There’s a perennial debate going on in the community of historical novelists about the relative balance of fact and fiction. I usually try to reframe it not as the pursuit of accuracy, but the pursuit of truth. Getting at what is true to the time, or the character, or the situation can entail bending certain factual details, or readjusting a timeline.
Now, I’m not for putting well-known historical figures in places they never could have been. Give me a break! Anything that’s really easy to check simply begs to be discovered and thrown in an author’s face.
Real life seldom arranges itself in a perfect dramatic arc. Even with the best will in the world, and carefully selecting the moments that will make for the best story, it’s almost always necessary to cut and paste a little.
Let me give you a picture of how I see it:
(Story arc image from The Craft of Writing Fiction.)
To many, this sounds like sacrilege. I remind them, respectfully, that “historical” is the modifier and “fiction” is the noun. I consider my first job to be that of telling a really good story, keeping my reader engaged and flipping the pages.
That said, I do go out of my way to make certain things as accurate as possible. For instance, I wanted to make sure that I had the right police precinct number in a scene I just wrote in my WIP. I searched, and checked, and lo and behold found out that what is today the 9th Precinct in New York City was the 15th Precinct in 1910.
No one may ever check up on this tiny fact. If they do, probably someone will write and correct me—and I’ll have fun pointing them to the article that mentions the change.
Is the story affected by this detail? Certainly not. But this is also one of the reasons I choose to write fiction with that limiting modifier. It’s a challenge. History throws down the gauntlet and dares me to make it do my bidding.
And in the process of doing this kind of research I often discover great stuff that adds richness not only to the setting and the characters, but to the plot. For instance, who knew that there were already women police detectives at the time? You can bet this will feature in my novel.
And when I have to fudge—well, that’s what author’s notes are for.