Jun 26, 2007

Continuing Theme

by Terri Wagner

Yesterday's post opened the proverbial can of worms for me. I have a degree in history. At one point in my life, I devoured historical fiction. Then I soured on it. The reason is because even with a simple BA, I knew enough to know that wasn't right, it didn't happen that way, it wouldn't have gone down that way. So I turned to sci-fi/fantasy or total adventure type books and never looked back.

But years ago (yes we argue around here all the time about using "but", but I like it) I read a story about Druids and Romans. It was fiction. The storyline was pretty typical for historical fiction and the sex was for its time fairly graphic (another reason I quit reading those types of books) but the real stunning theme of the book was the main character saying to his fellow Druids, "I'm going to Rome because if I don't go, the only history anyone will know of us is what they write about us, and they consider us their enemies.”

My jaw dropped. Here was the real truth hidden in the historical fiction. Not the Druids and paganism. After all, the Romans were pagans as well. Not the ritualistic ceremonies, but the fact that history is usually written by the victors. Naturally, the losers are portrayed in the worst possible light to justify what the victors did.

This is NOT what happens in our day; in fact, it is almost the opposite. Without getting into the political realm, let’s just say a lot of slack is given to the other side today.

My professors drilled in me (as I commented yesterday) that you need to read, where possible, the diaries and notes of contemporaries and then triangulate the truth, because each person writes from their own perspective. There is no such thing as impartial observation.

Coming full circle, I think I’ll stick to my new genre--mystery--and keep my history and my fiction separate. Kudos to all of you who can walk that line between the two and keep it true. I know it can be done, based on the Work and the Glory series, but I'm not the one to write it.


  1. Yes, Terri, history is written by the victors. And yes, 'impartial observation' is another figment of the imagination, like 'fair' and a host of other words. If you simply add another 's', history explains itself--'his story'. But isn't it fascinating? Thanks for your insightful post.

  2. Dear Terry,

    Needless to say, I agree whole heartedly with your post! I, too, have a BA in history, and it sounds like we had very similar professors. (You didn't study at the U of A by any chance, did you? ;-) ) I had the same experience with reading historical fiction as you, which in all honesty, is why I finally started writing my own stories. Whether anyone will ever read them, or if others will ultimately find the same kinds of faults with my writing that I've found with others, only time will tell. I do try to remain true to the time period I write, though, because it's not the "mystique" of the period I love (which I think is what leads to the "fairytale" element), but the love and respect I hold for the actual time period itself.

    And for the record, I like "But", too!


  3. Which U of A? giggle. Mine is from the University of Alabama

  4. Yes, but history would have been so much nicer if they all took baths and had dental work done. You can't blame historical writers in all regards. Having said that, I read a novel set in the middle ages awhile ago and still haven't forgiven the author for her many mistakes . . .

  5. Terri,

    Mine was the University of Arizona. LOL!


    You're right, we all do some whitwashing of history when we write--the baths and teeth thing ;-) --but a little whitewashing is one thing, glaring historical errors are another. Carelessness like plopping a 12th Century knight down wearing 14th Century armor, for example. After all, what we call "the Middle Ages" lasted 1000 years, so the least an author can do is research the medieval "sub-era" she chooses for her setting, and not assume clothing, armor, even attitudes, were exactly the same for the entire medieval "stretch". Guess I should have clarified that in my blog. (But I thought it was long enough alredy!)


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