Written by Grace Mappes
Whenever I think of historical fiction, a memory first comes to mind: I was raving to my then-boyfriend about the way Dan Brown manipulated and speculated upon the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene in The Da Vinci Code, fictionalizing a sexual element that made perfect sense plot-wise to my then-teenage brain (don’t worry y’all, no spoilers here). But when I had finished speaking, my devout-Catholic ex shook his head with a chuckle and asked how I could believe such a thing. Honestly, I didn’t, but his comment stuck with me years later; it made me think about how readers and writers view factual accuracy in historical fiction.
As a writer, a large part of me wants to tell history to take a backseat to whatever story I want to tell, but I have to recognize my own selfishness and hypocrisy. Thus far, I haven’t written for publication, and it’s always easier to simply write rather than put any effort into researching. And when faced with books, shows, and movies that depict historical events, I look for just how well the writer(s) create fiction around the facts I love. I found myself intrigued by Michelle Moran’s Cleopatra’s Daughter despite its obviously fictional elements, yet disappointed by shows like Reign and Will, which showed such promise, but ended up more like soap operas with period clothing. To me, these shows seemed to profit off the popularity of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Shakespeare, telling stories that seemed so unrealistic given the public’s prior knowledge of the two. Like Mel Gibson’s accent in Braveheart, these shows left a bitter taste in my mouth.
But the overuse of fact in what is supposed to be fiction can easily leave a reader (or viewer) feeling like they’re back in a high-school history course rather than reading a novel for pleasure. If one wanted pure fact, they could easily find a number of history textbooks or biographies on the market. We read fiction for stories, and if fact gets in the way of the story, it’s worth entertaining the idea of manipulating or even eliminating it from the novel’s universe. Even Michelle Moran, whose accuracy astounds me, takes her liberties: in Cleopatra’s Daughter, she creates a rebellion that adds an extra dimension of tension, secrecy, and trust between various members of the Roman royal household.
But honestly, as long as a writer correctly advertises their work, the degree of historical accuracy preferred by either reader or writer is purely subjective. While I can’t stand Reign, my parents adore the drama regardless of how accurate it is. Some people love authors like Philippa Gregory, who is known for taking extensive liberties in order to write interesting stories, while others adore Moran, whose research is sometimes too prevalent in her novels. But as a whole, historical fiction serves to humanize figures we only know through the facts portrayed by history books, giving rise to emotions and events similar to those we face today. Writers just choose different routes to get there.