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Ethics In Writing Historical Fiction

On Board the Writing of Historical Fiction Ship Enterprise

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Growing up in the heyday of early American space exploration, the watchful child in me, grasps fully why I made the analogy that writing historical fiction is akin to being on a spaceship streaking across a new universe, in search of a new world in online publishing. It is an uncharted territory of exciting possibilities.  I find that being as authors, we are bound seemingly by no earthly ties, except those of our own conscience.  What we are as writers is a composite of what we see in our minds, or what our subconscious creates uniquely for us -- the possibilities are endless.

Some of this is thanks to the modern day places we've been, the people we've known, the experiences we've had and absorbed from those around us, the books we've read, what we have been exposed to on the Internet, and even the things we've watched on television and other media.  

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Because of all of that, we have an obligation when it comes to writing historical fiction to treat the past and the people who lived it with a certain amount of respect and compassion.  At the same time, we also owe our readers fresh perspectives and our own unique interpretations of how the history part of the historical story interplay with each other.  The worlds of which we write, is our world -- always and forever for all the universe to examine.  

Nothing could be truer, than speaking of writing historical fiction and the ethics involved when we use historical figures, famous or not, as characters in our fiction.  There is certain dangerous territory to be careful to not cross.  We could find ourselves unwittingly exploiting historical persons who no longer have the ability to defend themselves, in addition to that slippery slope of writing a story so good that it trumps the real history behind the fiction.  


Individually, it is like an old gold mining claim we've staked out.  We will continue to mine, as each of us has their own way of uniquely telling the story. The difference, is that unlike the earthly gold mines, what we dig up historical facts and put on display, fiction's end result.  We produce a treasure to be shared with our readers. Unlike the gold here on earth, writing online and in print today, also means there is an unprecedented supply of historical gold all at the tips of our fingertips.  However, the quality of our gold, has a lot to do with how responsible we are when it comes to the ethical treatment in writing of the both the history behind the story and the especially that of historical persons.

History That Knows No Boundaries

There are some who will claim that creative writing with an eye looking back on history is a rare gift, and then point to a certain awareness that some historical examples of such great creativity in fiction, were also afflicted with being thought of as borderline insane on the part of the author. There is a myth out there, fostered by those who would point out those seemingly countless examples, of the very well-known creative writers (and artists) that were just a little "not normal."

These same people would have you believe that as a whole -- authors and wanna-be authors are a troubled lot of people, with many human follies and faults. They forget about all the hundreds of thousands of writers, across the ages, who were simply normal quiet humans, who worked hard, to create endless well-written stories and books.

Entering into this online world of "no boundaries" in terms of historical research that is the backbone of maybe it's time to think about how creativity and inventiveness, in the context of ethics in writing historical fiction.  Knowing no boundaries in writing historical fiction is also surprisingly one of respecting some ages old boundaries where that responsible authors internalize and keep in mind when writing this genre of fiction.

Example of Historical Fiction Done Right

As authors of historical fiction, the most important thing you can do is "know your history" when writing fiction surrounding actual people from times past.  Far too often, especially in the beta days of self-publishing and small press publishing of today, many well-intended authors simply seem to think, "my character(s) were real historical people and therefore I can place them in historical settings and events without regard to the back story of the real history.

This tendency isn't anything new.  Authors have capitalized on historical characters for generations, leading to widely accepted myths about famous people doing things that never happened in real life.  A prime example of this would be the myth of George Washington as a boy, chopping down a cherry tree.  That story first circulated as a fictional childrens story.  Then, it took on a life of its own 1800, in a non-fiction biography by Mason Locke, who seized upon it as a way of making our first president as a more likeable character.  The fiction was good enough to become a myth, soon to be taught to generations of American children -- and the result was somewhere along the line everyone forgot the difference between fiction and biography.

Therein lies the danger of a well-intended author, not knowing his history enough to not mix historical impossibilities.  When you incorporate historical figures into a fictional plot, inevitably you’ll have them doing and saying things that they didn’t really do.  If an author adheres to the unwritten and seldom spoken rules about writing about real people – you will not only be a history detective in the extreme, but also be true to fiction that could have “possibly” really happened.    A thorough historical research -- that includes as many documents and other “primary” sources vs. “secondary sources,” is the only way you can effectively do so.

Finally, it seems inevitable that all writers of historical fiction will have their critics who very often are readers who can’t separate in their minds, despite the fact that they bought a book that is clearly fiction -- that the book is indeed “fiction” and will cry foul in faulty thought-out reviews.   Recently, one of my favorite authors, Aya Katz, experienced some historical fiction criticism along that line, in Inverted-A Press’ newest release, Theodosia and the Pirates.   

She had done extensive research prior to the release of this book.  Having reviewed this book, it was an exemplary example of how to write historical fiction correctly.  It stayed true both to the documented history of the characters, events, and times, while at the same time told a fictional story expertly.  Here in the following video, is her proactive response, which in terms book marketing is a brilliant way of addressing such issues.