending to be historical fact. It’s just doing it’s best to weave a consistent tale within a long-ago setting. Like fantasy or science fiction, it’s trying to tell a good story — only someone’s already done the world building.