Wednesday, February 27, 2013

When Authors Should Tell Lies

Readers often like their historical fiction to be factual, and they expect authors to be as accurate as possible. The more true-to-life a novel is, the greater their appreciation of it. 

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.


  1. Terrific post, Teralyn! I'm tweeting it and sharing it.

  2. This is excellent! i don't write historical, mostly because I'd never get it remotely right, but I do love reading it! And you've brought a great point that probably applies to all types of stories. Sometimes, when truth is stranger than fiction, lying is better (in writing - not, you know, in the Federal Census).

  3. I love Horrible Histories....
    But you are right. Anachronisms drive me batty when I'm reading historical fiction

  4. NPR recently had a story on this same theme. It featured an author that was so accurate on details related to the CIA that he was detained for a short time.

  5. I appreciate it when an author includes footnotes, or factual notes at the end. Even in historical fictions, or mysteries, I don't mind when authors leave me these little nougats of knowledge all over the book. If something doesn't ring true, I check with El Internet; which is so easy to do these days. I can understand modifying or telling a fib to maintain a story line, but I would caution you to show the readers that you really do know your history with some sort of author's note. If I read your book and you are a historical fiction writer, chances are I have great interest in the time period and at least some knowledge. I will want some facts thrown in and if too many are left out or altered, I'll think you aren't good at research and might not pick up another book by the same author.

  6. Wonderful post about finding a balance between truth and what seems right.

  7. Excellent post. Thanks for sharing it.

  8. As everyone else has already said... great article, Teralyn!

  9. Your points are one reason why I love the "historical note" sections appended in novels. If I have believed and been comfortable with what I just read in the novel, I can forgive what might be inaccuracies.
    Related to your points, I find that in the current Spartacus miniseries, I am always caught by how the dialogue feels slightly, not quite Shakespearean but poetic like a translation of Virgil or Homer. It should somehow not fit perhaps, but it actually does IMHO.

  10. Hi, Teralyn! :) Sorry I've missed your last couple of posts. I plan to catch up on them when I can as I really do love your writing. Hope things are going well.

    As for this post, as long as the inaccuracy is intentional, I think it is okay. It's like tweaking a story line during revisions, the change is there to make your story better.


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