I’ve authored four earlier blogs on the ethics of writing historical fiction. This blog follows suit in that it narrows the ethical squint at the common Authors Note that often accompany a work of historical fiction. Sometimes, to avoid the commonality of a “note” authors  explain how, why, and whether their book is “true” or is a “novel,” or is a blend of fact and fiction designed to catch a reader’s eye, mind, and imagination.

Conceptually, historical novels are hybrids. Hybrid cars now sport gas combustion engines alongside electrical engines. Hybrid books are more complicated but less expensive. Historical fiction runs on factual engines powered by fictional power supplies. The plot in a historical novel calls for authorial imagination, serious research talent, a convincing tone, vivid writing, flair, and known facts.

The split between truth and tale depends on how convincingly the writer “retells” the reader a new story set in a known historical venue. The success or failure of the novel may depend on how true the author’s note is and how enchanting or exciting the made up story is.

Technically, an author’s note collects, organizes and presents a collection of notes from the author about the written work. It is meta-writing—telling the story behind the story, addressing the reader directly, without the pretense of fiction or the bounds of scientific style and format. It is a statement about the core text, typically presented afterwards, which the reader may choose to read or not.[1]

There is no set formula or protocol for authors notes. There’s a good reason for that; Novelists are creative writers. They create the story they tell. Before they write the note, they do the research, plot the story, draft it as historical fiction, and only then keyboard that all-important authors note. Importantly, it is their story even though the historical story may be recognizable, but told as an historic event or time rather than as a contemporary story. Guidelines or how-to-do-it sites are rare.  

The ethical norms move with the core elements of the draft book. It’s written only after the manuscript is in good shape. Reaching that step gives authors a chance to speak directly to readers about the work. The reader learns from the note what the author did to create it and why they told the story the way they did. It is often reflexive and gives authors a chance learn how the dialogue they wrote matches up with historical documents and events. It cannot be done quickly. It has to reflect at least some of the facts in marrying history to story in a way that accomplishes two things. It expands the reader’s knowledge of the time, place and consequence of the history reflected in the novel, and it offers a delightful if fanciful story to make history real, rather than just memorable.

Ethically, the authors note must do something not rigidly required in historical novels. It must be as emotionally true as the history is. Emotional truth differs from factual truth. “Emotional truth is what you feel about a situation, and sometimes it has nothing to do with actual facts. Two people can go through the same experience and have two entirely different perspectives. Feelings are real, but they cannot be categorized as fact or truth. Sometimes there can be a conflict between two people who have heartfelt feelings about their emotional truth, especially when those beliefs make up their identities.”[2]

Truth is relative, not absolute. Truth often morphs into falsehood as time produces new versions of an event, time, place, or person. Memory is fallible. Time frequently alters what was thought to be truthful. Distance frequently turns simple things into more complex realities. Psychologists know that as we recall past events we rely more on emotional truth than reported truth. Emotional truth stays with people longer than actual, intellectual facts about historical events. And emotional truth may even be more accurate than memory.[3] Emotional truth may be more objective than recorded history.

This pushes the ethical issue to the forefront. We know truth to be the core ethical guideline in nonfiction. We should give emotional truth in historical novels the same priority. And we should accept authors notes as essential elements in the bond of trust between author and reader.

[1] https://writingcooperative.com/systematic-guide-to-authors-note-writing-f6757e52b93c

[2] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-empowerment-diary/201904/how-know-your-emotional-truth

[3] Ibid.

Gary L Stuart

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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