Faction or Fiction

What an interesting piece this is, by an author I have admired since meeting her on Authonomy several years ago! Please meet Margaret Callow, who has recently signed a multi-book deal for her historical novels with publisher Holland House Books.

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There have been debates before and doubtless more to come about faction and its place in literature. It is clear there are two camps divided on this subject and as someone who writes historical fiction, I should like to venture a few thoughts.

The blend of fact and fiction has been used many times since the beginning of creative writing and the word faction leaves no doubt as to what it alludes to. I like to describe it as a skeleton of fact with fiction providing flesh on the bones. However you describe it, it seems faction has grown in popularity.

Some have argued that historical fiction “contaminates historical understanding,” others put forward the notion that faction is the result of a poor imagination on the part of the novelist. Naturally these claims are vigorously refuted by those who think otherwise.

My interest in social history was fired even more by the discovery that my great, great grandmother was a pauper inmate in an Union workhouse in 1900. It was when I was reading the names on the Register for that time that I thought how many stories were waiting to be told. It was then, I decided it was important to me to give people who had gone before a voice so that maybe they would finally be acknowledged.

Whilst the likes of Wat Tyler, George Loveless and Robert Kett are remembered in history as men who led risings in England which gave us some of the freedoms which we enjoy today, it was surely the support and sacrifice of ordinary folk who walked with them and fought with them which made victory possible.

However some point out there are pitfalls in writing historical fiction particularly if the novelist is presenting a major historical character for the reader has no idea what is known fact and what is the product of the writer’s imagination. Some have observed that a novelist strays into “dangerous territory” when they fictionalize real people however imaginative their creation might be.

None of this was in my mind when I wrote the first of my trilogy. What has occurred to me since is that historical fiction set further back in our past makes the issue less pressing if only because of the lack of accurate material. Here diligent research is key, but finding relevant accounts of the period is still not without problems as I found with two of my books set in 1381 and 1450 where facts were few and filling in the blanks relied on considerable amounts of imagination.

Perhaps it is important to change the names of the real historical characters so that the reader is left in no doubt that the version they are reading is simply not reality. Would this not also give the writer the freedom to take the reader on a bolder journey without any fear? Certainly one could go places out of bounds for historians.

Margaret Callow book

So that brings me to my historical crime novel ‘Rust’ which is due for release on March 19th by Holland House Books. Although it is based on a true story, I have made a point of using fictitious names. Whilst the dreadful murders appalled people far away from Norfolk, it is essentially a crime of the county and especially in and around the city of Norwich in 1848.   This means there are likely to be descendants of the families involved still living in the area. I was anxious not to cause any concern or offence particularly since in places the narrative is much imagined! However it can work both ways and as if to underline my decision, I did in fact receive a letter whilst I was writing the book. A local lady wrote to tell me her family was once in possession of a certain mask attributed to the murderer and this had led them to believe he was a highwayman. She had heard I was writing the story and was much amused when I told her the man in question was not quite who they thought he was. The mask had been presented to Norwich Castle museum some years ago.

Yes, all historical facts must be meticulously researched, but if both the writing and narrative are good and you can offer your reader the very best of an historical adventure which is fast paced and vivid, what more could anyone want? After all, Hilary Mantel, CC Humphreys and Phillipa Gregory have all done a great job with historical fact which is generously laced with fiction. So it is here that I leave you to ponder. . .

You can find Margaret’s blog here: http://margaretcallow.wix.com/mmc-author

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10 Responses to Faction or Fiction

  1. I loved what I read of Margaret’s earlier books, one about a flour mill, the other A Pardon Too Few. I am sure the background is well researched, but it’s the human touch that makes these books such a good read. Background career really does count.

  2. John Holt says:

    A fascinating article. My usual genre is crime, private detective, but I have written two novels which can be described as Historical Faction in that both novels contained some actual historical fact. My novel “The Thackery Journal” concerns the American Civil War in general, and the assassination of President Lincoln in particular. It supposes (quite fictionally) that Lincoln’s own generals were complicit in Lincoln’s murder. Now I wholeheartedly agree that my book does nothing to advance known history, it is purely for entertainment sake, in the same way that James Cameron’s film “Titanic” was not exactly true to reality. This applies to many other films or books. But so long as it is made quite clear that the work is fiction, or faction if you like, then that is fine. Thank you Margaret, and Jane.

  3. Fran Macilvey says:

    YAY! Every piece that has a historical character in it, + dialogue, has to be faction, if you think about it. Even contemporary non-fiction narratives have to address the question of continuity and credibility, and poetic license is well know.

    I am well chuffed, today! Success! 😀

  4. owenobs says:

    Today’s newscasts are prime events of ‘Faction’. Reportage on any event, including footage and eyewitness accounts, presents edited versions of reality depending on the point of view favored by the yarn spinner. Historians are no more omnipresent than the deity. They have to reply on witnesses, whether eyeball or scripted. Any cop working a crime scene will confirm the chameleon-like ability of suspects to shape-shift. Its ‘possible’ the creative non-fiction is, in fact, closer to the truth than the ‘official’ line. BTW – who DID shoot J.R ?

  5. As Margaret explains, we historical fiction authors definitely have a dilemma, or two, to resolve before we put pen to paper. great article. Thank you for sharing.
    Karen Charlton
    Author of ‘The Heiress of Linn Hagh’ and ‘Catching the Eagle.’

  6. jbwye says:

    Margaret – I have amended your website address on the blog. Apologies for not referring back to you beforehand!

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