There are many things I miss about college, but footnoting research papers is not one. I’m old enough to have used a typewriter, which meant the inevitable missed key, followed by pints of Wite-Out and plenty of finagling with the platen. (Historical note: That’s the roller that feeds the paper.) There was a time, usually at 3 a.m. and only halfway through a 20-page thesis, when I thought “ibid.” was positively the greatest invention of any language. Still, I was a stickler for accuracy and documenting sources. As a dual major in newspaper journalism and history, I felt the responsibility of both to get things right.
Mercifully, those days are long past. In writing historical fiction, there is no need to prove I learned about the growth and development of Barranquilla, Colombia by studying a 1935 Pan American Union pamphlet. Most people probably won’t care that I’m reading the private memoirs of a Warburg family member to give an accurate rendering of upper-class domestic life in pre-WWII Germany. The details are important, yes, but what will matter ultimately is whether I can tell a compelling tale.
Facts are what make historical fiction, even if truth is superfluous to storytelling. Put another way, a ship need not be watertight to remain afloat. Screenwriters and moviemakers tend to ride particularly leaky boats when it comes to historical accuracy. Just look at the recent controversy over the movie, Selma. Historians called out the producers, writer and director for their false portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s role in the Civil Rights movement and his relationship with Martin Luther King Jr. A perhaps even larger and more emotional debate arose years ago over Oliver Stone’s JFK. Both films still received critical acclaim amidst the criticisms.
So what responsibility then do artists have to readers or viewers when portraying real people and real events? It depends. Authenticity of period and place and an accurate timeline are essential. Anachronisms and incorrect details simply break the spell of a good story. (Just because Shakespeare got away with it, doesn’t mean the rest of us should.) In the novel I’m currently writing I’ve taken some liberty, mostly because certain things are unknowable, but mainly because my intent is to portray some larger truths. It’s clear my story is entirely fictionalized, but also, I feel 100 percent comfortable with the deviations I’ve made because they’re based in solid research. If pressed, I could write a footnoted thesis about the actual history of the people and milieus I’ve chosen. But can I tell you how relieved I am that I don’t have to? The notes would be as long as the paper!
Any historical fiction, regardless of the medium, owes something both to past participants and present consumers. One of the wonderful things about living in 2015—and not at another point in history—is that we’ve developed technology that allows us to openly debate what happened and what didn’t. With a few clicks of a mouse or taps on a screen, the reader or viewer can dig deeper and learn more about the actual history, as well as the motives and intent of the artist portraying it. Just look at the articles, videos and tourism spawned by PBS’s Downton Abbey series. As a fan, I was engrossed by a documentary with the show’s historical adviser examining Edwardian manners and how they are conveyed to the actors. The History Channel miniseries Sons of Liberty has sparked a lively discussion online about the difference between historical fiction, docudrama and alternate history—important distinctions that should be made in evaluating any fictionalization. As a writer and a huge history geek, I can only believe these are good things.
Arguments about historical accuracy are sure to continue as long as artists turn fact into fiction. Even historians armed with reams of footnotes can find themselves at odds. But if there is one truth upon which everyone can agree, then it’s probably this: The best historical dramatists are inevitably the ones who have done their homework.