We're never going to solve this dilemma because it's not a black-and-white issue. It depends on the type of book your writing, and it depends on what facts you twist and what fiction you insert.
While all of that makes a difference, this is the one question I think determines how much fact and fiction is appropriate for you:
What is your book trying to accomplish?
That's what it all boils down to, really. If you're trying to write an accurate, true-to-life book that includes a works cited list, you darn well better get your facts right. If you want to write a romance or a mystery about people who never really lived, the story comes first.
This is why we can't find a solution to this question: the answer is different for every author.
I think every hist-fic author should write their own Mission Statement. We should individually take a stance on how we think our novels should be, and we should stick by it. Readers only get frustrated when an author wavers from his stance.
Here's my Mission Statement: There are three elements in writing a historical fiction, and I've ranked them according to what's most important to me.
- The Purpose
- The History
- The Story
Yes, I put history before story. The facts are what makes historical fiction fun. Putting all the clues together to figure out how things really happened is like solving a great puzzle. If I thought the story was more important than the history, I'd pick an easier genre.
At the end of the day, though, the purpose of my story is more important to me than anything. My books always have a message, and that message is what truly matters.
Here's an example of how I craft my stories:
My next novel is going to be about Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. I could write a dark, mysterious story about an evil witchy woman, but that's not who she really was. It would make for an interesting story, but history is more important. Marie was devoutly Catholic, she was a successful business woman, and she was a philanthropist. I'm going to depict her as a woman I look up to, because I do.
On the other hand, Marie Laveau had a daughter who replaced her as the Voodoo Queen after her mother's death. She looked so much like her mother that people on the street freaked out because they thought Marie Laveau was still alive and young. This inspired me to use my book to express my ideas about family, specifically the mother-daughter relationship and how to keep family ties strong.
There's substantial evidence that Marie's daughter died long before she did. If it's true, she couldn't have taken her place as the voodoo queen. What do I do? If I lose the mother-daughter theme, all the family-based ideas I planned for this book are gone.
Having this theme in my novel is more important than whether Marie's daughter lived or died. I will not keep her daughter alive to make my story more interesting, but I will keep her alive to get across what I want to say. That's my mission statement.
What about you? What's your Mission Statement?