Journalistic reports on matters of interest to writers, often practical, from a broad perspective.
Tuesday, 08 November 2016 14:41

Letter from London #26

Written by
Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell


It’s been said that history is the new sex. Certainly, regarding trends in literature, historical fiction has been enjoying a remarkable renaissance in recent years. Numerous spin-offs into generously budgeted productions for film and television now make the genre a tempting prospect for authors.

Recent successes over here include the much lauded Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. Set in the time of Henry VIII, and focussing on his machiavellian chancellor Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall was adapted into an award-winning series for television.

As far as I know, there was no prior book on which the magnificent HBO series Rome was based. However, the production demonstrated some techniques common to historical fiction. One of these was to follow the fortunes of two ordinary soldiers in Julius Caesar’s XIIIth Legion, as the story took us through the events preceding and following Caesar’s assassination. In this way, the momentous transition of Ancient Rome from Republic to Empire was given a believable and sympathetic human dimension.


HBO Rome collageThere is, of course, no doubting the enduring appeal of ‘real-life’ stories. But historical fiction has the advantage of avoiding some of the legal problems and considerations applying to more recent events, especially in the ubiquitous genre of ‘true crime.’ Here again, different standards exist under different jurisdictions, regarding matters such as defamation, legal prejudice, and so on.

Obviously it helps if the people portrayed passed away a long time ago. In the lavish new British television series, Tutankhamun, about the sensational 1922 discovery of the boy pharaoh’s tomb in Egypt, the writer and producers have been criticised for suggesting a love affair between the explorer Howard Carter and the daughter of his patron, Lord Carnarvon:


Discussions of this sort inevitably raise questions about the legitimacy and ethics of mixing fiction and fact – what is sometimes called ‘faction.’ It’s a debate that has been going on for a long time in one form or another. Any cursory glance at the bookstore shelves or TV schedules will tell you how much the boundaries of what is permissible have been pushed back. It seems hard now to recall the sensation that followed the 1966 publication of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, about the murders of the Clutter family members by two drifters, a book regarded by many as the origin of the modern ‘true crime’ genre.

The ‘faction’ question has been an issue of initial concern in the TV crime series project on which I’m currently engaged. This is based on the work of a real-life specialist police recognition unit. Should one, for instance, go down the route of dramatised documentary (‘dramadoc’) that recounts actual cases? If so, under British law it becomes essential to present everything much as it happened, ensuring that all characters are portrayed fairly, while keeping a leery eye out that judicial processes such as appeals have finally expired. An alternative approach to dramadoc is to use any actual cases merely as an imaginative springboard for what becomes essentially fiction. It seems to be coming down to the feeling that the latter approach is a more interesting (not to mention less legally fraught) creative challenge.

*Tutankhamun's death mask

One traditional way in which this challenge has been met is through what has been termed the roman-à-clef – literally, ‘novel with a key.’ Here, a veil is drawn over the real identities of actual people, with quite a lot of freedom also usually being exercised over choice of events and settings.

For some, the American TV series The West Wing is a classic example of this genre. President Bartlett is possibly an amalgam of different aspects of recent and former US presidents. The series uses real and fictionalised events. More familiar to me is the prose fiction of the English writer Anthony Powell. Since his death some years ago, more and more real-life models for the characters Powell’s magnum opus A Dance to the Music of Time have been identified. This can be a fruitless, if fun, game. As Powell pointed out, many characters are mixtures of more than one individual.


There is another important aspect to choosing whether to write fact-based fiction. It does seem there is a type of writer for whom fact is an essential prerequisite in order to stimulate the fictional impulse. Greats such as Zola, Thackeray, and Flaubert might be enumerated here.

It may be worth more authors considering if the same is true of themselves.

-        ~Edwin Riddell


  • Comment Link Pam Ainsworth Saturday, 01 July 2017 23:00 posted by Pam Ainsworth

    first of all I feel the term that should be used is...poetic license. As I believe every writer has that right. Lol, that being said I enjoyed the work that went into this story, the pictures were a very nice instrument in this article, I am not really into those kinds of stories, but it was well done, good job, sir.

  • Comment Link Edwin Riddell Tuesday, 10 January 2017 12:38 posted by Edwin Riddell

    This is a reply to Sherri, to whom Hi! Nice to hear from you.

    I'm not sure that definining terms or genres is ever that much use to creative writers? Except, perhaps, when it helps them to illuminate or resolve some particular issue, such as the 'tone' of a work - an aspect of writing that most publishing fiction editors seem to stress as all-important (and I think I agree with them).

    I liked what you said here: "My benchmark for deciding when to let a story veer off of actual facts is influenced by my conscience." Granted, for sure, but you have to make allowances, too, for purely aesthetic considerations, I'd suggest.

    I'd like to have a look at 'Trenches' when it's ready. Sounds interesting.

  • Comment Link Sherri Ellerman Sunday, 08 January 2017 07:13 posted by Sherri Ellerman

    Hi Edwin :)
    This is particularly interesting to me considering the nature of the book I am still working on (yes, I'm still hammering away at Trenches). I wonder if what you are referring to faction is essentially the same thing that others label creative nonfiction? If not, what is the difference? My benchmark for deciding when to let a story veer off of actual facts is influenced by my conscience. At the same time, I do understand that it is necessary to do so in order to give my readers a clearer picture of patients who became dear to me or interesting to me through the course of many visits. Confidentiality and, as you stated, legal issues also play a role in my decision to wander from truth at times.
    I so enjoy historical fiction, and I often used it to teach my children history when they were younger.

  • Comment Link Carole Lord Sunday, 04 December 2016 00:07 posted by Carole Lord

    Hello Edwin,
    I thoroughly enjoyed your article because I wrote a novel in which I, as you said, mixed fiction and fact. Thomas Cromwell, although not the main character, was a strong supporting character for about one third of the story. I found it challenging, yet interesting, to be reasonably faithful to the historical Cromwell while not making him Mantel's Cromwell either. (As if i could! I am far far below her in my writing skills.) When all is said and done, I was satisfied with the result.
    I am currently working on a novel in which Margaret Beaufort will be my protagonist. She was such a fascinating mixture of religious and ruthless. I intend to make her the moving force behind the murder of the little princes. I know this cannot be proven at this late date but, after all, I'm writing a story, not history.
    I've enjoyed all your articles and look forward to more.
    Carole Lord

  • Comment Link Patience wubben Saturday, 19 November 2016 21:44 posted by Patience wubben

    Extremely interest topic. I enjoyed reading this and my head swirled with further examples. I am watching "wolf Hall" currently on my PBS TV station.

  • Comment Link Edwin Riddell Sunday, 13 November 2016 01:37 posted by Edwin Riddell

    Just a slight note of self-correction. The 'Wolf Hall' TV miniseries is based on two Mantel novels, 'Wolf Hall' and 'Bring Up the Bodies.' They are the first two of a planned trilogy, of which the final novel 'The Mirror and the Light' is scheduled to appear in 2017.

  • Comment Link Michael W. Cho Thursday, 10 November 2016 08:22 posted by Michael W. Cho

    I hadn't considered it before, but I think fact is very important to me in my fictional impulse. Someone needs to come up with a better word than "faction," though--isn't it already taken?

  • Comment Link Rick Taubold Wednesday, 09 November 2016 06:24 posted by Rick Taubold

    Excellent article, Edwin!

Login to post comments

Print Version       Kindle


Help support SPW by accessing Amazon for all your purchases through our site.