Worldbuilding in Historical Fiction: Fact versus Fiction
Writers are able to blur the lines between fact and fiction while writing in many genres. Certain genres come with expectations, such as Fantasy readers are okay with tons of fiction (even in Urban Fantasy) because they come ready to suspend belief in what they know. Science Fiction is a genre where there is usually a fine balance between the two, allowing a lot of fictional elements yet needing some sort of factual backbone in the science realm in order to be a viable entry. That isn’t always the case, and in many instances that factual information is pure speculation based upon a projection of science and technology in the future, but most Sci-Fi is expected to have at least some feasibility woven into the tales. Those are two genres I have been reading my entire life, and have a solid background in writing for both of those.
Yet not all fiction is so free and loose with facts. Historical Fiction, for example, might present a whole host of grey areas to operate within. I do not have firsthand experience in writing Historical Fiction (yet), but I have recently spent a fair amount of time in this genre as a reader so I will be sharing some of my own observations and expectations.
One of my earliest Historical Fiction reads came from Bernard Cornwell’s novel, Agincourt. At the very end of the book he makes a note of where the historical deviations come into play in terms of his novel. The fiction piece of his novel, for the most part, comes in the form of central characters and the issues they encounter in their personal lives prior to the actual battle of Agincourt. The one major historical deviation he confessed was the presence of a mine during the English’s siege of Harfleur. Apart from that one thing, and apart from the characters’ individual stories, he stayed fairly true to facts.
Another historical novel I have recently read was Oswiu: King of Kings by Edoardo Albert. Much of what we know about Oswiu and his reign comes through the writings of Bede in the Ecclesiastical History, and the purpose behind that book was to provide an account of the various kings and major conflicts during England’s early history. Yet there is hardly enough information in that text to paint a full picture of the events shown in Oswiu: King of Kings. This book follows a historical character, along with a historical cast of characters, along a thread of major historical events. Yet there are many other details along the way that are fictional, woven in to flesh out the characters and to add in subconflicts between the major conflicts.
When you look at the two books, there isn’t a lot of difference. Both of them are very rooted in history, following a chain of historical events that will end in a way to align with the historical outcome. Cornwell’s novel provides a fictional cast of characters, allowing great freedom along the way to build their backstories and to give us characters who play a part in the major conflict (the Battle of Agincourt). He weaves together both fact and fiction, with most of the fact going toward the worldbuilding and the fiction going into the characters themselves in the world. Albert does the same in his novel, weaving fact and fiction together. His characters are grounded in history, as are the major conflicts and events, but there are fictional elements in minor events that occur as well as in some character traits that appear during the story. Yet there is nothing within the pages that jars the reader and makes them question the validity of the setting.
So when it comes to historical fiction, the short answer would appear to be that there is a balance to strike between fact and fiction. The setting needs to feel like it evokes the time period. The language used, the references made in conversation, need to seem like they could have taken place at that time. Click To Tweet Major characters and events need to be rooted in fact. Yet the fringe details: minor events taking place, character traits and quirks, fictional characters, can all be pure fiction. After all, the reader does expect some creative license to be taken along the way in the book. So when you write historical fiction, make sure the big things are as factual as can be and, if for some reason you want/need to diverge from history, be sure to make note of that so the observant reader doesn’t call you out about it later.