What is Historical Fiction Anyway?

One question comes more often, I believe, than any other whenever the talk drifts around to what I actually do. Especially on the golf course. Most of the fellows who play regularly at my club in the Men’s Day event on Wednesdays know I’m an author, but a large number of them are considerably younger than I am, still working and raising families. They don’t usually have time to read, too many other priorities demanding their attention. Most of them are curious, though, about how a guy can actually make a living doing nothing but juggling words and telling stories—especially the kind I tell, about people and things from hundreds of years ago in Western Europe—and so they’ll probe, gently, trying to find out how that works without sounding too incredulous.

The history part they can generally understand, to an extent, but most people recall the history lessons from school as being boring and insipid, nothing to get excited about, and so they are naturally skeptical about whether or not my stories would have any relevance for them. History is history, and who cares? But it’s the fiction part that throws them, and that’s what they ask about: “What’s historical fiction and how is it different from real history?”

Today, the enormous popularity of the TV show, Game of Thrones, has led huge amounts of people to believe that the Thrones saga is historical fiction—purely fictitious history than never actually happened—but that is not the case. The entire Game of Thrones chronicle is Fantasy, pure and simple: the countries and societies  depicted in the series, along with every character who inhabits them, were born from the mind and imagination of the author George R.R. Martin. There is nothing historical, in the true sense of the word, about any of it, because it is entirely fictitious.

Historical fiction, on the other hand, is a fictional reconstruction of things that are known to have happened in real time, to people who actually existed and behaved as described in the story. The historical events depicted in historical novels are genuine. They actually occurred and were recorded by historians. It is the interpretation of those events, of their causes and their development, that is the realm of the writer of historical fiction.

We know from existing records, for example, that on a spring night in May of 1290 AD, in Norham Castle in Northumberland, a few miles south of the Scottish border, Edward Plantagenet, King of England, spent much of the night in a private meeting with one of his most powerful adherents, a wealthy, ambitious and  arrogantly ruthless warrior churchman called Antony Beck, the Prince Bishop of Durham. We know it was a private, close-guarded meeting, because no written records were kept of what was said, and we know that Beck left Norham the following morning and went directly to Scotland, where he proclaimed himself King Edward’s designated Lieutenant for Scotland, responsible for arranging a marriage between Edward’s six-year-old son, Edward of Caernarfon, Prince of Wales, and the infant heiress to Scotland’s throne, Margaret, known as the Maid of Norway. What we do not know is what was said between the two men in the course of that meeting, and that is the realm of the historical novelist.

Academic historians are bound by the known, recorded facts and are not permitted to speculate on what might have been said in that room that night, between the Plantagenet king and his subordinate. Historical novelists, on the other hand, thrive on the ability to put words into the mouths of such people on occasions like that. Speculation is fair game to the novelist, because in a very real sense that speculation is historical fiction—examining real, meticulously researched situations involving known historical characters, then putting words into their mouths and postulating motives, daring to imagine what powerful people might have said and thought and plotted. And readers love that.

As matters transpired, the child Margaret of Norway died before she could be crowned, but Beck’s contentious presence in Scotland thereafter had a malign influence on the years of war that were to follow under the Scottish leaders William Wallace and Robert the Bruce.

The truth known to all conscientious historical novelists is that nothing in the fundamental human condition ever changes, whether you’re writing about events that happened in the first Millennium, or in recent centuries. The basic problems facing the ordinary man today are essentially the same as those that faced his ancestors: to feed and nurture his family, to provide a roof over their heads, and to protect them against the ravages of a generally hostile and uncaring world. The essence of a man—and of a woman—is unchanged by the centuries that pass. The rest is simply technology. And remember that most history is fiction, anyway, its realities filtered and censored according to the opinions, beliefs and moral persuasions of the people who wrote it down originally.