Stretching the Facts in Historical Fiction

Philippa Gregory’s THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL was the first novel I picked up after a stressful period in my life. I was looking for pure entertainment and found it. Up to that point I didn’t realize it was “allowable” to fictionalize the life of historical figures. It put thought-provoking perspective on old stories. As a history lover and avid reader, I had to have more! Historical fiction (reading and writing) became my pursuit.

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marci-jefferson-author-writer        novel-girl-on-the-golden-coin

Column by Marci Jefferson, author of the debut historical fiction novel
GIRL ON THE GOLDEN COIN (Feb. 2014, Thomas Dunne Books), which,
in a starred review, Publishers Weekly called “An exciting, solid debut.
Jefferson’s intoxicating first novel superbly draws readers into the mischief
and maneuverings, loyalties and treacheries, and lust and hostility of
powerful 17th century kings and scheming court sycophants.” Find Marci on Twitter.



My novel GIRL ON THE GOLDEN COIN is based on Frances Stuart, who posed as Britannia on England’s coins three hundred years ago. As soon as I started writing, I felt a sense of responsibility to make her story as accurate as possible. Scouring sources for facts about her life revealed many unanswered questions. I ended up using as many facts as I could and just fictionalized the gaps. The first draft was done before I realized there are opposing opinions out there as to how the fact-fiction balance should be handled in this genre.

Many stress the importance of accuracy in historical fiction. Others think too many historical details sink the story. Still more believe it isn’t possible to achieve total historical accuracy in storytelling. Almost all agree that the author’s choices should be explained in an author’s note. The degree of emphasis an author places on fact versus fictionalization might be considered a matter of writing style.

It’s easy for a reader to tell whether a title is set in a favorite era or not. Some historical titles fall into obvious subcategories like alternate history, fantasy, mystery, thriller, or romance. But others aren’t so streamlined. Some have a literary style, some are written for a commercial market. Some are history driven, and some are character driven. In all of these, and especially in biographical novels like mine, you find varying fact-fiction balancing styles. Sometimes it’s hard to guess based on the cover and jacket blurb, but writing style is hard to guess in any genre. So if you’re writing historical fiction, gather your facts, then allow yourself some artistic license.

(Definitions of unusual literary terms & jargon you need to know.)

We’ve all heard the phrase, “History is written by the winners.” Pontius Pilate asked the famous question, “What is truth?” Historical sources can be apocryphal or fraught with gossip, spin, propaganda, hearsay, and conflicting points of view. Sometimes the facts weren’t recorded. Authors, who aren’t necessarily professional historians, often have to make educated guesses. We employ “facts” on a number of levels – for character motivation and conflict, the plot’s direction, or even simple background scenery.

So, while there are many ways to handle the fact-fiction balance, I feel it is more important that every author approach it purposefully. The author’s writing style determines whether they weave a story based on facts, or whether they thread facts in where they suit the narrative. The sum of the choices each author makes shapes the fabric of a novel. There isn’t a right or wrong way to create art.

I always find there is more to consider when readers and writers weigh in on this topic. So what do you think? What fact/fiction balance do you prefer to read? If you’re an author, what is your fact/fiction balancing style?


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9 thoughts on “Stretching the Facts in Historical Fiction

  1. Debbie McClure

    When I saw the subject of this article, I jumped on it! Although I’ve (trad) published one book in another genre, with the sequel due for release in a couple of months, I’ve begun writing a new novel, a historical fiction. It was a little daunting at first, but the story grabbed me and wouldn’t let go, so I just start writing it. I’ve grappled with the issue of fact vs fiction, and your article has helped me feel much more confident regarding the style in which I want to approach this character-driven story. Thank you!

  2. Holly

    I like a mix of facts and creativity. Stories that stick to just the facts of that particular persons life tend to read like history books and not novels, because often we don’t have all the facts of peoples person lives so some creative license is necessary.

  3. RalphMyers

    I am currently writing my third historical fiction novel I use the method you have shown in your article “The author’s writing style determines whether they weave a story based on facts, or whether they thread facts in where they suit the narrative.” As a US Army Vet having served in Germany when the Berlin Wall was built and being a history buff about the European Theater in WWII especially interested in the horrific consequences suffered by the 6 million Jews that perished my story revolves around the lives of two families one German of aristocratic and the other Jewish as their lives progress from the periods covering the 1700’s through the end of WWII and beyond. I have done tons of research and am using what you have described as “weave the story based on facts or thread facts in where they suit the narrative.” I agree it is difficult to keep the story from becoming more like a history lesson at times that will make the story seem like one.

  4. pinklady

    This article was so informative. I’ve just submitted my first novel, a work of historical fiction to an editor. I’ve written, and rewrote the story many times, between checking facts, and creating, as you said, “filling in the gaps between the facts” I labored over how much creativity and actual events I should use, and if I balanced the
    the two. From what you say, I think I’ve done just that. Thank-you.

    Rosemary Ryan Imregi

  5. Mike Crowl

    This article is incredibly helpful to me! As I am also working on a historical fiction work, I have revised several times as I have learned additional details about “what really happened” in the period of my story. In the end, I stretched a little bit, as TCKenn pointed out with Grisham’s novel, and added a few buildings and businesses that I think probably didn’t exist in the real town at that time. I did it for the sake of the story, and I am okay with that. It makes everything much more readable, entertaining, and frankly, believable. I think Marci makes great points in her article, and it reminds me of the kinds of differences you might see in the “movie version” of a book. I hate to admit this, but I often like the movie versions better. That’s sad for a writer to admit, but I am also a big fan of cinematography and settings and lighting. I am a visual person, and often a well-written book will give me that visualization and make me smile. But I also appreciate when a “building is in the way,” or “this place needs to have a general store on this corner.” For me, it makes the other elements of the story more vivid.

    1. Marci Jefferson

      Mike, I’m delighted this article was helpful to you. You’re not alone in loving cinematic versions of novels, either! As authors we need to be able to visualize to enhance our historical fiction. It sounds like you have a good handle on your fact-fiction balance, and I wish you the best of luck!

  6. TCKenn

    Thanks for these thoughts on historical fiction. I found that reading those author’s notes can be helpful. They can give aspiring and young writers a sense of the range of possible approaches to faithfully adhering to the “facts” vs. using some creative license for the sake of enhancing setting or building your story. I am working on a novel set in another time and was wrestling with this issue. There were so many interesting things going on in the period that, if I could allude to them, would enrich my story. But some of those events took place just after the period of my story. Some interesting historical figures were born a little too late to be used the way I would have liked to use them. Then I read one of John Grisham’s author’s note, which he wrote for a novel set in D.C. In the note he said he simply created buildings where he needed to, or removed places that got in the way of his story. I then ran across similar notes of historical license in novels by equally prominent writers. That really helped to free up my sense of the possibilities of taking some historical license. I think the rule must be that whatever liberties you take, the history must remain faithful in spirit–within the confines of your genre, of course–to the era, the geographical location, the social world you are creating. Again, thanks.

    1. Marci Jefferson

      TCKenn, yes, those author’s notes are helpful. Especially in historical fiction! I’m delighted to see that you have a good feel for the fact-fiction balance your novel needs. I especially agree with your comment, “..whatever liberties you take, the history must remain faithful in spirit..” Best of luck with your novel!

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