May 20 – 26: “How much leeway do authors have when playing with historic facts and characters?

thriller-roundtable-logo5ITW Members Meghan Holloway, Ronan Frost, R. G. Belsky, Heather Gudenkauf, Jon Land, Carole Lawrence and Anne Louise Bannon are here this week discussing historical thrillers. How much leeway do authors have when playing with historic facts and characters? Find out by scrolling down to the “comments” section. You won’t want to miss this!

 

R. G. Belsky is an author of crime fiction and a journalist in New York City. His latest thriller BELOW THE FOLD, releases on may 7th. Two of Belsky’s thrillers from the ‘90s – LOVERBOY and PLAYING DEAD – are also being re-released by HarperCollins in December and January 2018. His book BLONDE ICE (Atria- 2016), part of the Gil Malloy series – featuring a New York City newspaper reporter, was a Finalist for the David Award and a Silver Falchion nominee this past year. Belsky himself is a former managing editor at the Daily News and writes about the media from an extensive background in newspapers, magazines and TV/digital news. He was metropolitan editor of the New York Post; news editor at Star magazine; and most recently managing editor at NBCNews.com.

 

Heather Gudenkauf is the critically acclaimed author of several novels, including the New York Times bestseller The Weight of Silence. She lives in Iowa with her family.

 

 

Jon Land is the award-winning, USA Today bestselling author of 50 books, including ten titles in the critically acclaimed Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong series, the most recent of which, STRONG AS STEEL, was called “what might be the best novel of 2019” by Suspense Magazine. MURDER IN RED marks his third effort writing as Jessica Fletchr for the MURDER, SHE WROTE series, and he’s also teamed with Heather Graham for a new sci-fi series starting with THE RISING.

 

Meghan Holloway found her first Nancy Drew mystery in a sun-dappled attic at the age of eight and subsequently fell in love with the grip and tautness of a well-told mystery. She flew an airplane before she learned how to drive a car, did her undergrad work in Creative Writing in the sweltering south, and finished a Masters of Library and Information Science in the blustery north. She spent a summer and fall in Maine picking peaches and apples, traveled the world for a few years, and did a stint fighting crime in the records section of a police department. She now lives in the foothills of the Appalachians with her standard poodle and spends her days as a scientist with the requisite glasses but minus the lab coat.

 

Ronan Frost worked for the British Ministry of Defence where he was a liaison with intelligence operatives working behind the Iron Curtain during the last year of the Cold War. During the first Gulf War, he worked with the Royal Navy. And then, he developed a plan with economic experts for the rationalization and centralization of the British Royal Navy which was presented to the House of Commons. Now retired from that life, he lives in Europe with his wife and dog. White Peak is Ronan Frost’s first novel.

 

Carole Lawrence (C. E. Lawrence, Carole Bugge, Elizabeth Blake) is the author of twelve published novels, award-winning plays, musicals, poetry and short fiction.  Her most recent novel is the historical thriller Edinburgh Dusk, the second book in the Ian Hamilton Mysteries series.  Her “Silent” series (Silent Screams and its sequels) follows NYPD profiler Lee Campbell in his pursuit of serial killers. Pride, Prejudice and Poison, under the pen name Elizabeth Blake, will be released in August, followed by Edinburgh Midnight in June of 2020.  Her most recent musical is Murder on Bond Street, based on a true story.  A self-described science geek, she likes to hunt wild mushrooms.

 

Anne Louise Bannon has made not one, but two careers out of her passion for storytelling. Both a novelist and a journalist, she has an insatiable curiosity. In addition to her mystery novels, she has written a nonfiction book about poisons, freelanced for such diverse publications as the Los Angeles Times, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Backstage West, and edits the wine blog OddBallGrape.com. On the fiction side, she writes a romantic serial, a spy series, and her Kathy and Freddy 1920s mystery series. Her most recent title is Death of the City Marshal, set in Los Angeles, 1870. She and her husband live in Southern California with an assortment of critters.

 

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20 Comments
  1. Authors of historical thrillers walk a fine line between fact and fiction. The historical genres tend to draw readers with a vast knowledge of the subject matter who are quick to catch fallacies and swift to point out deviations from historically established timelines and personalities. The historical reading crowd is an intelligent one, and I think an author needs to respect that knowledge. We are writing fiction, not nonfiction, but I think we have to remain authentic to the time and the historical figures who cross our pages. The responsibility of authenticity is heavier, the suspension of disbelief is narrower with historical fiction.

    In writing ONCE MORE UNTO THE BREACH, I do not think I wrote a single page without spending at least an equal amount of time researching. I wanted the story to read authentically to the time, even down to the smallest detail. I painstakingly researched etymology, clothing, weaponry, moon phases, landscape, etc. I wanted the read to feel as if you were journeying through war-torn France in 1944 right alongside my protagonist. But I also deliberately picked and chose aspects of the liberation of the country to highlight and which ones to leave out because I did not feel they served the purpose of moving the plot forward. History as a backdrop in your thriller should be richly detailed, vividly executed, and faithful to the era, but it should never be allowed to bog down the pace of the plot.

    With historical thrillers, I think it is incredibly important to respect your readers’ expectation when it comes to facts and historical figures. Let your story play out within the confines of history; there is plenty of fodder for stories in bygone eras. I think we can deviate where we must, with the certainty that it will be noticed and remarked upon, and I believe we need to uphold the tenets of a good researcher by including an author’s note to explain the intentional, creative liberties we took with history. Write fiction, stay true to history, but give yourself the leeway to not allow the facts to stall your narrative.

  2. I don’t write historical thrillers but I love to read them. For me, as a reader, as long as I know I’m reading a fictionalized account of historical events or figures I’m okay with the author taking some liberties.

    I’m searching for a visceral connection to the past. What i hope to see in historical thrillers is an attention to the details that will immerse me in another time and place but will also deepen my understanding and appreciation for the past. Just a few of my favorite historical thrillers include HIS BLOODY PROJECT by Graeme Macrae Burnet, WOMAN 99 by Greer McCalister and THE ALIENIST by Caleb Carr.

    Meghan ~ ONCE MORE UNTO THE BREACH sounds amazing ~ I can’t wait to read it!

    1. Heather, I just read WOMAN 99 the other day and loved it. I, too, think the attention to detail is what makes historical thrillers so riveting. And I love those small details that make history come alive and feel real to a modern reader.

      Thank you! It just released this past Tuesday, and I am so excited to share the story with everyone. I hope you love Rhys’s journey.

  3. Let’s see if we can do this, and not completely mess it up…

    For me it depends very much which of the two words you are putting your emphasis on. Is it historical, or is it thriller? Because if you’re looking to write a thrilling history, then the facts have to be pretty close if not perfect otherwise anyone who does know their stuff is going to call you out, metaphorically slapping you for what they see as your mistakes—even if they are conscious choices made in favour of the story. But if you are writing a thriller with a historical backdrop then you can probably play a little faster and looser with the truth, opting for the adrenalin-pumping choice over the strictly historically accurate one.
    Years ago I delivered a pitch to my agent for a thriller set in the last week of the Knights Templar. Now, we had this argument maybe a dozen times where she’d be all ‘You’re getting way hung up on the facts… you’re not writing a history book, you’re writing a thriller’ and I think there’s some wisdom in that. But my defense was always the same parry-thrust ‘It’s an era where people know what happened, there’s a large body of knowledge about that last week, so I can’t just make shit up, it needs to fit…’ and that was where the genius came into things, managing to write the fiction so authentically you couldn’t separate fact from fiction. The pitch was maybe 15,000 words long (it was a big 130 chapter scene by scene breakdown that took probably 6 weeks to write) and I remember her reaction to it when it finally landed: ‘You’re getting too bogged down in what really happened…’ the funny thing was, all of those bits were fiction I’d worked up, I’d just taken the truth and dressed the fiction up in the right clothes, making it absolutely convincing. That, for me, is the key.
    I remember arguing that if I changed Knight Templar to Knight of Rhuthian the Giver and changed Paris to Shyr-Masham and made the naming conventions more fantastical but didn’t change a beat of the story all of the ‘history’ issues would be lost and she’d see a very different story in that complex outline.
    I was right, unfortunately she hated the rest of the novel once I did that. Ha.
    White Peak was very different. Here this history is just a tantalising backdrop it’s not vital, especially as the way the story is going to progress, but again for me certain core struts of the central framework had to be absolutely accurate so if anyone chose to google they’d find that yes there was a Nazi expedition on those dates, yes it was fronted by the people I said, yes the photo I reference is real – but for one detail, the fiction I made up to spin the story from.
    And there’s where I think my agent was on the money, it’s a mistake to get too wrapped up in getting it exactly right when you’re writing a thriller with a historical backdrop. But that’s not saying you don’t need to know it, you absolutely do, and from that basis you’ve got a great foundation to make the stuff up you need to drive your story in the most convincing ways…
    You may have guessed, but I rather like the research aspect of ideas. I’m not a massive fan of just making everything up as you go along.

  4. I should add, one of the few times I’ve really railed against a movie announcement was when Tom Cruise was supposedly fronting a historical thriller, The Few, which was the story of Billy Fiske (who was a remarkable young man in his own right and there was no need to Hollywood up the history)…

    In the proposed cruise movie, Fiske pretty much single handedly won the Battle of Britain – the reality was that he didn’t shoot down a single enemy combatant – he was the youngest winter olympics contestant to win gold, raced at Le Mans, and all of that part of his life was film fodder… This was the film announcement:
    “In 1940, expert German fighters had decimated the Royal Air Force to the point that there weren’t enough pilots left to fly the Spitfire planes sitting idly in hangars. Unable to rouse the US into action, a desperate Winston Churchill hatched a covert effort to recruit civilian American pilots to join the RAF. Risking prison sentences in the then-neutral US, a ragtag bunch of pilots answered the call.”
    Everything was wrong about that announcement, even the planes… they were Hurricanes. They weren’t recruited by Churchill, they wouldn’t have gone to prison… There was no expert band of flyers from the US (though 9 American pilots did fly in the Battle of Britain. But what happened to the real Fiske? His plane caught fire and he died in hospital a day later. This isn’t movie fodder… and it’s the rewriting of history by Hollywood that actually frustrates me a lot. Hollywood has been doing this for some time –
    and off the top of my head the other one (and this one was made) that really burns is U-571 – Americans rescue the enigma machine to turn the tide of the war, only… it was HMS Bulldog, British submariners who did it.

    I’m guessing the backlash stopped Michael Mann actually moving forward with The Few, as it’s been a long time since I have heard it mentioned, but it’s a brilliant example of how we shouldn’t screw with the foundation to tell our story, which completely contradicts at least a part of what I posted above.

  5. I don’t write historical thrillers, but I incorporate history into my thrillers. Let’s use STRONG TO THE BONE as an example, in which I injected J. Edgar Hoover into a sub-plot. The sub-plot involved German POW camps that really were based in Texas during the latter days of World War II. So while that’s true, obviously injecting Hoover into the narrative as an antagonist for a Texas Ranger investigating a murder was totally made up. I’ve done the same thing in the Caitlin Strong series with Judge Roy Bean, John D. Rockefeller, and, in the forthcoming STRONG FROM THE HEART, Pancho Villa. There were some shreds of truth involved in their development, but their presence in that specific time and place was totally fictional. And I see no problem with that whatsoever, so long as the writer stays true to the general nature of their background and characters: Hoover was a control freak, Villa was a revolutionary, and Rockefeller was the ultimate cutthroat businessman. Bottom line: I think incorporating a historical figure into your fiction is fine, so long as you stay true to the essence of their character. I’ll address historical events, instead of figures, in my next comment!

  6. The other fun aspect of using history is facts and situations themselves. While it’s not okay to change or alter actual historical events, I also see no problem with injecting your fictional characters into those events, perhaps even as the precipitating inciters to that action. Maybe, as in Stephen Hunter’s thrillers, we revisit the Kennedy assassination and find out (and meet) the sniper who actually fired the deadly shots. Robert Ludlum used to do this all the time, as did Frederick Forsythe which places whoever chooses this structural motif in good company.

  7. I think you can’t ignore or skip or re-invent historical events, but you can re-imagine them.

    For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle is a character in my historical thriller EDINBURGH DUSK (and the upcoming sequel, EDINBURGH MIDNIGHT), and he was a medical student in Edinburgh at the time. But I’m pretty sure he didn’t pal around with my detective, Ian Hamilton….. though you never know! ( ;

  8. I don’t write historical thrillers either. But it is an element in many of my books too. I’m always aware when I do that of the difficulty in balancing historical fact with interesting fiction. It is indeed a fine line to walk.

    The best example for me is my thriller of a few years ago called THE KENNEDY CONNECTION. A series of present-day murders is somehow linked to the JFK assassination. And so my reporter protagonist must go back and investigate what really happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963. For my story, I created a fictional secret son of Lee Harvey Oswald to provide shocking new evidence about what his father did or didn’t do that day. So that was made up. But, of course, I had to stay close to the facts about the other events in Dealey Plaza that tragic day.

    One of the toughest things is making sure you don’t screw up by throwing something into your story that’s out of place in that time. Sure, its easy just to not have anyone using cell phones or ipads. But it gets trickier to know whether CVS or McDonald’s or some other common cultural institution of our day was around then. And then there are expressions – certain words and phrases we take for granted now that didn’t come into existence until later.

    It’s a lot of work to make sure its all right – which is probably one really reason why I mostly try to keep writing in the present day!

  9. I recently read Alan Furst’s Spies of the Balkans which is set in Salonika in 1940 when Hitler was heading south. it deals with a real escape route for Jews fleeing from Berlin but involves the hero, a local policeman, in the network. For me it was a little known aspect of the war and I found it fascinating for that reason. Furst manages to weave the fact and the fiction brilliantly.

    I also just read a Bernard Cornwell novel, The Fort, not a thriller but it deals with a Us Civil War battle which was a study in how to turn a sure victory into defeat. Just about every character was real but he used the nifty device of giving all fictional characters names starting with F. Made it very clear!

  10. I had the opportunity to interview Steve Berry, one of the most successful and best-selling authors of thrillers based on historical facts, earlier this year. I loved this quote from him about what is fact and what is fiction in his books: “The niche I’ve carved for myself is that 90 percent of what I put in a story is historically accurate. The fiction part comes from how I put those elements together.”

    1. I think I agree with that, the 10% needs to be right in that it fits and is honest. I think honesty is a massive part of this, and why I railed so strongly against the Tom Cruise announcement on The Few… because reimagining something is fine and good, it really is, and picking up on the reimagined Holmes up above, that’s fun – one of my favourites of that kind was very much Mark Frost’s List of Seven. Get the facts right, make it ring true, and I’ll buy pretty much anything you’re selling.

  11. I’m glad I waited to read your comments. I try not to tweak history when writing my historical mysteries. But at the same time, I always remember hearing Mary Higgins Clark speak a couple different times many years ago. She always said, “The writer’s job is to ask what if?” So I did and played with a conspiracy theory that was popular in the 1920s for my novel The Last Witnesses (the Freddie and Kathy 1920s series).
    I massaged history for Death of the City Marshal (the second in the Old Los Angeles, 1870s series) in that L.A. City Marshal William Warren did die of his wounds from the gunfight with his deputy Joseph Dye (they were fighting over the bounty on a prostitute – you can’t make that stuff up). However, for the book, I posited that he was killed by someone else, instead. In some respects, that made me stay even closer to the historical part of the story in that I had to make it reasonable that the history got written the way it did, rather than the way I made up.
    The bottom line is that I write fiction. To make the fiction work, I have to keep the facts straight as much as possible, even when I’m playing with them for some fictional purposes. I will also admit that I seldom add real characters to my fiction – it’s one of the things that tends to pull me out of a story. I do it more in the Old Los Angeles series, because no one knows who most of these people are, but I do tend to avoid it. I also usually avoid changing history, except when I’m remembering Ms. Clark.

  12. This might be a bit off topic (what I’m going to say is about a movie not a book). But I was thinking about this whole idea of veering from historical fact to fiction when I watched a recent TV documentary about the real life Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Turns out that pretty much everything in the movie was made up or at least exaggerated – Sundance didn’t even join up with Butch until the very end of the “Hole in the Wall Gang’s days. But it is, of course, a terrific movie. Much better than if they’d based the movie more closely on the facts. So, in my opinion, there really is no rule here….sometimes keeping it historically accurate is good, but other times it works better to ignore facts and just tell a good story.

    1. This is a really interesting point. Admittedly, it’s a movie and Hollywood is far more likely to make things up to make a better movie. That being said, as a former TV critic, when Hollywood does mess around with the facts, it usually shows. Badly. Butch Cassidy is a rare exception, as is Hidden Figures. Usually, when a director and/or writer does not care about the facts, that person also isn’t that worried about a plot that hangs together or believable characters. I remember one show (well, not the title) that took place in Britain around 800 CE and featured a scene with things blowing up. Huh? It didn’t last very long because the rest of the show sucked pond water, too.
      Now, how that relates to books, I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s the time involved in writing a novel, the fact that authors do tend to have more of their souls wrapped up in their work, or what. But while I probably have read or run across a historical novel that played fast and loose with the history (unintentionally as opposed to purposefully writing speculative fiction), I don’t recall having read something that was that terribly soft on the facts – at least, not recently. I know that I, as an author, do try to get everything as “right” as I can, and most other historical authors I know do. Even one who was writing a fantasy that was technically based on the actual King Arthur did an enormous amount of research into early medieval Britain. Nevermind that she placed a 21st Century actress in the middle of it. It works, trust me, but even as she played with the anomaly of time travel, the author worked to get the rest of the history right.
      One other point in this regard, re the potential harm of mis-educating people, it does happen that some people can’t get their brains around that the movie blew it, fact-wise. But I do know that as it gets out that the movie-makers were not so accurate, it does get a lot of folks interested in finding out the real story. And that’s a good thing.

  13. That’s a great point, R.G.! Have any of you found fans correcting you on historical facts, either correctly or incorrectly? I’ve had both – fans being helpful by pointing out obscure errors, and also getting it wrong, which is extremely strange…. but such is life online.

    I was able to correct several errors in my first novel, The Star of India, thanks to some smart reader research on parrots (yes, parrots, of all things!)

    Any of you experience that?

  14. Actually, yeah, I had a novel I wrote which featured the elephant man. I used his actual name, Joseph Merrick, and I had a review rail at me, one star the book, call me an idiot who didn’t know my basic facts, coz everyone knows the Elephant Man was John Merrick… err, only in the film…

  15. Omg, Ronan, don’t you HATE that? I have a similar idiot review on my current book that says it takes place during Oscar Wilde’s trial – which was, ahem, 20 years later. Ah, the perils of being a public figure! ( ;

  16. When I wrote THE KENNEDY CONNECTION a few years ago, I made one historical mistake and almost made another.

    I refer at one point in the book to the famous Zapruder film of the assassination as a “video.” Obviously, as someone pointed out, it was a film camera being used in 1963. But video is such a common term now – and because I worked with video all the time in my job at the media then at NBC News – it just came out that way in the book. And no one ever caught it in the editing process.

    On the other hand, I almost described my character going back and looking at a building where Lee Harvey Oswald had an encounter with police prior to the assassination. I based my description of the building on online information I found out about it. Fortunately, I found a more recent article alerting me that the building has since been torn down!

    Which is why I find historical writing tough (and I respect those who do it well) – too easy to make those kinds of mistakes.

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