Thursday, July 22, 2010

Historical Fiction - Can It Be As Accurate As Non-Fiction?

Most people assume that historical novels, even those that are closely based on actual persons and events, inherently represent a much lower standard for historical accuracy than non-fiction books. In this instance, I'm not speaking about novels set in a time and place for dramatic effect with little regard for authenticity. I'm referring to historical fictions that are carefully crafted by authors to be highly accurate in regard to events, people, details, and circumstances of the period portrayed.

Numerous examples of such books can easily be identified in the marketplace by perusal of reviews from competent and knowledgeable sources. Unfortunately, without even being read, these novels often suffer the disdain of history buffs simply because fictional elements are incorporated into the story. This lamentable situation raises a question. Can well-written historical fiction be equivalent in accuracy to books routinely classified as non-fiction?

Generally speaking, works of historical non-fiction are founded on the author's interpretation of vaguely written, contradictory, and incomplete documentation of past events. Consider the Official Records generated by both the Federal and Confederate armies during the American Civil War. These "after action reports" are the basis for many factual pronouncements in non-fiction books, yet an examination of Official Records for any given battle will reveal widely differing renditions of what happened.

Unit commanders, who were required by regulations to file these reports, frequently had divergent recollections due to the fog of battle, or sometimes they simply made misleading assertions to either glorify some or shift blame to others. To clarify such situations, historians have sought collaborative evidence from diaries, letters, and memoirs of other participants, including common soldiers. While providing an interesting perspective, these unofficial sources may also exhibit bias, embellishment, or misinformation for one reason or another. A surprising amount of what is published as absolute fact in historical non-fiction is simply an educated guess by the author, based on their interpretation of the available material.

The suppositions presented may be the exclusive opinion of the author, or may encompass the interpretations of a number of scholars and historians. However, the discovery of previously unknown primary source material that contradicts this consensus will cause the immediate realignment of the historical "facts" into conformance with the new data. Clearly, history, or more precisely our understanding of it, is a continuing process subject to modification with each new finding of credible information.

In my opinion, the conjecture upon which non-fiction authors frequently rely is not necessarily more accurate than fictional aspects created by novelists who are dedicated to presenting a realistic written picture of a by-gone era. This is particularly true if the novelist has applied strict criteria that there's no evidence to the contrary regarding the imagined elements of the novel. By creating authentic scenes and dialogue that may very well have happened, a novelist can enhance our understanding and appreciation of past events and the people who lived in those interesting times. Readers who are exclusively devoted to non-fiction may find that, on occasion, indulging in a well-crafted historical fiction can be both enjoyable and educational.

David H. Jones is the author of "Two Brothers: One North, One South". Navigated by Walt Whitman and closely based on real people and events, "Two Brothers" presents the quintessential story of the American Civil War. Intertwined are the adventures of Hetty, Jenny and Constance Cary, the reigning belles of wartime Richmond.

1 comment:

Amber at The Musings of ALMYBNENR said...

I agree with your position here. I read historical non-fiction and historical fiction (both types of which you talk about). I find enjoyment in all. Many times, works may be considered historical fiction because the author looks at a story from a historical character's point of view which had been suppressed for many years. Take C.W. Gortner's works.