March 7, 2021: Historical Responsibility
I recently had a conversation with a dear, life-long friend. She is also an educator, one of my most trusted beta-readers, and we share a passion for both history and reading. The conversation centered on the balance of historical accuracy and artistic license.
Within the realm of real-life and history, there is historical fiction, fictionalized history, documentaries, memoir, and historical narratives. Each is decidedly different, even though they are often clustered into one genre.
My friend was recently sharing her thoughts and experiences regarding a real-life crisis/event that has been made into both a book and a movie. While not personally experiencing the events, she knows those who did. She knows the reality and the facts, and how it has impacted those she cares about. We were discussing the implications and effects when writers veer from the hard-facts and dramatize, or embellish them. This led our discussion into the realm of ethics and morals. It became a very impactful exchange. And forced me to think deeply about my responsibilities as a writer.
I think that when writers are writing historical genres, every effort should be made for historical accuracy, and as a result, research must be meticulous. I also think that the author needs to be clear as to what fiction was added and why. For example, my first book, Saving Home, the characters were entirely fictional and created to tell the historically accurate events of the Siege of 1702. Every effort was made to make them as authentic as possible, but their thoughts and feelings were totally based on creative inferences.
Forcing Change was different because the people who experienced those Civil Rights struggles are still alive. I was able to interview and talk with some of the survivors of the events in the book, but I did not want to hijack their story, so the main character Maggie was entirely fictional- created to tell the events. Her feelings and perspectives were informed by the time I was able to spend with those who were really there, but she in no way represented them.
I also believe that the author needs to seriously consider their goals for the project. If this is a book that the writer would love teachers to select for use with students when studying a particular historical period, the attention to detail and accuracy must be front and center. If however, it is merely a project of fiction for entertainment and the historical period is just another prop to tell the story, much more flexibility can be applied.
I am continuing to think of this conversation and topic, as I am in the midst of research for another historical fiction middle grades novel. This conversation confirms for me, the awesome responsibility that writers of historical fiction have to “get it right”.