Separating fiction from fact in historical stories

A woman to whom I was giving a Chicago Greeter tour was complaining about inaccuracies in the movie Lincoln. The House of Representatives vote on the 13th Amendment wasn’t organized by state as portrayed, and there weren’t two Connecticut representatives who voted no.

“Those would have been easy to check,” she said. “I made me distrust the rest of the movie. What else was wrong?”

In fact, those discrepancies in the Steven Spielberg movie were deliberate, made “to clarify to the audience the historical reality that the amendment passed by a very narrow margin that wasn't determined until the end of the vote,” screenwriter Tony Kushner said.

Since I had been wondering that very morning how writers of historical stories feel about accuracy, it was a curious coincidence to hear my guest bring up the issue. I’ve been reading historical novels about the United States, and last week my book group discussed In Cold Blood, which author Truman Capote claimed to be the first “nonfiction novel” but contained more fiction than he admitted.

How much should we excuse inaccuracies?

To readers who choose historical novels because they enjoy stories set in another era, how well the stories fit the facts may not matter. The reason I’ve recently been on an American historical novels kick, though, is to learn about history through books that are more fun to read than straight histories. Accuracy matters then.

Most readers will accept invented thoughts and dialogue; as long as a person remains in character, we aren’t left with a false impression. Even writers of straight histories use dialogue. No one can know what someone else thought, and unless anything survives that documents actual spoken or written words, everything between quotation marks is imagined.

Likewise, descriptions like “Mary glanced behind her to make sure no one was approaching” are made up, unless a witness left a report.

Furthermore, I realize that writers bring a point of view to their tales. Another work titled Lincoln — Gore Vidal’s novel — was fact-checked by historian David Herbert Donald, but that doesn’t mean that Vidal’s characterization of Mary Todd Lincoln as an irrational shrew is wholly on target. But in bringing a mindset to his material, Vidal wasn’t doing anything that nonfiction historians do not.

What I don’t like are inaccuracies in facts and information. I suspect that the people of Connecticut don’t appreciate the rest of the country thinking that half of their representatives voted against the amendment abolishing slavery when in fact all four voted for it.

Not everything is as easy to doublecheck as my visitor’s example, so writers who are scrupulous about accuracy are to be commended. It’s not just a matter of finding out how votes were conducted in the House of Representatives, to continue to use the example of the movie Lincoln. Writers need to learn period details such as how people dressed and how those from different regions spoke. If they want to describe the weather in Washington, DC, on January 31, 1865, the day the House voted for the 13th Amendment, they can’t assume it was cold. They shouldn’t attribute 21st-century views about race to people of 150 years ago, even abolitionists.

Not all historical novels incorporate real people and events, especially if the writers are primarily interested in conveying what it was like to live at a particular time. I imagine these are easier to write than those based on real incidents, but they still should be faithful to the customs, conditions, attitudes, speech, etc., of the period.

A story told about Gore Vidal illustrates the challenge facing writers. Vidal was on the set of the movie Ben Hur, for which he had written the script. He noticed an art director putting a bowl of tomatoes on the table. With his characteristic sarcasm, Vidal asked whether Ben was going to have a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich. His oblique point was that Palestine didn’t have tomatoes in 30 BCE.

So, I sympathize with historical novelists and accept they they are not likely to get everything right. The ones I want to read, though, are those that try hard for accuracy. Mistakes are more excusable than deliberate falsehoods.

I kept thinking about my guest’s question about how you know what to trust after you learn about an inaccuracy. Here’s an answer I thought of later: I trust a historical fiction writer who is upfront about invention. I appreciate when a book has an afterword explaining which characters and events were fictional and which were real. I’m wary of authors who try to slip invention by us. As much as I applauded In Cold Blood, which wasn’t even labeled fiction, I was disappointed to find out that, among other manipulations of the truth, Capote made up the last scene. It wouldn’t have bothered me if he’d been honest about it.

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  • You carefully explained the details of this topic and then--bam!--you hit us with why it matters. "What I don’t like are inaccuracies in facts and information. I suspect that the people of Connecticut don’t appreciate the rest of the country thinking that half of their representatives voted against the amendment abolishing slavery when in fact all four voted for it." What a great point. You laid out your argument like a lawyer. As a lovery of historical fiction I enjoyed reading this post. Thanks. --Urban Landlady

  • Thank you very much. I'm open to suggestions about your favorite writers.

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