Drawing the Line Between Fact and Fiction in Historical Fiction

My main genre isn’t historical fiction, but I do enjoy reading it and I do have some historical fiction in some of my writing. One of the things that draws me to it is a sense of wonder, and I also have this strange nostalgia for a time I’ve never lived in. So to learn everything I can about certain eras is just fascinating to me. This is also what draws me to study my family’s genealogy. It’s part of my nature to romanticize their lives and imagine what it was like to live when they lived.

Quick tip: dig into your family history to get some story inspiration! Genealogy is an excellent source of stories and characters!

The thing about historical fiction is: where do you draw the line between fact and fiction? How much fact do you need to include? And how do you research for those facts?

As you’ll hear in today’s author interview, it’s important to tell your story how you want to tell it. Yes, there needs to be some fact-checking, but remember—this is also fiction. It doesn’t all have to be exactly historically accurate. You are the one who’s in charge of the story, so you can decide what goes in and what isn’t necessary in terms of facts.

If you’re like me, though, you’ll probably go down some rabbit holes while you’re doing your research, and you’ll drive yourself mad trying to find the perfect fact to fit into your story or making sure that what you want to tell is the way it happened in history. Even down to the littlest details—the amount of time it takes to go from Point A to Point B by a horse and carriage, or how fast trains go in 1859 and how many stops they make from Town X to Town Y. Or even the different layers of under clothing that ladies wore in the Victorian era. I sometimes have to stop myself from adding all these tiny details that I may find fascinating because just because I’m fascinated by it all doesn’t mean my readers will be.

So just like anything that you include in your writing, you have to determine what is absolutely necessary for your story, and what can be left out.

When you come across something in history that you want to add into your story, but it doesn’t quite fit into your story, you can decide to go in a different direction. You have the freedom and capability of that as a writer.

I’m going to talk about a story that I’m going to be starting to write this year. You’ll also hear me talk about it in today’s interview. I came up with the idea when I read an article about 300-year-old pirate bones being brought up from the ocean floor and tested against a known descendant of who they thought the bones belonged to. Even though I never thought I’d be wanting to write a story about pirates, I instantly had this whole huge story come to me, and it morphed into a very separate three-part story that is now a trilogy. Three separate stories that come together as a whole. But in these stories is a lot of history dating back to 16th century Portugal and early 18th century England and Massachusetts, and then present-day Portugal. So I’ve spent the last year researching in between all the other stuff I’ve been writing and doing. I’m proud of the research that I’ve done, and even though it won’t all make it into the story, I feel like I have a better understanding of the times that these events took place in.

But in my case, once I reach a certain point in the story, I branch off in a different direction. The foundation is built in actual historical events, but everything that happens since and because of those things happens because I have re-imagined the big question: What If? What if something different happened instead? Because what happened in real life is that the pirate apparently went down with his ship… but there was never any proof of that. His was not one of the bodies who washed up on shore after the storm passed. He was not one of the nine survivors between the two ships that went down. And his bones were not the ones that were discovered on the bottom of the Atlantic. The chances are very slim, but What If he didn’t go down with his ship? There was technically another ship out there that didn’t wreck, and it sailed away. What If he somehow managed to get on the ship and escape being found as a Pirate and hanged for treason?

So this is where I found my line between fact and fiction began. When I’m writing, I’ll decide how detailed the facts need to be, but it’s not the little bits and pieces of history that make the story. The whole story was born out of my What If question, and the history just needs to be woven in.

Now, let’s talk a bit about how to do the research for historical fiction. And remember, I’m not an expert, but I do love research. It’s one of my favourite things to do. So how did I start researching for my part historical fiction story?

First, I read more articles after I read the one that gave me the idea in the first place. It involved digging things up from the ocean floor, so I watched You Tube videos to show me how that’s done. What the mechanical arm looks like when it grabs on to something. The speed it moves to bring it in. What the lighting looks like down there. Is there curious marine life there? I wanted to know the process of cleaning off the artefacts that were brought up. I wanted to know more about the DNA testing they wanted to do, and how they were going to extract the DNA from the bones they found. I bought the book that was co-written by the person who led the expedition team and found the ship after searching for many, many years. I read about the pirate’s love interest and what happened to her, which is a mysterious aspect in history and in my story. I went to the website of the museum that was built because of the findings—and that’s just to tide me over (pun intended) until I can actually get down there to the area and walk in those places and see things for myself, because that’s absolutely something I want to do.

And on the other side of that, part of my story connects with a famous Portuguese poet from the mid 1500s. He wrote a manuscript that’s the size of a novel—so what did I do? I bought the English translation of that book. And it’s in a very different version of English that you and I know today, but there’s something in there that I’m going to use as a crucial piece of the puzzle in my story.

Something else I did was started studying Portuguese so that I can include little bits of the culture and language in my story to make it as authentic as possible.

And when I’m able to travel again, I want to go to the places I’m writing about so I can immerse my senses in them. Even though it’s the history I need to write about, there’s always still a little bit that remains, something in the air, a presence of days gone by, and if you can tune into that, it opens up your imagination and allows you to tap into the barely-there souls and stories of the past.

I also want to reach out to historical societies and see what they can tell me. There’s so much more out there beyond the typical google search. A vast ocean of information that you can learn from. Don’t be afraid to reach out to the experts. Interview someone who works in the area, interview people who’ve spent their whole life in the town you’re writing about. Look at digitalized newspapers from the era your stories centres around. I guarantee you’ll find tidbits of information that you can sprinkle in here and there to make your story more authentic. You can give a nod to local legends that certain readers and history buffs will pick up on and enjoy, and that’s how you can connect with your readers.

So, I’m curious—if you write historical fiction or have included bits of historical facts in your writing in any way, how did you do your research? What interesting things did you find, and how did you incorporate them into your story? Let me know by commenting below or tag me in a Twitter post @_badasswriters!

I’d like to introduce today’s guest, Kiersten Marcil. Listen here!) Kiersten is an author of historical romance/fantasy. She hails from Upstate New York, the setting of several important locations pertaining to her favorite subject—the American Revolutionary War. Ironically, she utterly hated social studies growing up because memorizing all those dates and battle names was so boring. Becoming a museum educator finally sparked her interest in history and a love of research. She was also a professional actor and arts educator at that time, which gave her a new medium with which to explore and share history. It was from working as a research assistant for a book about the Constitutional Convention of 1787, however, that her fascination with the Revolutionary War flourished.

The first book from her series, The Enlightened, is called Witness to the Revolution. It is due out late 2022/early 2023.

ICYMI, myself and two author friends, Jaimie Hunter and Lula Lockwood, made a big announcement on our social media. We have been busily planning, organizing, and developing a new Twitter pitch event for querying writers called #moodpitch! You can read all about it on our website at www.moodpitch.org! First event is Thursday, April 7th, 2022, so get those moodboards made! This is an agent and editor attended event, so it’s your chance to skip the slush pile!

Published by kathleenfoxx

Author of domestic thrillers and gothic horror.

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