Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Fiction or "Faction"?

I have started reading “The Red Queen” by Philippa Gregory, having read a few of her books and enjoyed them.

As I added the book to my “currently reading” shelf on Goodreads, I couldn’t help taking a look at some of the reviews left by other readers, and I was not surprised to find comments about the historical inaccuracy of Gregory’s novels. It’s not the first time I have come across this kind of criticism towards her books and I can understand them, to an extent.

Philippa Gregory’s books fall under the genre of “historical fiction” and to me that word – fiction – really sums up my expectations. Surely, if I wish to read historical facts I would get hold of  books and biographies written by historians rather than novelists. With that I would get accuracy, but probably a less well crafted story.

And that’s what it boils down to: storytelling.

For all her shortcomings in the “historical accuracy” camp, Gregory is excellent at weaving a compelling story that pulls you into the period and the characters’ mind. And that is what I expect from a writer of fiction.

What some readers seem to want is faction: a good story true to reality.

I am sure that in some instances that is possible to attain, but on the whole, truth and reality tend to be far less exciting that we are lead to believe and a good dose of artistic licence should be allowed in fiction, if it serves the purpose of making a story more interesting.

And this is the crunch: how far can fiction go when it comes to fiddling with the truth? And to what extent should facts get in the way of a story?

I don’t write historical fiction, but my contemporary novels often span through years and so a little period setting is required.

I normally research the years I’m tackling to add a little colour and realism to the story: who was in the news, what music were we listening to, which TV programmes people enjoyed watching and so on. I’m quite particular about it and make sure I’ve got the right detail for the right year or even month.

However, occasionally I have fiddled a little with the truth.

One example I can recall is a dialogue between two characters in my last novel – Playing on Cotton Clouds – where reference is made by one of them to an event in the news. The reference worked a treat in the conversation, made it more colourful and even funny. Unfortunately the event happened three months after the time in which the conversation takes place, so realistically, they could not have mentioned it. It bugged me a little, as I really liked the line. I thought of removing it, for the sake of accuracy, but then, on second thought, I decided the story was better served by the line being there and left it.

Luckily for me, not many people will notice the incongruence and I probably got away with it. But if some zealous reader should point it out to me, I’d reply that the book is fiction and so it doesn’t really matter that much if I brought a news item forward a few months.

It’s fiction, not faction.

So what do you think? Should fiction remain faithful to the truth no matter what or can allowances be made?


  1. This is an aspect of fiction writing that gets my goat, Michela. People do lose sight of the fact that it is FICTION. It's not real life, and if you're meddling with a few historical facts, what difference does it make?

  2. Ahh, interesting! :-)

    See, as an author of historicals, I like to combine both - factual background and a fictional plot.

    With my first release, Highland Arms, I looked what happened around that time (smuggling in the Highlands after the 1715 Jacobite uprising), and what life was like, using local information. However, I only hinted at the political situation and didn't use real historical characters (although I did use authentic Edinburgh lanes & buildings). The romantic relationship was the major point of the story, not the background.

    But Dark Deceit, my new novel, is more focused about the political background, with real-life characters. So - as far as it's possible - I had to research potential locations, strategies, political movements. However, I also put real characters in places where they *might* have been at a certain time as no accurate details exist. That helps me as an author get them into the place I want them to be. Whilst I'm careful about such details (incl. who's alive/married/incarcerated/etc), I'm still focused on my fictional plot. After all, my main characters are my invention, so their life is in my hands.

    A healthy mix of both is required for gripping historical fiction. There are novels that read like history books, and I'm not keen on those. Keep a balance, that's my opinion.

    Fab topic! -)

  3. Fact & reality are curious things anyway. When my son and hubby read my memoir they both found it a revelation and didn't remember things in the same way. I had letters and other items from the time so wasn't writing purely from memory. We were all there but experienced it in our own way. Whose to say which version was reality?

  4. I think the danger of the "this is fiction" view is that it's the *story* that's fiction, not the setting. If Chicago is a real place, and your contemporary story takes place in a ritzy neighborhood, don't you take a second to find out what the best neighborhoods in Chicago are, and where they are in the city? Maybe the principal street names and identifying features? You don't make that stuff up. For one thing, it's easy to find and lots of people will know if you get it wrong. If you set the story in Chicago 1850, does it suddenly become unimportant?

  5. Hi Michaela
    Fascinating topic! I think you have been quite brave to change reality (in the sense of recorded events) as you might risk alienating the 'picky' type of reader (described here who homes in on detail. But someone like me will probably not even notice! My current novel is set in a particular year because of one real event I wanted to utilise and that has been a bit of a problem. But if I really wanted to I could change everything by simply making up a different event which would have had a similar impact. fiction is making things up, thank goodness!
    Historical fiction (which I have also attempted!) is harder again, especially in the story of a historical figure. It seems wrong to change what's generally accepted to have happened. But you can fill in gaps, rearrange things and investigate the relationships and motivations to reveal the story you want to tell.
    Best of luck with KTCC - must take a look and see if I can spot the 'deliberate mistake'!

  6. Thanks everyone for your comments. It is indeed an interesting subject.

    On the whole I agree with the view that if a book is centred on certain facts/events, it should try to stick to them as far as it's feasible, though a little licence is allowed, I guess, where sources are rare or conflicting. However, if the event is only marginally important to the story, I think reality can be "manipulated" a little for the sake of fiction.

    What I mean is: if two characters are talking about a football match between two real football teams and that match and its result never really happened, but the fact is only used to give colour to the dialogue and depth to the characters, while the focus of the story is not the actual game, then I think "fiction" can be used. On the other hand, if the focus of the story is a real person (a footballer or a manager) or the football team itself, then it is the author's duty to do their research and find out about what matches were actually played, where, when and who won. Making stuff up in that instance would alienate a lot of readers who are interested in the book's subject matter and would spot every mistake.