The Responsibility of Fiction to History

Historical fiction titles by Elaine Forrestal

As a lover of both fiction and history I am very keen for these literary siblings to live harmoniously together. But, as in all families, niggling differences of opinion get in the way of harmony and an unwillingness to compromise often prevents the insight needed to move forward. With one party insisting on hard evidence and the other side claiming that accessibility is the key needed to unlock any real understanding of that evidence, the arguments go round in ever decreasing circles.

Is it better to publish the bare facts and consign them to a life of gathering dust on a shelf somewhere? Or to tell the story, filling in the obvious gaps based on our thorough research into the character and the era in which they lived, in order that the essential truth of the story can reach a much wider audience? There are lessons to be learned from the mistakes of history, but it takes a sprinkling of fiction to bring those lessons into sharp focus and encourage a much wider spread of people to access them. In this way we can at least hope to learn those lessons and avoid, as far as possible, making the same mistakes again.

The questions posed by our past will not even be debated, let alone answered, unless history is told in a way that engages the young reader. These are the readers for whom the last century is already as remote as the Middle Ages. How will they avoid making those same mistakes again if the stories they need are trapped inside dry and dusty tomes. We must, at the very least, make them aware of the wealth of knowledge and information available in a fictional format. The same information – just in a different wrapper.

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