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History Into Fiction: The Writer's Art of Recreating the Past

Quote of the Day: Verisimilitude, not Accuracy

In a March 3 survey discussing the recent popularity of historical mysteries, Publishers Weekly explored, among other issues, the folly of expecting novelists to slavishly adhere to the so-called “facts” of history.

The article quoted two accomplished practitioners of the historical mystery genre:

The best writers ground their captivating story lines firmly in what is known about the period they write about. Many sate the reader’s curiosity about where they have and have not diverted from the historical record in informative postscripts. However, as author Andrew Pepper correctly points out, “There is no such thing as a pure and untainted historical record. All history is narrative, and all histories are shaped according to contemporary issues and agendas. Verisimilitude, not accuracy, should be the benchmark for the historical writer.” Along the same lines, Priscilla Royal, who has written six medieval mysteries (Poisoned Pen will issue Valley of Dry Bones in October), notes, “Even if we rely on primary sources, we must remember that document survival is accidental, alternative points of view often did not survive, and thus we are left with a skewed view of the period.”

Inserting Historical Figures into Imagined Scenarios

For those who missed it, check out the August, 2007 edition of The Writer. Novelist John Smolens, a professor of English at Northern Michigan, wrote an essay titled “Build a Bridge to the Past to Bring Your Historical Novel Alive.”

Smolens put his prescriptions to work in his sixth novel, The Anarchist, which was published by Three Rivers Press in December. It tells the story of Leon Czolgosz, the anarchist who assassinated President William McKinley, September 1901.

Among the many tips that Smolens offers to the historical novelist, one of the most intriguing is inserting “what-if” elements into a story that involves real characters. The novelist, he assures us, is not required to tell history as it actually happened, but how it might have happened.

In the Anarchist, Smolens used as an example a bit of research he discovered involving a film that simulated his main character’s execution. Although there is no record of President Teddy Roosevelt having watched this film, Smolens set this possibility into motion and turned it into his final scene to gain the necessary emotional confrontation between the two men.