Historical Research: Fact or Fiction?

Donna Wichelman Uncategorized

Regardless of the genre, most writers I know do some amount of research to maintain integrity and authenticity in their material. It just comes with the territory. Even when the story is mostly a fictional tale, there is usually something that requires a Google search or query of an expert.
While the genre I write is primarily contemporary suspense, I find joy in the stories that arise out of a historical context. So historical research has been a huge part of what goes into what I write. It’s fascinating to come across fun details that evolve into the “What if?” questions. That’s how  my current Waldensian series (www.donnawichelman.com) came to be.
I believe, however, with historical “what ifs” also comes a responsibility to keep the integrity of historical events. Yet sometimes understanding the facts or how events unfolded with certainty can be difficult. The best resources are those written by people and their contemporaries of the time period in question. Going back to the original sources has a much better chance of representing the true course of events. When there is agreement among several sources from that time period (and especially if they happen to have been on opposing sides), I can conclude that there is reasonable certainty.
I also try to keep in mind who wrote a history and attempt to discern what motivated them to write an account of times and events. Words and phrases they use give clue to their mindset and goals. Understanding if they were among the victors or the oppressed may help me understand their biases about how they saw events unfold. This only adds to the richness of historical context, and I can use that to give my characters greater emotional depth.
Another question I ask is whether the contemporary historian is giving me an account of revised history to satisfy their particular political or cultural worldview. Again, the words and the phrases and overall tone of the writing clue me into their agenda. Knowing where they were educated and what associations they belong to helps me know what political and cultural positions they hold. Then I ask the following questions: Does what they write match earlier accounts? Does it contradict original sources? Have they found authenticated original source material to back up this new understanding of history? What have they left out that would give me a more complete picture of the story?
But what if there are conflicting accounts by the original sources, and what if contemporary historians don’t have agreement? How do I decide which account is most accurate and gives me the truest picture of events? Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to discern the truth. I have to keep digging until I come up with the best and truest picture possible, and then at times I’m still left with drawing my own conclusions based on the evidence before me. But again, this should expand the dimensions of characters I’ve developed in my story.
Do my own political, cultural and religious biases show in my conclusions?  I would be lying if I tried to deny it. Whether they admit it or not, I believe all authors’ material reflects their personal subjective worldviews. That’s why I believe it’s important for readers to get to know the authors they read.
Should readers view every fiction novel they read with a certain amount of skepticism? I hope so, even when the story is a wonderfully woven tale deserving a distinguished award. Perhaps I should say especiallywhen the tale is that well written. Fact and fiction have a way of blurring together when the writing is that well accomplished.
Still, I believe it’s the author’s responsibility to maintain the integrity of their work by making the apparent distinctions between fact, fiction, half-truths, and opinion. We should maintain the integrity of the historical record where we can and inform our readers in a “Notes” section when we’ve embellished the facts or took fictional license for dramatic effect. It seems the morally right thing to do, and it seems the transparent thing to do.