The Muse of History

Gannicus from Spartacus is a made up character not entirely "true" to history, but his story line is amazing... and look at those muscles!

Gannicus from Spartacus is a made up character not entirely “true” to history, but his story line is amazing… and look at those muscles!

History nerds, raise your hands! Mine is firmly up in the air and flailing around because yes, I’m kind of obsessed with history, as are many of the writers here in the Tearoom. We write historical fiction in various times and genres, but we all share a love of research. Check any of our Twitter feeds or “recently read” on Goodreads and chances are you will find some obscure books or facts about whatever time period we’re writing about at the moment. And you’ll also find enthusiastic tweets declaring, “OH MY GOD, can you believe this awesome fact I just discovered?” HISTORY. NERDS.

I’m currently doing too much research, as the number of books I’ve checked out of the library will attest. But this is mainly because I’ve been watching so many shows set in historical times and these shows have spurred my own creative drive.

Let me ‘splain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up:

I’ve always been obsessed with books and movies and shows set in times past. Obsessed probably to an unhealthy degree, I’ll admit. But that is for a few simple reasons:

  1. I love history. I minored in it in college, but only because I couldn’t afford another semester to get the major! Since I was a little girl, I have loved historical fiction, particularly the novels of Ann Rinaldi (who I would recommend even for adults!) My family used to take summer trips to historical places in the United States, so I really got to touch history. Those experiences of reading and seeing have stayed with me.
  2. These books, movies, and shows spark my imagination, not only about the time period in which they are set, but about whatever time I’m writing about at the moment (lately, it’s been the Naopoleonic Wars).
  3. Many of these shows feature some damn fine storytelling for ANY era.
Brooding Cesare from The Borgias is a real historical figure, but NO ONE ON EARTH can brood this much in real life.

Brooding Cesare from The Borgias is a real historical figure, but NO ONE ON EARTH can brood this much in real life.

Some of my recent favorites include: Spartacus, DaVinci’s Demons, The Borgias, Deadwood, The Tudors, Copper, Ripper Street, Call the Midwife, Bomb Girls, Downton Abbey (well, earlier seasons, but we can discuss this), and a hundred others that don’t occur to me right now.

But as I search the fan message boards and watch the show creators (who I will admit to Twitter and Facebook stalking) respond to fan messages, I see them responding to the same complaint over and over:

“That’s not how it really was!”

Now, after rolling my eyes a little bit at this, I have to respond in defense of the writers and creators of these shows. As a writer of historical fiction myself, I have to explain some things to those people asking this question…

How can we know how it “really” was? History comes down to us through stories. History IS stories. So to revise history is simply to tell a different story. And much of the time, these shows are using evidence that is in the historical record, but using it in ways that are not “canon.” (And don’t get me started on the power dynamics of what becomes canon and what doesn’t. I have pages and pages of grad school papers about this! And I think it’s pretty clear from this post how I feel about sticking to “what we know”.)

My favorite gladiator from Spartacus, Agron is entirely made up. I include him here because I can... enjoy ;-)

My favorite gladiator from Spartacus, Agron is entirely made up. I include him here because I can… enjoy 😉

I think these types of tv shows and novels help us see how malleable stories (and, therefore, history) can really be. They show the gaps in what we know and how much of “history” is really us interpreting through our own particular lenses. Re-interpreting is what allows us to be endlessly fascinated by speculation on historical figures. Are we going to put a ban on people writing books about Abraham Lincoln or Napoleon because we already know how it “really” was? I think re-telling these stories sparks the imagination and allows people to seek out versions of history for themselves, to use history as a muse for thinking.

Especially as a writer, I struggle sometimes with fitting my narrative into what “really” happened, instead of thinking about what could have happened in those gaps in the historical record.

For me, shows that use history as a springboard for telling stories of people – both real and invented – inspire my own imagination. (And make me sometimes jealous of the writers who get to tell those stories!)

So what do you think? Are you a stickler for historical stories as they are in the canon? Or are you willing to let history bend a little and be a muse for a good story? And what are your favorite books, movies, or tv shows that incorporate historical events?

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14 thoughts on “The Muse of History

  1. Kim, I love anything Masterpiece Classic puts out. And Call the Midwife is my new favorite show. So glad they decided to make another season of Downton Abbey even though Matthew will be gone. Yes, I love history.

    Great Post!
    Amy

    • Yes! I grew up on Masterpiece Classic. It’s about the only two hours of television I will actually watch live anymore. So much great programming 🙂 It’s actually a dream of mine to write an adaptation that gets made for Masterpiece lol

  2. I’m willing to overlook historical inaccuracy if it’s minor and if the writer seems smart and knowledgeable; so if it seems like an intentional choice and not just because the writer didn’t know better. If it’s in a wallpaper historical with a modern voice that just uses the word “ton” a lot and puts the characters in long dresses and breeches, then no. ; )

    • This is a very good distinction to make!

      If an author completely IGNORES history or uses it like you said, as wallpaper, then I’m not okay with that. But if it’s a deliberate choice made by someone who has clearly done their homework, I can swing with that.

  3. I tackled this topic while I was in college and I found that the famous playwright George Bernard Shaw said it best in his preface to _Joan of Arc: Maid of Heaven_:

    “All I claim is that by this inevitable sacrifice of verisimilitude I have secured in the only possible way sufficient veracity to justify me in claiming that as far as I can gather from the available documentation, and from such powers of divination as I possess, the things I represent these three exponents of the drama as saying are the things they actually would have said if they had known what they were really doing. And beyond this neither drama nor history can go in my hands.”

    It’s the writer’s vision. I may be a history geek of the highest order, but I totally get that great story telling makes it so much more.

    • What a great quote! And I should have included that my students and I just read “The Crucible” this semester and had some very interesting conversations and research papers about the things that he changed in order to make his themes in the play work.

      I love that you’re a history geek who can bend with the stories 🙂 Can’t wait to read yours… HINTHINT

  4. Great and interesting post Kim!

    I was a history major and love history. I find it absolutely fascinating, so I appreciate authors who go the extra mile to get all the little details right. But I don’t like authors who bog down their books merely to show off all of their research and all they know/learned. A balance must be achieved. That being said, as long as the author has pulled me in and the changes serve a purpose, I am willing to forgive and suspend my disbelief if everything isn’t 100% accurate. I know some authors who have fudged dates etc to make timelines/events work, and that doesn’t really bother me. Artistic licence will only take you so far-the writer must make an effort to educate himself/herself and try to do justice to the time period. Just as long as no Regency hero or heroine is driving a car, or other similarly glaring errors are present, I’m good. 😉

  5. I’m of the sort that likes my historical novels/shows to be as close to what we know as accurate as possible. That being said, I also don’t mind new interpretations of the evidence, or a minor “adjusting” of historical detail. I especially like it when authors own up to it in an author’s note at the end, and talk about why they made the decisions they did, and where they got their information. Then you get a feel for the amount and quality of research the author did to write the book. Like Emma said above, if the author is knowledgeable and had logical reasons for making the alterations, then I can live with that. If it’s a wallpaper historical, I probably won’t read it.

    And btw, I adore Ripper Street 😀

  6. Was watching Sherlock Holmes yesterday and thought about your post. I love that movie for the way it shows the darkness of the Victorian Era–the sets they use are perfect. I get such a chill watching it.

    When I look at historical adaptions, that’s mostly what I’m wanting. The atmosphere, the feel of it.

  7. I can live with a little date switching, especially if the author explains why she did it. Can’t stand anachronisms in language. Love masterpiece theatre generally but Mr. Selfridge leaves me cold. I think it’s him– cocky, selfish philanderer — love the costumes, though.

    • I enjoy Mr. Selfridge, but not the Mr. Selfridge character. Piven is okay in the role, but the writing doesn’t bring him to life as it does the other characters (Agnes, Henri, Miss Mardle, etc). Harry Selfridge reminds me of Don Draper, and hopefully S2 will lend some of that Mad Men texture to his characterization.

  8. I concur with the others who’ve said fudging facts and providing new interpretations are welcome in historical fiction. The only thing that gets my goat is when something is heralded as “historically accurate” but is still just one writer’s interpretation or finessing of the historical backdrop–yet this book or movie or TV show becomes cemented as the interpretation for the past. Any arguments or criticisms, or even any deviations from this “fact” is viewed as nitpicking or inaccurate. Downton Abbey, as much as I love it, is guilty of this phenomenon.

    And don’t forget that historical fiction–and contemporary fiction–interprets the setting within the lens of when it was written! A novel set in 1870 written in the 1940s is very different from a novel set in 1870 that was written in the 1980s! This is why there will always be room for stories about Abraham Lincoln or the Napoleonic Wars, and why it’s always best to read books (fiction and non-fiction) from different points in time.

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