Putting the History in Historical Fiction
The nasty e-mail was not what I expected.
For months before my first novel, The Kommandant's Girl, was released, I braced myself for the backlash that would inevitably come from writing about a Jewish woman (Emma) who becomes involved with a Nazi. To my surprise, no one seemed bothered by that. Instead, the irate reader wrote to angrily ask: how could I possibly say that the Sachenhausen concentration camp was near Munich, when it was in fact near Berlin?
I paused, considering the question. To be fair, I hadn't depicted the camp there. Rather, Krysia, a Polish character who had never been to the area, had simply made the comment erroneously. But other e-mails came, too, from readers taking issue with my portrayal of various historical details: An Orthodox Jewish family would never have named their daughter Emma, one wrote. A secular Jew like Emma's husband Jacob would not have worn a yarmulke, insisted another. Thankfully, there were only a few negative e-mails, dwarfed by hundreds of positive messages. But they were enough to make me wonder, how far are we as writers obligated to take the "history" in historical fiction?
It is an issue that I continually wrestle with as a writer. Sometimes, I choose to stay accurate (keeping the geography of Krakow in tact was particularly important to me.) Other times the needs of plot and narrative thrust dictate that history be bent, such as reducing the approximately eighteen months between the German invasion and the creation of the Krakow ghetto to six weeks. (I felt better upon reading recently that the true story of the Von Trapp family was similarly cut from twelve years to a few months in The Sound of Music.) I have found editors to be similarly sensitive to historical detail – with my second novel, The Diplomat's Wife, we spent much time debating whether a bus would have had doors in 1946 London and would it have cost a two pence or five pence to ride. Though my latest novel, Almost Home, is modern romantic suspense, I struggled with the same issues, both in terms of the historical back story and also with the accuracy my depiction of Jordan's life as an intelligence officer required.
I'm mixed about the intensity readers seem to place on "real life" details. I'm not saying that historical writers should not be diligent in their research with the goal of creating a realistic time and place. And a historical world, like a fantasy realm, should have rules in order to be believable. But this is fiction, not memoir. But at the same time, there seems to be a "gotcha" mentality that can at times feel, well, a tad adversarial and perhaps take away from the author-reader connection.
On one hand, I'm glad that my readers are intelligent and pay attention. I do think a degree of accuracy is important to create and keep the trust that is necessary between the author and reader, and I’m glad my readers care as much as I do.
Are you interested in reading Almost Home? Well, you're in luck! Pam is generously offering a paperback copy to one lucky reader. To enter, you must have a U.S. or Canada address and answer the following question(s): How important is it to you that historical fiction is factually correct? Do you think it's okay for authors to "play" with events a bit, given that it's fiction? Please include your e-mail address.
This giveaway will end Sunday, March 21 at 11:59 pm EST.