You’ve done your research, like really, copious amounts of it. There are a piles of books scattered around your house and don’t even mention the hoard of URLs and downloaded journal articles clogging up your computer or other devices. What’s this?! There’s a loose end, there’s another one, and no, are they multiplying? Don’t fret. No matter how thorough your research, there will be gaps that sources can’t answer. Records get lost or destroyed, near contemporaries erode others, and certain bits of historic minutia go unrecorded. Life would be boring with all the answers, right?
For a fiction writer not knowing is frustrating and can leave a project on uncertain grounds. If I don’t know X, how do I proceed? Can I proceed? Don’t let X derail your writing project. You are writing fiction, which gives you the opportunity to use creative license to fill in gaps. It is something historical fiction writers have been doing forever.
The three keys for filling gaps
Tudor period historical fiction is a great example. With the historic events occurring more than 400 years ago, there are a lot of gaps. Some figures, such as Mary Boleyn, come and then fade into the ether of historical records. Sometimes these figures’ personalities are unknown (can’t all be a Teddy Roosevelt, whose personality oozes from the various historical records), requiring writers to flesh them out if they are playing a large role in the narrative. There are conflicting reports, too, including additions from near contemporaries.
With all of these factors, authors writing about this period have to flex their creative muscles. The successful authors manage to bridge these gaps with scenes and character development that feel true to what we know of the historic era or person. They also do it in a way that entertains the reader.
For me, the three simple keys to properly filling in gaps, in no particular order as I consider them to be equally important, include: 1.) Tell a great story, 2.) Stay true to the time period (thus not testing your readers’ suspension of disbelief), and 3.) Be responsible.
“Tell a great story” is obvious and might lead authors to using less verified sources — see Anne Boleyn’s sixth finger — because they offer a more interesting story or character component. In fiction this can be fine, but I would recommend providing an author’s note at the end of the book (here’s a great guide for HF author’s notes) detailing your creative licenses and why you chose to take them because (see Point 3) some readers will take historical fiction for fact. Due to that, we see some inaccuracies continually being perpetuated over the years.
Using creative license isn’t a bad thing. Just be responsible and stay true to your time period. This is doubly true when working with real people, who really existed. Like all human beings, they are complex with their good and bad traits; it is important to keep this in mind (perhaps seeking personal sources, from diaries to family members’ recollections of said person, if available, to drive this home).
Sometimes, writers will take the opportunity to paint a historic figure they personally don’t like in a very one-dimensional way, and it is really obvious when a writer is doing this. It’s one of the reasons I don’t read books from this one Tudor historical fiction author because they obviously have an ax to grind with Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I. A multidimensional approach is best, even if you want to cast a historic figure as a villain in your work.
Similarly, there is a series of books that I loved as a high school student, which spanned the 1910s-50s from the POV of one American family. In the second book, it featured one of the sisters, an actress, traveling European stages when WWI broke out. She ended up meeting Manfred von Richthofen (aka the Red Baron), and the two ultimately have an affair, which results in a child. As a much younger reader, I just absorbed this, knowing that the female character was strictly fictional thus it didn’t really happen. Nowadays, this kind of makes me a bit squeamish, especially since the author also made sure the readers knew that Richthofen had developed a relationship with God prior to his passing. To me today, it doesn’t sit right, largely because a part of me doesn’t think it is responsible to use a real person to evangelize, especially not knowing their viewpoints on the subject. It gets more dicey when in a sequel the unknown illegitimate son gets shot down over Germany during WWII and meets members of Richthofen’s family . . . with similar proselytizing occurring to get the son to realize he needs to convert pronto.
Real people — real historic events — require proper due, albeit some readers won’t care one way or another as long as the work is entertaining, but I feel writers have a responsibility to be true to history while having fun and spreading their wings in the prose. Writers have a lot of freedom and I don’t want to shortchange that. But writers need to seriously consider the implications of what they are committing to print. Personally, I love historical fiction books that 1) entertain and educate me 2) propel me to read the sources behind them and 3) do right by historic figures.
My creative license decisions
Writing in a more modern period (1918-1920), I have a sizable pool of great, solid sources, but even with them, there are gaps or areas where I have chosen to use creative license. For one example, I’ve create a new town and a new Amish community within Jasper County; I did this to ensure more freedom and out of consideration for the fact that the county and its cities are very real. Their residents, along with the Amish community members who resided in the county for a short time, are very real people — they are living people’s grandparents, their great-grandparents, their great-great-grandparents, etc. I don’t want to libel real people or guess at their personalities.
I have fictional events occur within my fictional town that are very similar to incidents that really happened in nearby Indiana counties or in neighboring states. My sources do not detail any anti-German incidents that occurred in Jasper County; however, that doesn’t mean there weren’t any — I just might not have found the source detailing them. The fictional incidents are something to challenge my characters and explore the deterioration of once-close neighbor relationships. Some of these real incidents will be shared through newspapers and letters from my lead character’s siblings.
One of my female characters is also a bit more liberal and would be an outlier for the time period, but not by too much (see the Suffragists, the Yeomanettes, etc.). 1900s, like our modern times or any time period really, had women of all creeds, shapes and sizes, and I’ve tried to show that.
Each flex of my creative license muscle comes with a great deal of thought before I commit to bending or filling in facts. I consider the ramifications as I value and love history, and I know for many readers, historical fiction is where it stops. They are not likely to research any further. So, while my novel is fiction, I want to give them a largely factual sense of the era and the very real history surrounding the story while hopefully giving them an enjoyable read with endearing characters.
Flex your creative muscles, writers. No historical fiction novel is going to be 100 percent accurate, so please don’t let not knowing X hold you up. Do your best to get as much of your story factually accurate as possible by being true to the time period your writing about. And when you do use creative license, because you will use it, really think out how you are using it and why. Seriously, outline your reasoning for it. Think of that author’s note you might put at the end of your novel. What do want to tell readers about your creative choices? I do this frequently and it allows me to really think out my approach.
Responsibility is a major component of the process for me. I know some readers won’t care one way or another, but being as true to the historical part of the story as possible is very important to me as I’m sure it is for most writers who stress over the gaps.
For further food for thought, I recommend watching the Cynical Historian’s video on historic fiction movies, which gives the perspective of a historian. It definitely gets one thinking about the role screenwriters and fiction writers play in the general public’s understanding of history. And while straight up history is often stranger than fiction and equally as fascinating, to answer Cypher’s question, I think historical fiction has a place in our society. It served a launchpad for grade school Sarah to dive into history and even minor in it while at college. I can’t be alone in making that transition from fiction to nonfiction research.
While the question about historic fiction’s place might set some writers on edge, it is something to give honest thought to.
This marks the end of the Let’s Research series unless enough research questions come in for Part 6. Leave your questions in the comments below. To read the Let’s Research series from start to finish, click here.