Readers Voice: Fact V Fiction by Helen Hollick

Have Your Say! What Do You, The Reader Think?

An interesting topic to be discussed or pondered over 
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Fact v Fiction?
by Helen Hollick

We thoroughly enjoy reading historical fiction, (at least I am assuming this is so because you are reading this article on a review site for historical fiction,) but do we enjoy the fiction for the fiction or for the facts?

Old favourites, such as Daphne du Maurier, Georgette Heyer, Jean Plaidy and Catherine Cookson were superb as reading entertainment, but these novels were, occasionally, somewhat thin where accurate historical fact was concerned. And before I get lynched, these authors were writing some while ago when necessity for accuracy v plot were not regarded as important and access to facts were not as easy come by. 

Heyer did attempt to be as accurate as she could, particularly for her Regency Romance novels, but The Conqueror, for instance, I could wield a red editor's 'inaccuracy' pen for several scenes.

good story but accurate...? Hmm...
Research opportunities have changed, however, and for these older novels, did we care about inaccuracy? No, not a jot!

Let’s face it, though, back then in the pre-internet days (which wasn’t that long ago!) checking the accuracy of an author’s writing was somewhat limited for a reader, unless we happened to be expert in a particular era.

Now, though, I do find it somewhat irritating, and on occasion, even rude, of readers who jump on an author like a cascade of a ton of bricks, pointing fingers, sneering, and plastering sarcasm all over social media:  ‘you’ve got it wrong!’ At times this nastiness can even border on witch-hunt-type trolling. To these people I say, get a life. You’re reading fiction, if you don’t like the way the author has written the book stop reading it and look for something else instead to moan about.

Fair enough to mention a spotted blooper in a review, fair enough to maybe even, politely, contact the author – but ensure you’ve got your facts right! I really am tired of receiving emails from well-meaning USA readers who ‘politely’ (and impolitely!) point out that I’ve erroneously used the term ’corn-fed horses’ in my Arthurian trilogy. Yes I know corn-on-the-cob/maize  is an American cereal crop and therefore wasn’t around in Britain circa 480 AD.
‘Corn-fed’ is an English term as in oats and barley, and means a well-fed horse belonging to a wealthy owner who could afford quality feed.

 The suggestion of Eleanor of Aquitaine having an affair with Saladin in this novel
is stretching fact v fiction a bit far...
 he would have been a boy of about 9 at the time...
I think we, as authors, have a ‘duty of care’ to get the facts right, but the key to the conundrum is the word fiction. We are writing stories, we are inventing how our characters acted, re-acted, talked, lived, fought, loved, died and went off on all the various plot-based adventures in between. It is a fact that the Battle of Hastings took place on October 14th 1066 and that Harold II lost to Duke William of Normandy. (Although actually, the 14th is the modern calendar-adjusted date, back in 1066 it was a different date). To write a novel, unless it was a deliberate alternative history, with this the most famous of English battles occurring in, say, April 1067 would be outright nonsense. But, we don’t know for certain many of the specific events of 1066, nor what some of the embroidered scenes in one of the best guides, the Bayeux Tapestry, portray. For instance, just who is the woman Aelfgyva and why is she there? Or the dwarf Turold, or just why did Harold go by boat to Normandy or… well, you get the picture…

Stretching the truth?
Not a problem if a collection of short stories
deliberately set out to be 'what if...'
link to Amazon
Most of the historical fiction we devour is made up imagination. We take the known facts and weave a story around and through them, bringing the names of real people and events from the past alive – via our interpretation.

Does it matter if a ‘fact’ is outrageously wrong?

Three examples:

1.      Romans eating supper in the lee of Hadrian’s Wall circa 380 AD-ish. They settle down with food served from the stew pot. Up to this point, a thoroughly enjoyable tale – but the food is rabbit and potato stew. OK not everyone is aware that bunnies were not introduced into Britain until the 1000s, but potatoes? Surely it is common knowledge that these belong to the Tudor age?

2.      Smelling the sea from London. I’ve come across this in several novels. Southend – the mudflats of the Thames estuary – is about 35 or so miles from London. You can’t smell the sea now, you sure as heck couldn’t in Medieval, Tudor or Victorian times! Yes the river is tidal right up to London (there was even a Bore Tide in Saxon times) and I suppose, at a stretch, the wind could carry the aroma of ozone that distance, but it would never be strong enough above the stench of raw sewage and the general permeating stink.

3.      Wild strawberries. I wonder how many authors have their very hungry characters gathering wild strawberries and devouring them? Quite a few, I suspect. Wild strawberries are tiny (about the size of a fingernail). It takes a lot of time to pick enough for a meal, and a lot of them to make an adequate breakfast.

Does it matter that these occasional bloopers are there? In a way, yes, because they spoil the believability of the narrative, but then, we are talking about fiction. If you want only the facts, read a textbook.

But what do you think?

Leave your comments below, share a few thoughts of what you would like us to host on this reader-dedicated page - and please do spread the word that readers are heartily welcomed here at Discovering Diamonds!


  1. Richard Tearle24 June 2017 at 21:51

    Excellent blog, Helen - thank you. One might ask, when is a fact not a fact? For years (if not centuries)it was a 'fact' that Richard III murdered his nephews but nowadays there is doubt and it is a mere possibility. Two books I read recently did not kill off poor Edward II in the nasty and traditional manner at Berkeley Castle, but had him spirited away abroad. And just which Leofric was Hereward the son of? If history does not know, then I thik the author has every right to interpret the 'facts' as he or she sees fit. So; if an author can produce a plausible explanation of 'changing history', I am quite happy with that!
    As for rabbit stew with spuds (mmmmm!)with the amount of resources available today, I would expect the author to serve up an authentic (for the times) meal. Those sorts of things, I feel, should be factual.
    Fiction, as you said, is the keyword and a darn good story is a darn good story. But, just as the author has access to the Great God Wiki, so does the reader and I'm sure many readers have said, 'I didn't know that' and gone to consult the Oracle. I know I have! But, again as you say, not too many years ago, such facts were not available to the 'man on the Clapham Omnibus' and just as often, not to the author either - so I feel many may be forgiven. The trick for the author is to make their story convincing and avoid the 'little' things that may make the reader doubt what they are reading. This is the Richard III syndrome whereby if one 'fact' is disproven then it throws all other 'facts' into dispute. But, for example, who knew that Romans used glasses to drink wine from? I didn't and was firmly put in my place by the author when I reviewed it! Best to avoid such unconventional issues?
    But, of course, the saving grace is the Author's Notes at (usually) the end of the book to clarify any such matters and any 'tweaking' of accepted history.

    1. I had a reader complain that my characters in the first of my post-Roman Britain Arthurian trilogy were using linen sheets - thus completely missing the point I was making. Flax, and even nettles, have been used for linen for many many years, but I was trying to get across that this particular family was still very wealthy, still sophisticated and still had use of 'technology' 30 odd years later in the trilogy, all that had gone... so I guess what I am trying to say is: occasionally the reader has to trust the author knows what he/she is talking about!

  2. "Yes I know corn-on-the-cob/maize is an American cereal crop and therefore wasn’t around in Britain circa 480 AD."

    I sincerely hope that you point out to these people -- politely, or impolitely -- this fact:

    "The word maize derives from the Spanish form of the indigenous TaĆ­no word for the plant, mahiz. The word "corn" outside North America, Australia, and New Zealand refers to any cereal crop, its meaning understood to vary geographically to refer to the local staple."

    So the phrase, "corn-fed" need NOT refer to the particular grain, maze. (Those twits!)

    As for your question, I like a mix of the two. My favorite author for this was Louis L'Amour. His characters, and the action, were pure fiction. However, When he wrote that, finding a certain type of grass int he desert indicated that there was a water source some three feet down; that was a fact.

    When he wrote about a certain town; The ghost town CAN be found on a map. Of course, there are no real records telling us who was sheriff, or when, or if the bank was really robbed, etc. But that was the "fiction" part of his story.

    Just as with the analogy of the potato that you gave. Have fun with the fiction, I'll enjoy it, but do get the actual "facts" part of the story right, thank you. LOL

    1. yes I always reply (politely of course) about the corn (although with a heavy sigh!) and yes totally agree with you!

  3. What a conundrum. Yes, it is fiction, and you are telling a story or fictionalising real events. But how far can you step away from known events? It can be a fine line, or at least, feel like it. I get rather vocal about a novel in which a young man is found dead on his father's body after a battle. Fine, except that young man went on to be one of the most influential Holy Roman Emperors of the Medieval era. To kill him off aged 30 is to enter the realm of alternative history, for absolutely no reason whatsoever as I honestly don't think the author knew what he'd done.

    For me, as long as the detail is there, that there are no Romans eating potatoes or Eleanor of Aquitaine drinking hot chocolate, the dress is correct, the right armour, journey times are realistic for horseback riding, that kind of minutiae, whatever else you write (killing Holy Roman Emperors aside) is OK because it FEELS right, it could have happened. When the detail is wrong then credibility is lost, however well the protagonist can argue politics and kings.

  4. Hit the nail on the head ... "well written" if a story is superbly told and written then the reader is swept along by the plot and characters with the detail of the detail glossed over - but only up to a 'believability point" !

  5. There are so many excellent museums that there ought to be no excuse for lack of authenticity. If we are writing about people who had real lives in the period about which we are writing then we have a duty to remain true to the known facts. There are, however, so many unknowns - what the individual was doing in the many gaps between the battles or political intrigues that we know about, what friends/acquaintances/employees did the person have beyond those we know about. It is those gaps in our knowledge that provides the writer with the opportunity to speculate. But any such invented material needs to show the individual behaving in a way that is consistent with what we know about his/her character.

  6. I think the little details are important -I virtually threw a novel in the bin when it got to the part where there was a fully functioning monastery in England 100 years after the Dissolution! But some things can be difficult to check -how were horses taken on ferry boats for example? I ended up having to think of loading a horse into a horsebox and then fudging the issue when I could find nothing out... And I do object to characters who think like a 21st century person- Renaissance novels populated by hordes of normal people who are atheists for example.

    1. Nothing wrong with 'inventing' ideas if there is no fact to fall back on, but as you say its when the BIG things are wrong that matters. (re horses: they would probably have simply been been led aboard for shallower vessels (i.e Norman Conquest) larger vessels (18th century) probably winched aboard.)

  7. If I am enjoying a book, the little bits that might be wrong do not bother me. But when the blooper is so blatant and hits me over the head, I will stop reading and not pick up a book by that author again. A good example of what I mean: a murder mystery set in the Victorian period and a maid is found dead with no immediate cause of death discernable. The detective and his pal proceed to strip the body to look for wounds and then dress her again. All this took all of 5 minutes! At this point, I was finished with the book. How could any man know how to undress and re dress a female with all the buttons and clasps and whatnot and then re dress her in that short period of time? I do not think a modern man could do it!

    1. I so agree with you Donna! Little things are OK - after all,this is fiction but it is those seemingly small details that should have been researched that cause the biggest bloopers. For the scene you mentioned: if she had been found in her chemise, then fair enough, but as you say... all those buttons,laces etc (and anyway, why re-dress her? Cover her yes, wrap her in a cloak maybe, but to fully dress her again? Most odd.


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