(See also What is Historical Fiction?)
In one email a reader once asked me if I had to get permission from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's descendants to use him as a character in my novel The Dante Club. Though the question is moot from a legal perspective (since Longfellow died many years ago, his persona along with his work is public domain), it does bring up a valid ethical issue. Not about contacting the family, necessarily, but about something more abstract.
Do we have a responsibility to a historical personage, to history itself, when writing fiction?
I've had a personal rule of thumb for my books that deals with the difference between accuracy and authenticity. I try for every element of my novels to be authentic even when not accurate. Historical fiction can't always be accurate or, well, it wouldn't be fiction (or could it? Look for a future post on whether nonfiction itself is a fiction). Even if we are telling a very straightforward historical story in which all the events are faithfully recreated—the life of Billy the Kid or the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, for instance—by entering mental spaces of the characters we're still fictionalizing.
Of course, there are many blank spaces and pockets of history that nobody, nonfiction or fiction writer, could fill in with strict accuracy. Private thoughts, unwitnessed actions, even by the most well chronicled figures in history, may be unrecoverable. And 99% of all people in history are probably entirely undocumented and leave nothing behind in the records other than a name, if that. Remember, it is possible when we fictionalize we might even be right without ever knowing.
In my latest novel, The Last Dickens, I wanted to show the gigantic celebrity of Charles Dickens as we follow him on a reading tour of the United States. In order to raise the dramatic stakes and explore the invasion of privacy that would come with Dickens's renown, I decided to create a character of a stalker. After writing a draft, while continuing my researching, I found something incredible to me: there really was a stalker, and one with an extremely interesting profile and background (see my Slate story on this here). I adjusted the next draft to reflect the new research. But if the real stalker had been undocumented by history (as she nearly was), I would have called that element of my novel fiction rather than what I'd call it: fictionalization. It would have been part of a shadow or secret history that is just as speculative to the scholar as it is to the novelist. One could argue it is the novelist who is in a better position, in fact, to draw out shadow history.
In The Dante Club, I chose to include the fictional character of Nicholas Rey, a biracial patrolman in the the Boston policeman. Officially, there would not be a nonwhite policeman in Boston for another decade after my novel was set. However, records were spotty and few archival materials survive for the Boston police, while press coverage of the police at the time was minimal. Moreover, mixed race individuals were seen in different categories. Around the same time, we do know of a documented policeman in New Orleans of African heritage. For all these reasons, I was comfortable including Rey in my story, and for many readers I hear from he is a favorite character.
For my second book, The Poe Shadow, I drew my boundaries a little differently. The death of Poe is a full blown mystery in its own right. The rule I made for myself was that every detail about Poe's death in my novel would be based on historical research (to say accurate here is difficult, since there are many differences of opinion), while my four main character, who are all fictional, would have free rein to interact with those factual details as I (or they) pleased. I enjoyed the challenging interplay between the nonfiction and fictional elements.
Such “rules” are self imposed by the novelist. There are no laws governing what we do with the history. There can be very legitimate creative and storytelling reasons why changes might be imposed on historical figures and events. Movie audiences, in particular, seem to be accepting of that, more so than historical fiction readers. One movie that I loved when I was young was Brian DePalma's The Untouchables (still love it).
It has only the loose outline of the actual history of Elliot Ness and Al Capone, but it did make me go out and read a biography of Capone when I was thirteen or fourteen years old, which was quite an accomplishment since I was not yet a big reader. Shakespeare's history plays show a fair amount of change from the primary sources he used for his historical material (putting aside whether those sources were accurate to begin with).
I have a novelist friend who used historical figures in a novel and decided to do a limited amount of research and fictionalize the rest. The novel was well received by the marketplace and the critics. He did receive some questioning, even angry mail from the descendants of the historical figures, bringing up the same sort of issue my emailer wondered about. The novelist, though, was very clear and confident about his creative reasons.
My own opinion is as long as the author is open and explicit about the way they're using the history, I think he or she is good to go. I've included historical notes at the end of each of my novels to fulfill this. I think this is a good way to do it, but even having some explanation on a website and not in the printed book itself is probably effective enough. It seems very common and natural that as readers we think “is that real?” as we read historical fiction, sometimes it is a fun part of the reading, almost like it is a game.
Do you think historical fiction has any particular responsibility to its readers and to history itself?