Sunday, November 09, 2008


I love discovering new authors, and even better is sharing my find with my readers. So I am delighted to introduce my guest blogger, Jeri Westerson, whose first novel has just been released. Jeri was kind enough to share her thoughts...

History vs Fiction: How Many Liberties?

It's the great debate amongst writers of historical fiction and historical mystery. Does taking liberties negate some unwritten contract between author and reader? And just what exactly constitutes a "liberty?"

Now I'm not an historian. I don't even play one on TV. What I am is an interested amateur, someone who has been surrounded by history all her life from the day I could reach the bookshelf and take down something that had pretty pictures of castles and interesting places and people. My parents were Anglophiles and medieval history buffs. I learned to appreciate Chaucer at an early age and to take with a grain of salt old movies with historical themes—basically anything Cecil B. DeMille was attached to. But we'll get back to that in a minute.

My debut "Medieval Noir" VEIL OF LIES hits the streets at the end of October, and I did my best to make sure my facts were correct. Being involved in history for fun doesn't mean I don't take it seriously. It is this unwritten rule that to call something "historical" is to play fair with the reader. You don't start making up historical details to suit the plot. And if you do change a fact or two, you come clean in an author's afterword.

But then, where is the line drawn when using history as your plot element? Since I have no desire to raise the ire of fellow authors, I will use movies and a few television shows to discuss these points. Movies set in a distant time will always be popular. To see these places brought to life on the big screen is always a thrill. Even better when they are accurate. Alas.

I can forgive The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn because…well. It has Errol Flynn in it! The viewing public in the thirties were terribly invested in the Victorian view of the middle ages, which was a golden-hued revisionist's daydream, full of pointy-sleeved damsels stepping out of pre-Raphaelite paintings. So we can excuse, perhaps, the Warner Bros. 1938 retelling of the Robin Hood tale. Instead, let's talk Mel Gibson's Braveheart, assuming that in 1995 we should know better. In movies, it is the nature of the medium to compress timelines. You have more latitude in the pages of a novel to stretch out the time. But to compress them so much as to manipulate plot elements gets greedy. The biggest mess in Braveheart (and don't get me wrong. I still liked the movie. I can watch the battles and enjoy that. I can ignore the rest. Not so much in a book.) was the romance between Queen Isabella and William Wallace. At this late stage in Wallace's life, he was about 30 and Isabella, not yet wife to the heir Edward II, was 10 years old (Isabella and Edward II were married in 1308, three years after William Wallace was executed). Sure, it's a great plot element. Romantic and ironic. It just wasn't possible, that's all. And that's a big leap. We won't even talk about the lack of a bridge in the Battle of Stirling Bridge.

How about 2005's The Kingdom of Heaven? This was a short-lived movie on the last days of the crusades. This is Ridley Scott's revisionist view and attempt to placate the Muslims that they were good sorts way back when before the evil west started rattling broadswords and everybody started calling everybody infidels. According to Jonathan Riley-Smith, professor of ecclesiastical history at Cambridge University, the film is "Osama bin Laden's version of history." He said that "the fanaticism of most of the Christians in the film and their hatred of Islam is what the Islamists want to believe. At a time of inter-faith tension, nonsense like this will only reinforce existing myths." Agreeing with Professor Riley-Smith, I contend that it would be different if, say, you wrote your book in the point of view of one side or the other. A crusader protagonist might look upon the Muslim as an evil usurper. A Muslim protagonist would look upon a western crusader as an evil barbarian. But looking at the facts with a broader view, certainly finds a different history from Scott's.

The storyteller does have the right to create his own spin on a story. But when you are dealing with specific aspects of history it would seem in the best interests of all to depict it properly. For good or ill, people get their history from novels, movies, and—God help us—the History Channel. Taking this into account, does that mean there is a moral obligation to get the history right?

I was on a panel at Left Coast Crime in Denver in 2008 with author Stephanie Barron, who writes a mystery series with Jane Austen as the detective. She disagreed that authors need to get all the history right. She was more interested in the "what if" of a character: what if they really did this or that. "I am at peace with the fact that I wasn't writing a monograph," she said. Here, here.

On the other hand, the new BBC series Robin Hood plays fast and loose with, of all things—costumes! The sheriff of Nottingham seems to get his fashion sense from Huggy Bear, wearing pimped out Matrix-like long black leather jackets and Doc Martins, and at other times silk jammies. Merry Men sport dew rags, t-shirts, and net tank tops. With Robin Hood being a semi-mythical character, one can play a bit with his history and activities, but please put him in the correct clothing! (In fact, Nottingham castle is throwing their lot in with the BBC to make a buck…er…pound by displaying the costumes used in the show and purporting that they are deeply researched and accurate! For a SoHo nightclub, maybe…)

HBO's The Tudors suffers from extreme time compression as well as character compression (several characters reduced to one) in order to tell the story the writers want to tell, rather than the already extremely interesting real story of Henry VIII's pursuit of immortality with a son and heir.

So it comes down to this: to what lengths may an author play fast and loose with history? The answer is: It just depends on how obsessive you want to get. I know authors who get anal about the weather; was it really raining that day in 1236? We must make sure that Easter morning reflects the actual sunshine or fog. Feh.

Do we need to get that obsessive? Only if you want to. I don't think anyone will lose sleep over a rainstorm that didn't happen that November. However, if the region was experiencing a drought—a pretty infamous one that caused starvation and disease due to lack of rainfall—that's important and can inform the story.

I almost boo-booed big time in my own novel when I chose to begin my story in 1383. Some of the action of my "medieval noir" VEIL OF LIES takes place in King Richard II's court with his courtiers. In the middle of writing, I thought I should take a look at just where Richard's court was in the fall of 1383, and it was a good thing I did. I discovered that he wasn't even in London in 1383 at all! Solution? Move the action to 1384. It worked. I just had to make sure I fixed all the other timeframes. Would the average person—including my editor—have known the difference? Probably not. Would students of history and scholars have known? Most assuredly. Do I feel better about changing it? You betcha!

For the most part, I like to keep it real. It's more challenging, to be sure, to make certain that the facts are correct and change plot to fit the actual events. Readers appreciate the extra mile. But I'm also with Stephanie Barron who doesn't think that every little thing needs to be etched in stone. Just remember, if you are writing your thesis, use textbooks by reputable scholars. Don't pull down an historical novel from the shelf for your notes.

Unless, of course, you are reading the brand new medieval noir by a certain debut author to take a quick break.

L.A. native Jeri Westerson has been a journalist, a theology teacher, and a noted blogger on things mysterious and medieval. Her debut novel VEIL OF LIES; A Medieval Noir, blends her love of medieval history with her other love of dark plots and angst-ridden heroes. In bookstores. Read an excerpt at or read her blog "Getting Medieval".

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