Yet sometimes an author has to tell an outright historical lie, not for the sake of the story or out of laziness, but because a lie is necessary to create the illusion of truth.
You see, the problem with historical fiction is readers rarely know what's true and what's not. I wish books could be like Horrible Histories (a deliciously quirky British show that makes fun of history). Whenever the characters mention a fact that is too crazy or ridiculous to believe, a little rat walks across the screen holding a sign saying, "TRUE."
Instead, we authors have to be careful not to write anything too crazy or too far outside of a reader's knowledge. It doesn't matter whether or not we're right; what matters is whether we look right.
For instance, a long time ago I read a book about Vestal Virgins where the author placed the temple of Vesta inside the house of the priestesses. I scoffed at the author's ignorance. If you look at a map of the Roman Forum, you can clearly tell the temple is out on the road, completely separate from the vestals' house. I spent the rest of the book searching for other inaccuracies because let's face it; finding inaccuracies makes us feel smart.
Later I discovered the temple of Vesta was inside the vestal house up until AD 64. Both structures were rebuilt numerous times due to fire, and each time the vestal house grew in size until finally they were separated.
Since my book takes place around 200 BC, it would be more accurate for me to depict the house the same way this other author did. But I didn't. Enough people have been to the Roman forum and few enough people know how the house evolved that if I described the house exactly the way it was, readers will think I made a mistake. The lie makes my story feel truer.
|The House of the Vestals. Red lines indicate how the house looked before AD 64|
Here's another example: once on Facebook a friend mentioned she wanted to use a word in her novel that sounded modern but was actually true to the time period. (I can't for the life of me remember what the word was.) All her beta readers complained about the word because they didn't know she was right for using it.
When she asked if she should be able to include it, I said absolutely not. The word might be accurate, but it would destroy the illusion of accuracy. The illusion is more important.
If you do decide to include facts that seem strange or contrary to what most people know, it's important to develop trust between you and the reader. Books that successfully do this are shocking, fascinating, and great fun to read. Such trust can be complicated, however, so it's a topic I'll save for a later post.