Historical Accuracy in Fiction

I am having something of a moral struggle with my current work in progress (WAKING TARA). The novel has some elements of the fantastical about it but as it is set in rural Ireland between 1898 and 1902 there is an historical depth to the novel which I’d like to be as accurate as possible. There is a great deal of historical detail in my novel DAWN SOLSTICE despite the fact that there are supernatural elements to the story. But in Dawn Solstice the history is centred around the setting – the Boyne Valley. The dilemma I have with Waking Tara is that as well as the historical setting there are also historical figures featuring in the background.

MaudGonne
Maud Gonne

In one scene, the Irish nationalist and great friend of WB Yeats—Maud Gonne—is present. Her actions form the backdrop to the drama of the scene and although I can limit the dialogue spoken, my question is should I? It makes me uncomfortable to put words in the mouth of our past. And conjuring up words for such a capable speaker as Maud Gonne is somewhat intimidating. Mantel (Wolf Hall) advises that (paraphrasing) as a writer you owe those characters all your efforts in discovering the actual details of what was said and what happened, to write this into your scene first then fill in around the real history with what seems most plausible.

But what about character voice? So much can be suggested about a character not by the words they say but the way they say it. An excellent resource to help capture a historical character’s voice is their correspondence. A varied collection of letters can reveal so much about a character from how they handle professional or business matters to chatting to their closest friend or indeed how others speak to them.

One of the scenes from real history that feature in Waking Tara involves Maud Gonne taking over a bonfire on the Hill of Tara; a bonfire that was intended as a celebration of King Edward’s coronation, which she lit and sang A Nation Once Again. Her motivation for doing so was to attempt to rouse the local community to protect the Hill from the reckless excavations that were taking place at the time. It also served to anger those who wanted the excavations to take place, including the then owner of the land. Here she mentions her actions in a letter to her friend Yeats. She clearly enjoyed the experience:

Extract from a letter from Maud Gonne to WB Yeats (dated August 1902)

It was a great mistake I think to have abandoned the public meeting at Tara. I don’t think Groom & Brisco are really beaten at all. In a few weeks I expect they will be digging away as merrily as ever. Griffith doesn’t share my views on this subject.

     Our Children’s excursion was a great success, & every body enjoyed the day immensely.

     Brisco had prepared an enormous bonfire to be lighted in honour of the king of England’s coronation – We felt it would serve a better purpose if burnt in honour of an Independent Ireland so lighted it & sang A Nation once again. The Constabulary didn’t like it at all & danced & jumped with rage – they added greatly to the fun.

W B Yeats
W B Yeats

 

How do you cope with the non fiction in your fiction?

As a reader do you enjoy when a writer strives to get the history right, or does it matter as much in fiction?

Post a comment and let me know!

 

Olivia Kiernan is author of DAWN SOLSTICE. She writes for children and Young Adults under the pseudonym Olivia Bright.

You can find her books here (click on the title):

DAWN SOLSTICE

BECOMING LADY BETH (Olivia Bright)

PIP LEARNS TO FLY (Olivia Bright)

Follow on Twitter: @LivKiernan

 

 

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Historical Accuracy in Fiction

  1. Personally, I appreciate a writer that strives to represent history correctly. Even though it is fiction, it is disappointing when the writer did not care enough about his/her work to do at least a little research. One of the pleasures of historical fiction is having a fictional story dropped into an historical time and/or place. When the historical part is fudged it tends to be a distraction. Of course, that is just my opinion. I’m sure that some readers may not give a flipity flip about historical accuracy.

    1. I agree with you Ron. I love when I’m reading a novel and come away feeling I have learned something new from history. Also, is the research not part of the enjoyment of writing from an historical perspective? Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  2. Not being I writer but an avid reader I would think that adding realistic conversation to a historical figure adds depth and believability to your fictional piece.

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