I'm planning to write another piece of historical fiction and have been outlining the story. It involves Filipinos living in Europe in the nineteenth century: there really were quite a few, and many of them well-known figures. I had outlined the plot based on historical essays by Ambeth Ocampo and started writing some parts, but wanted to confirm some details. For instance, the age of Jose Rizal's flame Nelly Boustead, how she and Rizal addressed each other (first names were not often used outside the family by the Brits in those days) and the thoughts of Juan Luna on the Impressionists.
I guessed Nelly to be quite young, based on her photos. I found on Wikipedia a listing mentioning Boustead's daughter Helen (a name often nicknamed Nelly in those days) but found that she was born in 1857 and was the grandmother of David Niven, whose father was born 1877, a year after Helen's marriage. That was certainly different from the Nelly that Rizal proposed to in 1891! I found an article on Singaporean shipping magnate Edward Boustead's family tree which listed an illegitimate son who was 4 in 1841. This son's children were not mentioned, but this would seem to be correct. If he had his older daughter at age 30, then Nelly as the second daughter could have been 18 to 21 in 1891. She may be older if he married, say, at 25. But it seems unlikely she was over 21.
In her letters, which Ocampo described as often sounding like religious tracts, she sounds rather young. She had a governess, it would seem, for one thing. Of course, women in those days were more innocent and protected but it seems unlikely she would be under a governess beyond age 21. And besides, Rizal had a history for preferring very young women.
These are inferences that will have to remain inferences for a while. But the letters confirmed a few other inferences of mine. First, I had determined in the dialogue that she would address Jose Rizal as Mr. Rizal, as this was the proper form of address to non-family members in her time. This turned out nearly right: She addresses him as "Most esteemed Rizal." Last name only, like a boy in a boarding school? This was how male friends addressed each other in those days (like Homes and Watson) so Nelly must have been rather modern to use this form of address. Though she quotes herself as using Jose in a conversation with her family.
Since I haven't read Rizal's letters to her, I can't tell how he addressed her for sure. But I doubt the courtly Rizal would have called her Boustead or even Nelly to her face. She would have been called Miss Nelly, then, as she had an older sister. Or Miss Helen. Since she signed her letters H, it would appear she was named Helen. It's interesting to surmise why Boustead's illegitimate son would give his daughter the same name as his half-sister. Most likely it was the name of another relative such as his aunt.
These are some things I may never find out, but may be able to build on as a fictionist. What gives me more satisfaction is the dialog I created for Nelly before I had read her letters reflects the way she spoke, particularly how she viewed religion; many of the lines she wrote sounded close to what I had imagined. I'm pleased at how well I inferred, not the least because I won't have to revise that bit.
Another small item I turned out to be correct about was that Luna's brother Antonio and Rizal quarreled over Nelly during a gathering for the baptism of Luna's son. Ocampo merely mentioned they argued during a reunion of Filipino friends but not the occasion; I intuited the reason, I suppose, from the dates. I got this from Santiago Pilar's biography of him.
Regarding his thoughts on Impressionism, I surmised from his art that Luna found the style interesting but the usual subject matter not very significant. Pilar confirmed this, noting that Luna was leaning toward social realism soon after his exposure to Impressionism.
Accuracy is not always essential in historical fiction, because otherwise you would not be writing fiction. You do need to fill in gaps to allow you to flesh out the events. But it's best to represent the truth as closely as possible based on what is actually known. It's nice to know if ever I'm challenged over a contentious historical fact I can always point to my correct inferences to show I have a good sense of what probably happened. Though I still need to add to my track record.