Twelve Ways to Liven Up History for Historical Novelists and Historical Revisionists

Having stopped by Alianore’s blog this morning and enjoyed her post “Misinformation about Edward II,” it’s occurred to me that while there’s been plenty of advice on how to strive for accuracy in historical fiction, no one’s offered any advice on how to throw reality to the winds and distort facts with abandon. So without further ado, here’s some guidance for aspiring nonhistorical novelists (and for those who like to embellish nonfiction as well):

1) Question parentage at all times, and don’t be afraid to spread sexual slander. After all, most children are conceived out of public view, so who knows who was really present in someone’s bed? (Extra points if you can make the father someone who was dead or 1,000 miles away at the time of conception.)

2) Add or subtract a decade or so from a historical figure’s age, depending upon your needs. Not only can this be helpful with (1), it often opens up a variety of possibilities for enlivening your characters’ sex lives.

3) Not sure what caused a historical figure’s death? Make it murder, and be sure to lay the guilt at the feet of someone you don’t like.

4) Proof is for pedants and bores. If you haven’t got adequate facts to support an assertion, make it anyway.

5) Conspiracy theories are your best friends forever. In fact, those who prefer historical accuracy are really part of a vast conspiracy to keep people from learning the Real Truth.

6) Reanimate the dead. Just because someone died five years before an event or scene took place is absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t include him in it. Especially if you can defame him while doing so.

7) If two people have the same name, this is your heaven-sent opportunity to freely confuse them with each other. If their parents didn’t want you doing this, they should have had the foresight to give the kid a different name.

8) If you’re unsure of a fact, by no means check it. Trust your instincts and run with it, particularly if the assertion could ruin a historical figure’s reputation.

9) If there is an innocent explanation and a sinister explanation for an event, the sinister explanation must prevail.

10) No historical figure must ever be given the benefit of the doubt about anything, unless he’s (a) your hero or (b) Richard III.

11) If you’re caught in an error by one of those cranky sorts who appreciate historical accuracy and meticulous research, blame your error on the bias of either male chroniclers, academic historians, or the victors, as the case might require.

12. If you can’t find any of the above to blame, keep repeating your error. Sooner or later, people will start to believe it, and your worries will be over.

22 thoughts on “Twelve Ways to Liven Up History for Historical Novelists and Historical Revisionists”

  1. Thanks so much, Susan, for giving me a hearty laugh during an otherwise hectic and stressful day.

    Having recently gotten into 15th century English history after years of interest in the Tudors, I found your assertion about Richard III to be particularly funny and oh so true. It's amazing how RIII fans fall over themselves to declare his innocence in the disappearance of his nephews, but automatically believe that Edward IV was a bigamist (and probably the son of a Kentish archer to boot) and that Elizabeth Wydeville was a cold bitch who ultimately got what was coming to her. To his defenders, RIII is the ultimate victim, the most misunderstood man who ever lived. I'm surprised there hasn't been a cannonization movement started by the Richard III Society.

    No, I am definitely not a Ricardian, but I certainly don't believe that Richard was a deformed psychopath. Yes, I believe he had Edward V and the Duke of York killed, but he was acting out of genuine fear and the instinct for self-preservation. He was truly the product of his upbringing and the times in which he lived.

  2. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks, everyone! Cmc, I'm with you about Richard III. It amazes me that the same people who insist that he should be regarded as innocent until proven guilty are the same ones who will accept the allegations he made against other people as proven simply because he made them.

  3. Oh good, that solves some of my problems. One of the things that puzzles historians is that Varus trusted Arminius so much despite the warnings he got. Of course he did; Arminius is his son. The fact that he wasn't anywhere near Germania 24 years ago really is peanuts. Oh, and he doesn't listen to Segimer because it was his wife whom he slept with.

    That scenario will also give me a beautiful Darth Vader moment in my novel. 🙂

  4. FINALLY! Recognition for my genius for rewriting history! Thanks, Susan!

    Nan Hawthorne
    An Involuntary King: A Tale of Anglo Saxon England (Sort Of)

  5. LOL – Fantastic! I shall bear these in mind while writing Despenser – there are plenty of Hughs, conspiracy theories and defamation I can use there!

  6. Wih all due respect don't our respective governments do the same?

    Or any other government for that matter?

    Spin doctors have warbling their wicked way for centuries. Only we're not the unwashed, uneducated hoi polloi any more.

    Bully for us!

  7. Certain numbers on this list remind me of an historical novel that's very popular right now but which really irritates me because of its lack of accuracy. And because of the fact that the author insists that she got all the details right.

  8. Is the novel you're thinking of set in the ancient world? Because that's the one I have in mind. It casts one historical figure in a very unfavorable light, despite the fact that he was probably not a one-note villain. I can deal with that, since it's fiction; what I can't deal with is that I strongly suspect the author just watched a highly controversial documentary about the subject and based her novel off of that.

  9. Susan Higginbotham

    Samantha, no, I wasn't thinking of one set in the ancient world. It's a period I know very little about, so I can read historical fiction set in that time without the teeth-gnashing and muttering that too often ensues when I read one set in the 14th or 15th century.

  10. Ah well. Sadly the list you gave could apply to many popular novels set in many different time periods. I don't know a great deal about medieval and Renaissance European history, but I do have a very good context from having studied Shakespeare. I'm fascinated by Tudor history and would love to read Tudor-era novels, but I just know that if I do I'll come across lots of the things you've listed here. Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story, I guess.

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