What does fiction owe reality, or what ought it adhere to, if anything?

A friend was asking me how many pages of my book my seemingly endless research will take up.  It won’t take up too much.  Maybe ten to fifteen pages total.  But I need them to be accurate.  I have a bone with BS in books.  I get we’re working with fiction here, but there’s no reason to insult reality or the reader while we’re at it.

I just read a fun book set in medieval England.  The author clearly knew the period rather well.  My quibbles with details were less about the facts, than about the choices. 

A)  The author chose to paint the Church with a wide, unforgiving brush.  No room was given at all to honest clerics–to their very possibility.  None.

B)  The author chose to depict a Jew burnt at the stake in punishment for bringing about the plague–a terrible and terrifying reality for entire communities of Jews in medieval Europe, despite their innocence–but then made the oddest decision about how to depict the victim.  The Jew was depicted as–get this–a Christian.

WTF?  This Jew was basically a Jew for Jesus, without the title.  Why?  I can’t think why.  Or rather, I can’t think that it’s accurate to the Jews of this period.  So the author made another choice.  Who knows what the reason was. 

Does the author doubt the reader will sympathize with a Jew, an “other”?  Did the author simply struggle for a way to include a subplot featuring a Jew as well as a subplot allowing her to reveal that reading (Christian) scripture was forbidden to layfolk during this period, and so she meshed both stories into one?  If the former, it’s an insult to readership and diminishes the value of the historical accuracy the book otherwise edges toward.  If the latter, uh, that’s just wrong.  It’s two separate issues affecting different peoples.

Add to this bundle the fact that the heroine is also an accomplished markswoman, rider and swimmer, and the story veers just off the set, stumbling off stage as I reel, making up my mind whether the pages are turning fast enough for me to stick with the ride.  That’s not what one wants:  disrupting internal credibility such that the reader breaks to make a conscious choice–not to believe, but to enjoy despite not believing at all.  To enjoy while seeing tricks played before their eyes.

I did choose to ride on, as it happened.  But the set had crumbled.  Maybe that’s the issue.  The center did not hold.  Things fell apart as the centripetal force crumbled.  Credibility was lost in the malaise.

There’s fiction, and then there’s license.  The twain are not the same.  A book ought not to purport history to be its set when it’s only its gloss.

Used to be, I avoided all historical fiction.  I didn’t want to absorb a sense of a time, how things went down, etc, from a novel, and then in my ignorance, assume it accurate.  Now I try read quality fiction almost regardless of genre, and only read historical fiction when it’s fearlessly self-described as fantasy.  Sometimes I wonder at myself, choosing to write a book which touches on history, when I have that strong bias.

Fiction is one thing, but glaring misdirection or toying with facts–nope.  Toy with mysteries, with the unknown.  Ponder the significance of known and unknown occurences–sure.  Make up stories that could fit, or alternate realities that you call by their honest names–yes.  But to place a novel in a period or in a location and then to violate its truths– that’s just not cool.   It’s a lazy choice, even if the book is still an enjoyable read.

What are your thoughts about the same, in books you’ve read or even are writing?

Ishakpasha Palace, overlooking eastern Turkey


About sputnitsa

Born in the US, I grew up in Africa and the West Indies, and returned stateside in my teens. After a decade in international development, democracy work, and inclusivity training for domestic NGOs, I joined Peace Corps, and after a year, experienced my first Russian invasion. I followed that up by volunteering with refugees and youth, and after some vacation time climbing minarets and mountains, I returned to New York City, where today I work on social justice with college students, produce short films, and write.
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18 Responses to What does fiction owe reality, or what ought it adhere to, if anything?

  1. It depends on the genre. I DO appreciate books with supporting evidence, such as the DaVinci Code, but I’m not exactly expecting Gregor the Overlander to include that much factual info.

    • sputnitsa says:


      I need to look up the second title (is it real?) in order to respond sensibly 🙂 I feel the otherwise great research–and the flouted accuracy of the time placement–was all shown up by those errors.

      Then again, there were also other editorial mistakes that I caught that make me think that the book could have simply used some more focused editing.. Ah well. 🙂

  2. ralfast says:

    Drives me nuts when an author takes “artistic license” and dives over the deep end or gets facts wrong that a simple wiki-search would fix.

    Another case of Simply Not Doing the Research (no link this time 😉

    • sputnitsa says:


      I had a great GACK! moment this weekend after writing this–I finished the fabulous Time and Again novel by Finney, and in his notes he mentions that one great setting of his book (in 1882) actually wasn’t built till 1885. “Sue me,” he says. But instead of wanting to sue him, I felt like hitting myself upside the head with his awesome book. Trust him to trip me up. Because it’s a FANTASTIC book. One just has to ignore one tiny 3 year detail.

      *forgives Finney and feels like a lout* 🙂

      Did’ya write about not doing the research? 🙂

      • ralfast says:

        I have, but it was a link tooooooooo


        I didn’t feel that evil.

        Of course, I do have to make an exception for stories, especially in visual media that take liberties with historical fashions and other cultural markers to create an interesting atmosphere, like High Fantasy or Steampunk. The Japanese love their cross-cultural anachronistic stews because they always follow the Rule of Cool.


        • sputnitsa says:

          Hahaha! 🙂 Excellent.

          Regarding Steampunk, I agree. I guess when something purports to be historically accurate–a tale utterly set in X or Y period–then I have issues if it strays too much. *shrug* Sigh…. 🙂 🙂

          I’m glad you’re feeling evil enough to remind me of TV Tropes 🙂
          Enjoy NaNo!!!

  3. Yarnspnr says:

    When writing historical fiction, you’d better get your facts right or you’ll be wallowing in mail and email for months on end. Most people who read historical fiction do so because they like the period the book is set in. They’re minor authorities on it in most cases. So you can’t pull a fast one on them without their recognizing it. Editors KNOW this and usually won’t allow an author to stray from the facts.

    Hmm, the author burned the Jew for bringing the plague into their city not for being a Christ Killer as most Jews were called by Christian fanatical Clergy and officials of the time. But he called the Jew a Christian. The Jew may have been living in the time when it was difficult to tell a Jew from a proselytized Christian. Let’s face it, When Christians first went into cities, Jews were their initial targets. They already knew the OT prophecies, so half the battle was already won. Remember, Peter taught his converts to embrace the law, where Paul taught his people that the law was fulfilled in Christ and it was no longer necessary to practice it. Many Jewish converts the world over clung to certain elements of the Law even though they’d been baptized Christians. It was what they knew.

    This was also a time when everyone not like minded to the City Fathers was branded a hieratic, Jew or Christian. And, of course, we all know the outcome of being labeled a hieratic during the dark ages. Not having read the book, it’s difficult to comment on what might have been in the author’s mind. 🙂

    • sputnitsa says:

      That’s exactly it! I wouldn’t have picked up the book but for it having been written about “my” period.

      Oh, and as for the Jew/Christian thing– The character is Jewish, or is called such by the author/other characters, but apparently loves to read the New Testament. At a time when it’s illegal to do so. A medieval Jew versed in what the Church has to say, a Jew who is REALLY into Christ and Christianity beyond the Church. Yeah, that ain’t no Jew.

      Oh, and the killing of Jews for “bringing the plague” was not unusual at all during this period. Entire communities (of Jews) were forced into buildings which were set on fire. Many committed suicide. Likewise they were rounded up and killed wherever they were found. It was sick and terrible, and a reality that Jews during this period could be killed by the plague, or survive and be killed just for being Jewish. Dreadful.

      As I recall, the Pope condemned this, but that didn’t sway anybody much. For the most part once the fever to punish Jews had arisen, it wasn’t assuaged until murder was done.

      As for conversos, the period of mass forced conversions in this part of the world was yet to come–so those outward Christians, new to the religion and forced to it at risk of death or expulsion, had yet to be. The book also takes place in England, where I haven’t heard of this situation; it’s Spanish lands which went that route, decades after the Black Death’s first fall in Europe–and therefore decades after this novel’s setting.

      *sigh* The author should have created a Jew and a Christian both who were killed or subjugated for their separate so-called sins, or picked one or the other. To make them one is not honest to the character… :-/

      Yeah, no way around that one for me. 🙂

      Oh, but what’s this about Paul vs Peter’s philosophies?

  4. Yarnspnr says:

    Hey Traveler! What year did this author set this book in? Curious.

    Peter v Paul. In Acts 15:1-19, we are told of a Counsel in Jerusalem. Peter argued that circumcision was required to become a member of the new Christian church. In Acts 10:5, Peter’s objections were stated thus: Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.”

    Peter listened to Paul and the rift was healed, Peter saying: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? 11No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

    Paul then spoke to finalize the issue: 12The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. 13When they finished, James spoke up: “Brothers, listen to me. 14Simon[a] has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. 15The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:
    16″ ‘After this I will return
    and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
    Its ruins I will rebuild,
    and I will restore it,
    17that the remnant of men may seek the Lord,
    and all the Gentiles who bear my name,
    says the Lord, who does these things'[b]
    18that have been known for ages.[c]
    19″It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”

    The Book of Hebrews puts it all to rest taking the Law issue all the way back to Adam, continuing through the Torah ending with the sacrifice of the Christ which established the new Law Covenant.

    And ever since the Christian church has mangled, ripped paragraphs and pages from their scripture and gathered not believers, but people with like ideas into their churches. They’ve killed Jews, Catholics and Protestants and anyone they considered a heathen or hieratic without a thought as to how ‘the Christ’ might feel about their actions. And they weren’t very nice about how they killed them. The more pain they inflicted before death, the more holy became the killers.

    And it still goes on today.

  5. Simone says:

    Art is such a personal expression I don’t know how I feel about it is art not history and I guess I just sorted out my feelings. You take care and have a lovely week.

  6. Heya Sput,

    First, I’m so glad you enjoyed Time and Again. I just loved how they put in real photos of the time. I could have stared at them for hours. So cool!

    As for historical accuracy, I try to be very careful in my works that take place in the 19th century. What I did with Portraits (and now with Inside the Lanchester House) was to pick a specific year that the story took place in. Even though the exact year is never mentioned, *I* know it. So if I mentioned a character reading a certain novel or playing a particular piece of music on the piano, I had to check first to make sure that book or piece of music was indeed known then. And of course, the fashions and hairstyles had to fit for that year, too. It helped center me.

    • sputnitsa says:

      I’ve already lent it out and my friend loved it too 🙂

      I forget if you’ve been to New York much? It’s like magic, reading that book when you know New York to any degree… I love it. 🙂

      I know you’re rocking with your work. Can’t wait to hear more 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

      And amen on the research. I’m still researching and am realizing I will want to speak with folks in the know in order to absolutely ensure that the book’s true to its setting in time. 🙂 Why not honor the period and respect the framework of one’s own fiction–after all, there’s a reason we placed our novels in them, right? Yep. 🙂 Integrity = a good thing. 🙂

  7. Actually, I’ve never been to New York. I’ll get there one day! But it’s not on my top ten list of places to visit.

    Sput? Sput? Don’t faint on me now…

    • sputnitsa says:

      Woman, you musts needs visit New York, the most fantabulous city ever! 🙂 🙂 🙂 I realize I’m somewhat biased, in that I’m a human being with a beating heart, but… 😉

      You’ll love it.

      And how can I faint when you’ve just given me a mission for the millenium–Get the Gypsy OVER HERE! 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

  8. No need to worry, Sput. I definitely shall see New York one day. No doubt I shall love it. Only that I feel an affinity towards other places more.

    But anyhow, yes, I shall get my Gypsy over there….. 😉

    • sputnitsa says:

      Hee hee. Good. 🙂

      Get thine Gypsy to the city; you’ll notice that although the earth revolves around the sun, strangely, the stars revolve around New York City.

      You gotta see it to believe it… 🙂 🙂 🙂

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