I finished reading Homeland by John Jakes yesterday. It is a coming-of-age story about a young German immigrant who comes to America to live with his successful uncle in the 1890s. Paul Crown soon dreams of becoming a camera operator for the “living pictures”, a very early form of motion pictures. First, he learns to be a good photographer, and one lesson his mentor teaches him is that because of the power of photographs and living pictures, they should always tell the truth.
When I read this in the book, it made me think of something I always preach, which is historical fiction and history shouldn’t be written to prove or disprove an agenda. It should tell how things were, as best the author can, without judging those in the past by the standards of today. In other words, they should tell the truth.
The lo and behold, in the book’s afterward, Jakes wrote about a conversation he had in 1991 with a historian friend. They talked about the tendency to write history in such a way to prove the author’s view of history. For instance, if an author thinks of all the Founding Fathers as bigoted slaveholders, the only parts of the Founding Fathers’ biographies he will write will focus on that. It will warp other parts of their histories to show or mean something different from what they did. Mitigating and contradictory stories will be ignored.
“My friend shook his head over that,” Jakes wrote. “He said, ‘Our first responsibility is to tell what happened.’”
Truth in fiction
If you don’t do that in fiction, your story won’t ring true. It will put off the reader as much as having a dinosaur appear in a story of the Revolutionary War. Readers can forgive such things if you set the story in the correct genre and the world you create is accurate in much of the other details. Guns of the South is a good example. Harry Turtledove didn’t make it historical fiction. It is considered science fiction. Also, although machine guns used to turn the tide of the Civil War didn’t happen, Turtledove stuck to the truth as much as possible, in particular, working to understand key historical figures and how they would respond to such a game-changing weapon.
Even in fiction, there is truth to tell. Be honest about your character’s personality and motivation, create a believable setting.
A writer whose name escapes me once wrote that the more fantastical elements of your story are, the more grounded in truth and facts other areas need to be. His reasoning is that readers can accept anything in a story as long as they feel connected to it. They feel connected to the familiar and believable. So, if you are going to write about a future world where the aliens on a planet are ants that join together to shapeshift, then you better have believable human characters or have it set on a planet that is very similar to earth. Those will be the things that ground your reader so their heads aren’t spinning because they can’t connect with anything in your story.
Truth in nonfiction
However, if you are writing a nonfiction history piece, you don’t get the same leeway as fiction. You need to write the history as it happened, not interpret it. Once you impose your views on the historical events, you are no longer writing history, you are writing an opinion book or a political book, and it should be labeled as such.
One reason I’m worked up about this is that I was reading an article recently about how some classic movies are disappearing because they show things that were fine to show when the movie was filmed but are no longer acceptable. It’s nothing new, but it is short-sighted. For instance, how can you teach about the Civil War, if you go around and remove every sign of the Confederate States of America? Taken to the extreme (which is where, sadly, it seems to be going), you’ll eventually have a generation of students asking, “Who were the Northern armies fighting?” They’ll get no answer because the books, films, pictures, and monuments will be gone.
As a writer of history, and to a certain degree other genres, you have a responsibility to tell the truth.
Whether it’s history, fantasy, or romance, tell the story with all its truth-good and bad-and allow the readers to draw their own conclusions.
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