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?