The hero barely has time to catch his breath. His ears are filled with the loud pop and whiz of musket balls, mingled with shouts of his comrades and the enemy alike. White smoke from gun powder fills his nostrils and fogs his vision. [You turn the page and the battle continues]. A tall and imposing figure on a white horse emerges through the fog of war. The hero feels his resolve rising in his chest at the mere sight of the noble and dignified General Washington. The resolve that the young hero feels welling inside him rises up through his gut, into his chest and throat, before bursting out his mouth in the form of a mighty shout. “Forth for Liberty!”
This sort of scene – while being compelling and exciting – has numerous parallels. Such a motif appears in numerous historical novels. It is perfectly harmless when understood exclusively as a work of fiction that utilizes historical figures and events as part of the setting for the story. However, historical fiction has its pitfalls, which is part of the reason why I do not write it.
Since my primary interest is history and my secondary interest is writing, some people have asked me whether I intend to combine the two in the form of historical fiction. There was a time when I thoroughly enjoyed historical fiction. In fact it was once my favorite genres. The “fiction” portion of that moniker alerts the reader to the more literary aspect of the reading material. As I started getting deeper into historical classes and study, I saw more clearly the factual inconsistencies. This presented me with a problem. Should I ignore them and try to enjoy the story? Unfortunately I am a stickler for the accuracy of details so this proved difficult. I then set out on a quest to find the most accurate historical fiction books possible before reading them. Certainly some books are more accurately representative of the past than others, but this process too proved tricky.
I gradually realized the futility of this pursuit. Historical fiction seeks to engage the reader by recreating the past as a setting for the actions of other characters. Or maybe they use real historical characters, attempting to plot a narrative using the inner workings of their thoughts and actions. Because it is impossible to make a setting literarily believable from scant historical evidence, writers have to take artistic liberties. It is even more impossible to accurately reconstruct what people said and thought in long ago circumstances.
Even if writers do their absolute best with their fact checking, and even if they give open warning that their characters are fictional, readers will still take what they say too far and be tempted to treat it as fact. Unfortunately, it is impossible to make historical fiction that is engaging without misrepresenting the past. The best efforts will be insufficient; the worst will be deliberately deceptive.
Historical fiction can however be fun and perfectly harmless if approached with caution as simply this: a simple work of fiction. So go ahead! Dive into a stirring battle sequence or a juicy palace intrigue, but beware. A little fact-check never hurt anything.