Thursday, July 14, 2011

Writing about Real People: How Much Truth?

Making any historical fiction accurate is enough of a challenge. Writing a biography is another matter entirely. They’re about real people.
Margaret George said you can’t write someone’s history perfectly, but you should write something the person would like. At the computer, she imagines Cleopatra looking over her shoulder, and she tries to make Cleopatra happy.
“Think of how you would want to be written about,” she said. “Characters want to be fairly represented.”
“I don’t think it’s fair when you’re writing about another person to change truths,” said Cecilia Holland.
Every time Cecilia Holland spoke, she said something exceptionally interesting. I wish I met her. One thing she said was that history isn’t what happened, it’s what we remember. It tells a story just like we do.
A member of the audience said, “Historical fiction is the lie that tells the truth. It tells us what it felt like to live a certain life, and that’s something we don’t get from history books.” I was mad he said this because I was just about to raise my hand and say the same thing. He added, “All history is an interpretation. Ours is just a different kind.”
Susan Vreeland agreed. “Slavish obedience to fact serves little purpose. Fiction invites us into the person’s soul.”
The moderator asked the authors, “History is already fictionalized, and sometimes you run into conflicting sources. How do you read between the lines?”
“As soon as something happens, people write about it, and the truth mutates,” said Cecilia. “You can’t take anything at face value.”
Cecilia said lies are clues to the truth. You can find out a lot from the way people bent facts and the reason they did it. Her book “The Secret Eleanor” is a good example. Eleanor of Aquitaine made a lot of men angry, and all the historians were men, so they wrote unfair things about her. Cecilia didn’t trust the sources, but they revealed how people felt about her and helped her figure out how Eleanor must have acted to get that reaction.
The moderator asked, “If every history book went up in flames and the only knowledge of the past came from historical fiction, how would that change your work? Would you feel a heavy responsibility to tell the truth?” They said they wouldn’t change a thing.

3 comments:

  1. what an interesting post! It's funny because my husband is a huge fan of historical nonfiction, so whenever we see a movie that depicts history, he gets very bent out of shape if they digress too far from the truth. It's like you said---if all the history went up in flames, THAT would be all we had to remember the event by.

    Heavy thoughts~ :o) <3

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  2. I've been in the peculiar position of writing a biography of a fictional artist and her highly unorthodox work, so this post was definitely food for thought, as the cliche goes. Thanks! :)

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  3. Interesting post, and very perceptive. The question: "If every history book went up in flames and the only knowledge of the past came from historical fiction, how would that change your work? Would you feel a heavy responsibility to tell the truth?" That's a lot of pressure for a historical writer, but a good kind of pressure. I've always assumed that historical writers glean their settings, cultural references, and language (of their novels) from true historical facts with minor twists and addendum to suit the purpose of their story.

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