How true do you expect historical fiction to be?
I recently “proof-listened” to the audio version of my romantic historical novel, A Note of Scandal. It sounded fantastic, better than I ever expected. Except for one tiny detail: The narrator kept mispronouncing the name of a British ship, the Bellerophon. I thought maybe I’d misheard it in my head all these years, so I asked the producers if they’d used a different source. No—they’d just assumed I’d made up the name of the ship.
I could understand why: The Bellerophon at the time of my story carried a most unexpected passenger: Napoleon Bonaparte. After his defeat at Waterloo and various feints and parries, Napoleon asked the captain of this ship for temporary asylum and transit to England, where he could plead for political asylum. He arrived on the Bellerophon in Plymouth Harbor in August 1815, and there they stayed for two weeks, until word came that he would not be granted asylum. He was transferred to the Northumberland, which took him to exile in Saint Helena.
The hero in my novel is a newspaper publisher, so I was looking for a Big Story for him to cover. When I read about the Napoleon trip I was over the moon: Something that hadn’t been written to death in novels but had been reported about enough so I could get the kind of good detail to write a vibrant, truthful scene. Plus artists had even captured the event, including John James Chalong’s Scene in Plymouth Sound in August 1815.
It never occurred to me that readers (or narrators) would think that I’d made the whole thing up. It does sound kind of wild, but then what in history doesn’t? [see also my post: Napoleon in England?]
Does it make a difference to you if as you’re reading you think, “Oh, this is made up for the story”? It makes a difference to me, but I’m not sure I can say exactly why. Part of it is that I read historicals both to enjoy and to learn about the time. I know they are fiction, but I still somehow expect the majority of the setting to be reasonably accurate. And with different authors, I draw different lines: As I read, I learn which ones “fudge” the corners and which ones don’t. I like the “fudgers” usually for their dialogue and liveliness; I like the “straight-shooters” for that and more. But then again, it’s not a fiction writer’s job to write history: The first rule of writing is Tell a Good Story.
As I wrote this story, I came up on another puzzle: Napoleon himself. According to current historians, the man was average height (for his time)—he wasn’t short and he wasn’t sensitive about his height. But so many readers “know” that he was short, it’s a joke in movies and part of general culture. So much so that if I wrote that the General was “of a height with the British officers near him,” readers would scoff. But then, the readers who do know this odd truth would scoff if I wrote it any other way. What to do?
Part of the reason we think Napoleon was a shrimp is because the English newspapers and writers of the day called him names, belittling the enemy. So I could have had my newspaper hero, Will, mention his height and then declare he would “cut the great man down to size.” But that didn’t feel very heroic, what with the ex-Emporer already defeated and penned. So I copied Sir William Quiller Orchardson’s painting, Napoleon aboard HMS Bellerophon, and put the man alone and in the foreground and letting perspective make the others look smaller.
Which reader are you? Do you like your fiction with a veneer of history, a bucketful, a heaping helping? If I’d said Napoleon walked tall on the deck, would you have scoffed or nodded?
-Nicky Penttila loves to write about people who discover they are more than meets the eye. The author of A Note of Scandal, her next big historical, An Untitled Lady, releases in August. Chat her up on Twitter, @sunshinyday, or on Facebook.
Three lucky readers who comment on my post will be randomly selected to win an e-copy of A Note of Scandal. Good luck!
p.s. A classic Zebra Regency romance that also makes use of the events in Plymouth is The Perfect Bride (aka The Perfect Match), by Jo Ann Ferguson (2004, Zebra Books).
I’d love to find others – know of any?