Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Can We Trust Historians?

One of my recent works in progress is an historical romance set in New England during a turbulent period of American history. 

In order to write any historical fiction, some semblance of having done one's research is critical. Last month, one of my colleagues had been asked to review a novel set in a period of history in which she is a known scholar. Her estimation of the novel was low because the historical facts were at variance with her knowledge. The author included actual historical figures who had not yet been born, wrote about events that had happened decades earlier than the era current with his story. 

These, if aware of the period in question, can halt a reader in their tracks and send the book hurling across the room. But how precise do fiction writers need to be to give the impression of verisimilitude? 

Another of my colleagues has studied the history of clothing and medicine. Fortunately, I haven't made serious mistakes in my historical novels set in Wales in the 9th and 10th centuries for her to rush at me screaming but I was dismayed that so much of what we assume to be authentic is, at best, a misunderstanding and, at worst, downright dishonest.

While undertaking research for my American historical, I've learned that the saying "History is written by the victors" is disturbingly true. History cannot be accepted without question. All history is subjective, in the hands of the person or persons doing the recording, for whatever their reasons for presenting 'facts' or presiding over the elimination of other, inconvenient, 'facts.'

The same colleague who screams when she finds errors in fashion or medical treatment, declared that there was only one 'right' side of any conflict involving mankind: the side perceived by historians to be morally correct. However, there is another saying worth remembering: "The first casualty of war is Truth."

I had the honor of editing two volumes of women's autobiographical essays of their experiences  in Wales during World War II. While these were personal experiences and written in good faith, memory is always selective and sometimes faulty. 

Any personal account of an historical event may also be self-serving or deliberately falsified in order to put the chronicler in a good light or on the politically acceptable side of history.

Surely, when we are hundreds of years distant from an historical event that shaped our lives, we owe it to ourselves to take a deeper look, to find the Truth hidden by the convenient facts.  If we perpetuate untruths for lack of research, or will, we do ourselves and our readers a disservice. 

Mistakes about who was born or what events were taking place are much lesser sins than deliberate distortion. There is one more saying that encourages us to seek answers: "The Truth shall set you free." 


  1. Nice post, Leigh. If we don't get the history right, how can we learn the right lessons from it?

    1. Absolutely true, Sandy, and yet we sometimes seem content to accept the 'received' history even though that leads us into even worse positions.

  2. Researching anything is a chore, Sure the internet makes it easier, but something the facts conflict. Let's just say I use the mjor events and sometimes make up some minor ones to help move along my story.

    1. Research certainly can be a chore, Kathye, but the research itself can lead to new ideas and inspiration, can change how we perceive are stories and open doors. I leave the historical figures to others and concentrate on the 'people on the ground' most affected by the history. I strive for authentic, and accurate as far as the larger picture goes. Thank you for commenting!

  3. Hi Leigh--
    This is certainly a provocative post. You brought up many great points, but this one really sticks with me: "All history is subjective, in the hands of the person or persons doing the recording, for whatever their reasons for presenting 'facts' or presiding over the elimination of other, inconvenient, 'facts.'" So true!

    1. Too true, Victoria. We tend to trust what we read and accept the writer-historian to tell the truth. For whatever reason, some don't. Thank you for commenting.