Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Historical Imagination: Fact vs. Speculation

By Jennifer Laam, @JenLaam

JH: Heads up historical folks! Let's give a big welcome to Jennifer Laam, who's here to share some tips on writing historical fiction. I've always been curious how historical writers weave the truth with the fiction, and where to draw the line between what really happened and what makes a better story. Jennifer has fun take on using history without being a slave to it.

Jennifer earned her master’s degree in History from Oakland University in Michigan and her bachelor’s degree from the University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA. She has lived in Los Angeles and the suburbs of Detroit, traveled in Russia and Europe, and worked in education and non-profit development. She currently resides in Northern California. The Secret Daughter of the Tsar is her first novel.

Take it away Jennifer...

I write historical fiction…with a twist. I guess this means I deal more with historical imagination than history. I use historical figures as characters, but the actual events portrayed are not necessarily grounded in factual evidence.

How closely should a fiction writer adhere to facts? How much leeway do we allow our imaginations? Although this issue is huge among historical writers, the same question must affect other genres as well. Science fiction and crime procedurals come to mind. To varying degrees, all writers conduct research. After all, part of the excitement of writing is discovering new worlds and learning to see those worlds through the eyes of our characters.

When I knew I would be published, I started to read book reviews more closely. I began to notice that in some reviews of historical fiction, what I considered the tiniest “mistakes” in an author’s work were called out and dissected. Knowing I would soon face reviewers myself, I felt horrified. I woke up in the middle of the night playing out a scene or a piece of dialogue, questions racing through my brain. Did I double check the year? Had I used an anachronistic phrase? Was my geography even close to accurate?

When I confided these concerns to a friend, she reminded me that I write fiction. Historical fiction, sure. In her view, however, since it was fiction I could ultimately do whatever I wanted. Of course this line of thinking can be taken too far, to the point where labeling a work “historical” makes no sense. But going the other direction can get out of control as well. We’re all familiar with the much maligned “information dump.” We’re all guilty of this practice, too. At least I know I am. When I find a juicy historical tidbit I want it IN MY BOOK.

I suppose the trick is to strike the right balance between fact and speculation. I think most writers want to respect the boundaries of history, or the laws of science, or the facts they’ve uncovered. Writers also have huge imaginations that want desperately to play. I’m not going to pretend I have it all figured out. As I’ve been writing, rewriting, and editing (and tearing up pages and rewriting again), I do think I’ve better determined the right balance between historical fact and fictional speculation for my work.

Characters: I like it when historical figures interact with fictional characters. I read about the individual’s personality. I try to imagine how they would behave in various situations. To my mind, this is the type of research that differentiates historical fantasy from historical fiction. At the same time, a fiction writer uses this information differently than an academic historian. Inevitably, there is embellishment.

My current work-in-progress features Potemkin, Catherine the Great’s advisor. I put him in some completely fictional situations. For example, he dreams of constructing a mosque. The real Potemkin was tolerant of other religions. Therefore I maintain that this fictional scenario is in keeping with larger truths about his personality. It doesn’t belong in a biography of Potemkin, but I think it can work in a piece of historical fiction….after a few more rewrites, anyway.

Details/Setting the Scene: Keep your world accurate within reason. Research is important for details of wardrobe, food, leisure time activities, and other day to day business in your characters’ lives. I must add one caveat, though. You may make a mistake. So much information is out there. You may miss something a reader has discovered.

You might also make a mistake on purpose, for the sake of readability. While researching THE SECRET DAUGHTER OF THE TSAR, I ran across an article that discussed the “traditional” colors pink for newborn girls and blue for boys. According to the article, this is a fairly recent trend. I fussed a little while over this issue. It may have been more correct to make a boy’s nursery pink at the turn of the 20th century. However, I couldn’t think of a way to relay this information to the modern reader without breaking the flow of the story. I decided that in this case an anachronism made sense. Which leads me to my last point…

Your Book/Your Call: Do what feels right for your work. If you enjoy research and want as much accuracy as possible, go for it! Readers will appreciate your attention to detail. If you want to conduct light research and then lean more on your imagination, I say why not? Readers will appreciate your whimsy. No matter the genre, everyone has different tastes and your book will find the right audience. In the meantime, you might as well have fun with what you write. Embrace the process. Ultimately, that’s the one piece of writing advice we can all use every day.

About The Secret Daughter of the Tsar

In her riveting debut novel, (St. Martin’s Griffin; October 22, 2013), Jennifer Laam seamlessly braids together the stories of three women: Veronica, Lena, and Charlotte and imagines an alternate history for the Romanov family – one in which a secret fifth daughter, smuggled out of Russia before the revolution, continues the royal lineage to dramatic and unexpected consequences.

Veronica is an aspiring historian living in present-day Los Angeles when she meets a mysterious man who may be heir to the Russian throne. As she sets about investigating the legitimacy of his claim through a winding path of romance and deception, the ghosts of her own past begin to haunt her.

Lena, a servant in the imperial Russian court of 1902, is approached by the desperate Empress Alexandra. After conceiving four daughters, the Empress is determined to sire a son and believes Lena can help her. Once elevated to the Romanov’s treacherous inner circle, Lena finds herself under the watchful eye of the meddling Dowager Empress Marie.

Charlotte, a former ballerina living in World War II occupied Paris, receives a surprise visit from a German officer. Determined to protect her son from the Nazis, Charlotte escapes the city, but not before learning that the officer’s interest in her stems from his longstanding obsession with the fate of the Russian monarchy.

As Veronica's passion intensifies, and her search for the true heir to the throne takes a dangerous turn, the reader learns just how these three vastly different women are connected.


  1. Wonderful (and timely) advice.

    1. Thank you and thanks for reading!

  2. Great post on a touchy subject.

    I read and love historical fiction. But I know that some things are clearly made up, and I understand that, but it's cool to know what the author got right if you have first-hand knowledge of a key historical fact or historical figure. Kind of an insider feeling.

    I face this issue all the time with what I write.

    For me, though, as I write animal stories, the question is "How naturalistic do my animals need to be?"

    Sometimes I feel many readers today are so fixated on facts and accuracy that they don't let their imaginations come into play. If it can't actually happen, it doesn't belong, and I feel lots of readers in recent years are of that mindset, in part I'm sure to the (At times) bullish pressure educators and/or parents put on students (Whether primary or secondary) to be fact-conscious automatons.

    I know I'm exaggerating some here, but I know there is some truth to that.

    My favorite stories often toe this very even-handed line between the fantastical and naturalistic. For example, a bear make eat what real bears eat, same physical traits, etc. But aside from speaking, they may have special powers, or the turf wars are different than in nature as we live it.

    Of course, some stories are outright meant to be cartoonish and played for laughs. Even then, though, a certain level of naturalistic traits remain, but play out in unnatural ways.

    Tom and Jerry is a classic example of what I mean. Cats hunt mice. But they take that factual concept and fantasize from there.

    But I think it's easier for visual mediums like cartoons, film or comics to attain that disbelief suspension than those of us who do text-only books.

    For me, the bottom line is this, unless I'm writing straight nonfiction (Which is NOT my best thing) I need the freedom fiction allows an author to use whatever research works for my story and discard the rest. The level of accuracy nessecary will depend the book and characters involved.

    1. Hi Taurean,
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this! One of my writing buddies also deals with animals and how to portray them in her work (naturalistic vs. fantasy elements). I agree that fiction writing should allow us latitude and freedom. For me, anyway, that is part of the joy:)

  3. This sounds like a riveting book! I LOVE reading historical fiction. One of my fave authors, Philipa Gregory, writes fun novels about the Tudors. Well, fun might not be the right word, especially to King Henry's wives who lost their heads.

    1. Thank you! And I adore Philippa Gregory. She really gets how to combine elegant writing with strong pacing.

  4. Even a book set in the recent past is historical, in that you can't give a Twitter account to someone before they were invented.

    Until the book is finished (it is set in the period 2005-2007), I'm being extra careful not to change anything in rewrites that I locked down IN the year in question - but I still find myself having to be careful.

    Slang changes. Common phrases change. The Internet has changed unbelievably (yes, there was an internet in 2005 - but most people found their information on websites, and not blogs).

    It is part of the fun to be plausible - even if your story is fiction.

    I think if you CHANGE history, you should make that obvious somewhere in the first few pages, or in a disclaimer such as 'under different circumstances, things might have happened this way.'

    But I love that you get to do whatever makes sense TO YOU for your story.


    1. Hi Alicia,
      Thanks for reading and posting. An example I enjoy about the recent past as history is from HOMELAND (the show) and involves Vitamin Water. I agree that plausibility is part of what makes a story resonate with a reader...I find I tend to be more lenient, however, if I love the characters and/or the premise enough. Good luck with your book!

  5. This sounds like a fascinating book! Can't wait to read it.

    1. Hi Mary,
      Thanks for stopping by! I hope you enjoy reading my novel:)

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. As a crime scene photographer I can assure you I hear a lot of made up stuff about places I have been too. With that said this is an AWESOME article and I thank you for adding to my creative arsenal.

  8. I just found this post through Twitter, and it's given me a nice little boost of confidence. I'm writing a steampunk book for the first time and it's been challenging to figure out which period details regarding actual clothing, social customs, even city government structures, need to be accurate and which ones can receive the fiction-treatment. That said, the research for this book has been a blast! Historical fiction truly is a good time for a writer. Thank you so much for this post.