I wrote a blog on August 31, 2018 titled “Is Historical Fiction Ethical—Part One.” Three months later, on November 6, 2018, I wrote Part Two on the ethics of writing historical fiction. I meant to get back to the ethics of writing historical fiction for the last three years, but didn’t. Other topics intruded—Trump, politics, chaos, bewilderment, and several more books. Now, thank goodness, I’m returning to the many ethical dilemmas of writing historical fiction.
In Part One I began the topic by quoting Oscar Wilde who said, “The one charm of the past is that it is the past.” In Part Two I quoted Rumi, who said, “Your consciousness is your contribution to reality. What you perceive as real becomes real.” They were both right. They didn’t say history is often fiction. Historians document the winners’ versions of what probably happened. Politicians report the historical version and too often ignore losers’ versions.
I’m returning to the topic because good writers have recently assessed the ethical challenges that propel historical fiction while redefining the stories we missed in the past. Part Three was prompted the teaching and writing of Jane Friedman.  She gave us the “Do’s and Don’ts of Historical Fiction.” Ms. Freidman suggested six principles for historical fiction authors. They are worthy of discussion and for many, execution.
Principle Number One: “Establish your own set of rules for when to bend history for the sake of the story—and stick to them.” This is helpful but ethically dubious insofar as it invites each of us to bend history to fit the fictional story enveloped in the history. I suppose the historical analogy is do not kill unless you need to. Establishing rules is always a good thing if, once established, you don’t bend them to restate history. We’re not politicians.
Principle Number Two: “Do plenty of research—but know what to include and what not to include in your novel.” Ethically sound. Research is the grease that makes hamburgers so tasty. Too much of it will make you too fat and your story too thin.
Principle Number Three: “Include characters who break the conventions and norms of their period—but don’t forget to include context.” This one gets an A+ ethics grade. Breaking conventions and avoiding norms is the stuff of history. Readers love characters who fall down, get back up, but still can’t find the damn horse.
Principle Number Four: “Don’t write like you’re in the 14th century.” That’s good writing advice and timely too. The most often told story about the fourteenth century is the plague, named the Black Death by later historians. It devastated Europe but ignored North America. Maybe that’s why COVID19 visited us in the 21st Century. Future historical fiction writers will make the analogy, ethically.
Principle Number Five: “Integrate the history seamlessly into the story.” Wise and ethical guidance. We need integration. We need seamless governance that understands global consequences for local misadventures. There is much to write about, once the numbness of political insulation returns to political well-being for everyone on both sides the aisle.
Principle Number Six: “Don’t insist on accuracy if it will cause disbelief (but here’s a workaround if you really must).” What? Ye gads, sounds like a terminological inexactitude. Sacrificing accuracy to cure doubt is like playing and seek with the truth. An ethicist might say, seek and ye shall find.
In each principle there is not only truth and virtue; Ms. Friedman gives us excellent writing advice. “No one with any sense ever said writing is easy, and historical fiction can be a trickier genre to master than some, but it’s worth every bit of perseverance.” To use a British phrase, I’d say, “Hear, hear!”
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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