Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sunday Musings: Bending History

Morning, Musers and Muse Friends.

How's your Sunday going? I know my plans are to stay home and enjoy some peace and quiet and relaxation...then again, I can't tell the future as I write this only give my wishes.

Which is a strange segue into today's musings' topic...Bending History. Bending the truth, the facts, tweaking history to fit a story, how can we...should we? Adding, how does this work with Steampunk? Let's get musing:

In my opinion, readers of paranormal, science-fiction, steampunk etc..., are willing to suspend disbelief (yes, vampires are real) in exchange for an exciting story. I don't see a problem if world-building includes bending historical facts as long as it's written in a way that does not jolt the reader out of the story.

I'm curious what other authors and readers think.

Thanks for visiting MuseItUp's blog!

Writing history, how far can you bend the truth?

If you’re writing fiction rather than a history textbook then I guess you can make it all up. What to readers want or expect? As a reader, I know for example that Hilary Mantel will deliver a large dose of real events/people, while Georgette Heyer makes up characters and their histories, but still includes certain real historical events, such as the ongoing Anglo/French wars of the early 1800s, that is she creates an authentic context.

What do I do in my historical romances?

I may take real events of the past but give them my own slant, eg the Cleveland Street scandal of 1889 implicated the Prince of Wales’ eldest son in a sex scandal, and got much publicity in the newspapers of the time—what if the authorities actually hushed it up and someone exposed that fact years later? This was the basis of my novel “Heiress to a Duke”.

I may base a character on a real person from the past but create my own version of their personality and story. My fictitious Lily Deacon (“Miss Deacon Investigates”) is based on Lucy Deane, a real factory inspector of the 1890s who was secretary to the Fawcett Commission which visited South Africa in 1901 to investigate the camps holding Boer women and children, and in 1918 she chaired a committee of women sent to the Western Front to investigate alleged immorality of WAACs serving there.

Where I do borrow and adapt events and people, I will acknowledge the fact, and I often add a historical note at the end of a novel giving some of the real historical background for the reader who might be interested.

I think your ability to bend history is dictated by what your genre allows.  It’s a stricture you accept when you start writing.  If you want to give William Wallace some air support from a B-52 bomber, you can; you’re just writing science fiction now, not a historical romance.

Steampunk, on the other hand… honestly, I really think you can get away with almost anything as long as Victoria is still on the throne.  My steampunk stories have dragons, ogres, and flying tigers in them, but Victoria reigns.  What defines steampunk isn’t the technology (remember, Nemo had a nuclear-powered sub), or the setting (Barsoom, anyone?), it’s the underlying perspective, worldview, and reaction of the characters.  They might be fighting an army of mechanical chimpanzees bent on destroying every sugar cane plantation in the Americas, but when a lady stands up from the dinner table, all the gentlemen stand as well.  Even if she’s wearing trousers and can shoot the nuts off a fruit fly at 100 yards.

One area I don’t think authors have much room is social attitudes.  Race, sex, sexual preference, classism…accurate depictions of the language and beliefs of historical times can turn readers off.  So can NOT being accurate.  I don’t have an answer for that issue, but it’s one that each writer dabbling with history will have to answer for themselves.

I think if you are writing a historical novel there are certain things that need to be accurate. Probably the time period needs to be described accurately and if you use a real person you need to have them in the events in which they took place. However, all of the other characters can be changed and the events leading up to things might also be rearranged. Since it’s a novel you can add any stories you want as long as you don’t interfere with real events. Otherwise, it isn’t really historical but probably just fiction. In fantasy you can change anything you want, since it isn’t historical.

With Steampunk, which I have never written but I love to read, I think you can pretty much change anything to create your story. I think there are rules which require you to show steam related machines and gears and cogs in it. I just read an anthology of Steampunk stories that were based on real stories and characters. The authors changed the characters and added gadgets that fitted in the time period. They might have been created during that time period, but they were definitely not in any of the stories originally. I think with Steampunk as long as you stay true to the universe you have created the reader will not be taken out of the experience.

An author should not bend the truth at all.  Unrecorded conversations can take place between fictional and historic characters or historic characters, and thoughts can mostly be invented as long as they don't violate the speaker's known character.  However, recorded fact must be honored. This holds true even for relatively minor matters.  If one envisions a marvelous scene between two people on a given day when it is recorded that they were in separated places, the scene must be moved or scrapped.  If the day was in fact raining, there can be no sun-drenched picnic.  It must be moved to another date or shifted indoors.

The writer of historical or history-based fiction has an obligation to the reader to present his/her material -- individuals, events, settings, era -- as accurately as possible.  Besides, if a reader knows a bit about the subject (a sure draw to your book) and finds it chock full of errors, that reader will cast said book aside and probably not touch another by the same author.

I've pretty much eschewed reading historical romance because I absolutely HATE it when authors use modern idiom or get their facts wrong. I've seen it so much, I distrust the entire genre.  I recently edited a Regency book and clashed with the author who looked down on me because I don't read Regency and wasn't up on the terminology. She has a PhD in the subject. Therefore, she didn't respect the fact that I know fiction writing and she doesn't. And STILL, a sentence crept in that I felt was 21st century idiom and she insisted wasn't. She refused to rewrite it, and I felt it ruined the rest of the book.  I'm sure she requested another editor after that experience.  Ah, well.

I have published several historical fictions. 1) I detest when 21st century values are put into historical fiction as common thought/ occurrences for the past. It should just be called fiction, then, period. Readers should know it's history and not contemporary. 2) Generally, I long to live in the past--were it not for modern dentists and doctors. 3) I can't write in the language (vocabulary) of the past because it's not politically correct for today (e.g. a simple, non-offending example: my grandmother had correspondence from a male friend who started his letters "My dear old spinster").

I'm not sure that we writers can be historically accurate. We tend to color history according to what we feel and experience today. (Forgive my over-generalization. I know all historical writers don't do this. Long live truth.)

There. I'll now climb off of my high SUV...I mean horse. ;)

PS. adding to my earlier comments:

When I was a little girl, I was proud to be a tomboy. I played rough outside and had more scratches and cuts on me than most kids. Although being a tomboy had nothing to do with my sexual orientation, today I would be encouraged to explore various gender options.

I like writing historical fiction and fantasy where young girls can innocently be tomboys.

When writing using history can/how far can a writer bend the truth...adding, how does that work with Steampunk? I would say it depends on the area of history that is being used. I'll use myself as an example, the Goddess in my world was born (approx) 13,000 years ago. There are no records from this time, making it relatively easy to create a world since there is no evidence of existence. Now, I also destroyed that same world around (approx) 7000 years ago, just prior to the advent of the precursor to the modern day alphabets. You could say I pulled an Atlantis. lol Now moving forward, through my created history, I stayed with what there is evidence of, just tweaking things to fit my creatures in. If you mess with history, you are no longer writing history, but science fantasy or fiction. Certain historical events you can't tamper with and remain true to history. As for Steampunk...I recently came across something that said anything goes in Steampunk as long as Queen Victoria is on the throne. As I haven't read Steampunk (still looking for one to capture my attention) yet, I'm slightly clueless to its writing requirements. Yes, you can chuckle at the fact that I just admitted to being clueless and that I'm a blonde. I laugh at myself all the time.

Steampunk has a certain aesthetic, and I think that so long as a writer stays within those boundaries—a non-digital universe with the trappings of the 19th century—they can more or less do what they want, whether it’s Victorian London, the American Wild West, or post-apocalyptic Australia. The key is creating an environment/back story that allows the reader to suspend belief.

That being said, bending the truth in terms of historical details only works when the author knows the era they are writing about very well and makes a conscious decision to alter something for the sake of the plot or characters. For example, there is a tendency among women writers to have their female MC not wear a corset, usually to indicate their rebellion against the strictures of society. The problem is that the clothing of those eras was not designed to be worn without a corset—the seams would rip and there was no other support garment available. On the other hand, fudging a date here or there by a year or two to smooth out the story’s timeline is fine, provided that change doesn’t have wider consequences. Again, the more historical details the writer knows about the chosen time period, the better able they are to determine which of those details can be changed safely.

With any historical type of story, I have far more respect for writers who find a way to work within the established framework of particular period of history, using the actual customs, clothing, and events of the era, while still managing to create sympathetic characters and a plot that makes sense to a modern reader. Ignoring inconvenient facts or not doing any research is a surefire way to lose readers—especially the ones who have chosen a book because it features an era they enjoy reading about and have an interest in.

Dear reader, thank you again for joining us and we’d love to hear from you. Keep smiling and have a fun week. Never stop believing. See you next Sunday…nothing better than being cozy in bed with some Musings.

If you have a question or comment you’d like us to muse upon, do not hesitate to contact me Christine Steeves-Speakman  at

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