Interesting post over on Stephane Dray’s blog on the topic of accuracy in historical fiction.
To me it’s an interesting point because I was just thinking about this the other day in regards to the adventure serial I’m writing for fun over on the KFAT website- The Inuyama Rebellion. That story (much like my Little Gou stories) is set during a historical period, and while I do actually know something about the period in which I’m writing, I tend to play fast and loose with some historical elements. A recent one in the Inuyama Rebellion was the creation of not just a new temple where one wasn’t, but a whole waterfall! Now I can sort’ve justify both by pointing out that temples came and went, and in the land of earthquakes and volcanic activity a waterfall coming or going isn’t a surprise either, but in the end I simply take the approach that history should be a backdrop and not a straightjacket. You should use what works for your story, and if you want to change things to suit the story, then do so, but at least do it in a way that entertains your readers!
To that end, it’s helpful to identify the parties to the argument.
First, we have the readers and writers who believe historical fiction should not veer from the historical record for any purpose. I won’t call them purists, because that carries with it a value judgment, so I’ll call them chroniclers. They value fiction that won’t lead them to believe false things about history or force them to look things up to make sure it’s true. In a sense, they want their historical fiction to be a personalized and more intimate form of the biography. (More on that later.)
Another party to the dispute are a group that I’ll call the fantasists. They are the writers who use or abuse history to any purpose, and the readers who love them for it. You might have alternate history, like Harry Turtledove’s which imagines an entirely different world outcome if some key event changed. You have historical figures changed into vampires, like Janet Mullany’s Jane Austen or Maria Davahna Headley’s Cleopatra. You have Marion Zimmer Bradley and Diana Paxson turning legend into a type of pseudo-history in Mists of Avalon series and then there’s Guy Gavriel Kay, turning actual history into fantasy. Some of these stories hew very closely to history and of them are so wild and wooly that anything obviously goes. In some sense, novels at this extreme end of the spectrum are immune from criticism because they go so wrong that they’re right.
I think the important part is knowing where you’re deviating from real history, and when you do, tell the reader. A good example of this is in Conn Iggulden’s Genghis Khan series, where at the end of each book he discusses where and how he deviated from the real history (as far as that history is known). It’s important to add this information when your intended audience doesn’t already know about the history or culture you are depicting. Otherwise, the reader might think what the author has written is real history, or a true representation of a culture, when in fact that part was something the author changed or added.
I think “Eastern Fantasy” is particularly problematic in this respect, since the general reader won’t know which parts are based on real history/culture and which parts are fantasy. It’s not so bad with Western Fantasy like Lord of the Rings or the Wheel of Time, since that’s based on Medieval Europe, which all Westerners have a basic understanding/foundation of. So if a castle is mentioned, everyone will get a basic image in their heads, but if one doesn’t know the culture or history a work is based off of, then they won’t have that shared knowledge to guide them.