Distinguishing History from Fiction in Historical Fiction

I was at a great in-person book event last weekend at my local independent book store for National Independent Book Store Day. Great fun chatting with people who stopped by and actually bought some books. When I explained I wrote espionage fiction based on historical events, one person said, “If I read one of your books, how will I know what’s real and what’s fiction?”

In truth that was a great question, and I didn’t want to give a glib answer; but the glib answer is, “If I’ve done it right, you shouldn’t be able to tell the difference.”

Striking the Balance

If you write historical fiction, striking the balance between fact and fiction is sometimes difficult. I’ve often thought if you write medieval or renaissance historical fiction, you might have it easier, that is, the majority of readers won’t know the difference between fact and fiction – though there was that book about Eleanor of Aquitaine I once read . . . I have had historical fiction writer friends who write about long ago eras tell me there’s always that one reader who does know the history of that era and will point out when you’ve gotten it wrong.

However, if you’re dealing with something within the past 25 – 50 years or so, most people alive will have some recollection of the event, so you have to be true to that and somehow blend in the fiction so that it’s seamless.

Being an historian and a history geek, I tend to go down endless rabbit holes in my research where I find all sorts of interesting – to me – tidbits. I include way too much of that in my rough drafts. It’s a data-dump, it’s self-centered – oh look at me, I did all this research and now I’m subjecting you to all the delightful minutia I’ve found! I end up editing a lot of that out in my subsequent drafts.

It boils down to what does the reader need to know about this particular historical event in your fiction? Turns out, that answer is easy and not glib: focus on what the reader has likely heard about the event on tv or has read in a newspaper. Just the facts. That’s what readers most familiar with, and that’s what will cue their recognition.

Sometimes the facts are cut and dried, a bit dull, and that’s where the fiction comes in, otherwise known as dramatic license. But even that isn’t so easy.

Conspiracies, Conspiracies

There have always been conspiracy theories throughout history, but as the means of communication increased, those conspiracies gained ground and on occasion became inseparable from the history. For example, if someone in Nottingham in the early Medieval Era wanted to undermine King John–besides stealing his tax income–you might concoct an elaborate story about how he had his brother, King Richard the Lion-Hearted kidnapped. That conspiracy theory’s reach might not extend beyond the shire of Nottingham. Even if an itinerant merchant passed through and heard the theory, he might mention it in the next shire and the next on his journeys. At that rate it would take years to encompass all of England, perhaps decades to spread throughout Europe, certainly long after both King John and King Richard were dead.

Then, came the printing press and newspapers and books; then telegraphs and radio; then television and the internet. Now, some mouthbreather sitting in their parents’ basement can make something up that’s utterly improbable and it’ll spread worldwide in but a few minutes.

Wait, you say, isn’t that what writers do?

Ahem, I’ll admit to some mouth-breathing in allergy season, but my parents are dead; and I have no basement; and I know how to research. [Mic drop]

The prime example of the power of conspiracy theories is the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The myriad theories about who killed him and why and how blossomed and exploded into the mainstream media over the nearly 60 years since. So much so, that other countries have conducted informal investigations into it and made documentaries about it. There have also been several official inquiries here in the U.S. into the findings of the original report commissioned by President Lyndon Johnson — the Warren Commission Report, as it’s informally known. They’ve all reached the same conclusion: that a lone gunman killed the president for reasons likely known only to himself. That, however, has only fueled the expanding number of theories.

Other notable historical events with significant conspiracy theories surrounding them include: the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the Challenger Explosion, TWA Flight 800, the death of John F. Kennedy Jr. in an aircraft accident. For the latter two, I was on teams that prepared responses to congressional questions about those events, so I have knowledge the average citizen might not find in the public record of those events. And, no, don’t ask me.

Chem Trails, Black Helicopters, and Radiation Lasers

When a constituent writes a congressional representative or a senator about something, the lawmaker’s staff sends the constituent letter to the appropriate federal agency to get an official response. We call them “congressionals.”

Throughout my 30+ years with the Federal Aviation Administration, I prepared my fair share of those responses about aviation matters. A trend I noticed starting in the 1980s was that constituent questions had taken on a distinct tint of conspiracy theory. I don’t know how many responses I prepared about airplane contrails—known among conspiracy theorists as “chem trails”–or about black helicopters or that transport aircraft landing lights were actually radiation lasers. I kid you not. But, answer them all, we did. I quickly discovered that if you didn’t give these correspondents what they wanted, i.e., confirmation of their theory, you became part of the conspiracy.

Oh well.

However, some of those conspiracy theories make for great fiction. I “enhanced” the fictional aspects of my series A Perfect Hatred (based on the Oklahoma City bombing) with some of the uncountable conspiracies that emerged after that event of domestic terrorism.

9/11 and Its Conspiracies

Likely even on the day 9/11 happened, the conspiracy theories started, even though the causes of it, the perpetrators of it are well-established by the intelligence community and firmly rooted in the historical narrative. I’m not going to give them any credence by mentioning any of them, though a social situation became awkward a few years ago when I couldn’t keep quiet any longer and disabused someone of the “facts” she was pontificating on at a party.

For my upcoming new series, Meeting the Enemy, which is about 9/11 and its aftermath, I’ve shunned the conspiracy theories, especially the ones involving aviation’s part in that tragedy. That’s not to play fast and loose with the facts, but to preserve them. I believe it is horrifically disrespectful to the families of victims and the survivors of 9/11 to overlook facts for a more exciting yet fallacious conspiracy theory.

Now, that’s not to say I didn’t incorporate some speculation into this series. I did, but it was more about the actions of people in power before, during, and after the event than the reality of what happened that day. What I’ve written about fictional characters loosely based on real people might make readers uncomfortable, but if it makes them question what they believe they knew about the real people, I’ve done my job.

The Answer at Last

So, here’s the simple but reliable answer to that potential reader’s question: If what you read in Meeting the Enemy strikes a chord of memory in you from something you read from a reliable source or saw on a mainstream media outlet, it’s real; if you don’t recognize it, it’s fiction. A generalization perhaps, but it fits my writing style.

At the recent White House correspondents dinner, the first in-person one in a couple of years, host Trevor Noah, late-night star and comedian, spoke of how marvelous it is that there is freedom of speech in America, that reporters, in particular, can speak truth to power without fear of reprisal from those people in power. That is an undeniable Constitutional right, despite what’s happening in a few states here.

I’m a fiction writer, but I use my writing the same way writers have from Jonathan Swift to Rod Serling to Gene Roddenberry have: to speak truth to power, to show abuses of power, to expose injustice. My contribution to this is small, minuscule, in comparison, but I’ll keep speaking truth, using history and fiction.

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Terror, book one of Meeting the Enemy launches on June 25, 2022, and is available HERE for Kindle preorder.