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  1. Obsidian Vulture
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    Obsidian Vulture New Member

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    How Much Speculation is Acceptable in Historical Fiction?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Obsidian Vulture, Jun 24, 2008.

    I’m currently composing a novel set in Ancient Egypt and have turned to historical events for inspiration. I wasn’t keen about the prospect of fabricating a completely new story, so selected an interesting series of real events to base the plot around. The period I have selected, however, is one about which relatively little is known – so I have plenty of room for artistic license around the main, historically-accurate events.

    Obviously I need a reasonable knowledge of Ancient Egyptian life, society and beliefs if I want to pull this off to any degree of success. Having been interested in the subject for about 12 years and been taking formal lessons for three of them, I am pretty happy that I have the basic’s down pretty well. Additionally, I recognise the need to (and have started) more extensive research into the characters and situation of the particular series of years over which I hope to base my story.

    However, as with any research project, there are gaps that need filling. They stem either from a lack of suitably available information, or because they involve nitty-gritty details that nobody has ever really bothered with. I will have to make some things up, and obviously some of what I fabricate will be done with the intention of tying nicely into the story (rather than being 100% historically correct). My big question is – what level of speculation do you think is acceptable when it comes to historical fiction. Obviously opinions will vary, but I’m interested in knowing whether people would rather that a particular inscription on the wall of some obscure tomb be absolutely accurate or whether readers would be accepting of a slight variation on the original text to fit the story. In particular this would apply to situations where (to use the above example) the original text no longer remains but guidelines for what was once there can be obtained from other sources.

    I’d like to stress that this is not anything like The DaVinci Code, so the point isn’t to prove the existence of something through scads of information. Instead, I want to adopt what really happened to create an interesting story (in a similar way to Homer with the Illiad and Odyssey).

    I look forward to hearing your opinions,

    Obsidian Vulture
     
  2. tehuti88
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    tehuti88 Contributing Member

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    As someone interested in ancient Egypt... :D

    I, honestly, don't have much problem with speculation as long as it's not done out of laziness in research. When information simply isn't available, you're going to rather be expected to have to make things up. Based on your description, for example regarding tomb inscriptions, you're not going to just be pulling ideas willy-nilly out of thin air because you didn't feel like doing hard research. If you do the research, and still have to make stuff up, that can be forgiven. As long as it's believable. (You didn't say you're writing fantasy, so I assume it's historical fiction, hence it must be believable. And even fantasy has to be believable, within its own set of rules.)

    It's the people who just don't feel like bothering with the research that bother me, and it shows. Take for example movies like those in "The Mummy" series. The Book of the Dead or whatever they used was a BOOK. Not a papyrus scroll, but a BOOK with two hard covers and pages in between! And their retelling of the Scorpion King (who was a real person about whom not much is known) included the use of camels and horses, not to mention wheels. This is predynastic Egypt and they have CAMELS, much less HORSES and wheels?? I realize it was meant as pure entertainment, but it just reeked of shoddy (lack of) research. I myself was guilty of the same things when I was little, and had the ancient Egyptians living in pyramids along a Nile that flowed the wrong way. But I was like twelve so I hope that can be forgiven. *LOL*

    If you're truly worried about rankling somebody who might actually know a bit of information you're forced to make up, you can always include a disclaimer regarding what you yourself know and what you had to create. This lets the reader know that you actually did your research, so the occasional "mistake" can be forgiven. Instead of seeing, for example, the made-up tomb inscription and thinking, "Wait a minute, that's not how that goes, how ignorant this person is!" they might think, "Ah, this is where I give the writer some leeway because, after all, this is fiction." (As a writer of fantasy which relies on sometimes modifying existing mythological systems, I find that disclaimers are very helpful.)
     
  3. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Agreed with Tehuti. :D Remember that, unlike a movie filled with whiz-bang special effects to draw in every kind of viewer, a book with such a specific subject matter is going to draw an audience already interested, and perhaps educated, in the subject. Respect you audience.
     
  4. Obsidian Vulture
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    Obsidian Vulture New Member

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    Good. I certainly don't intend to skimp (what a funny word) on the research, and even when I do make up things I want them to have plausible roots. It definitely isn't fantasy, and I was interested in knowing whether people would only give you a little leeway if dragons were flying around. That being said, I may introduce a little bit of 'magic' into the story (e.g. the Mysteries of Osiris, rituals etc.) but they would be more for highlighting the beliefs and character of the people, not for throwing fireballs around the palace. It goes without saying that any magical ceremonies I do include will also have their roots in reality (or the superstitious reality of the religious Egyptians anyway).

    It was shameful. We watched it at the end of last term when we had no real work to do in Ancient History. Seriously, I almost couldn't stop laughing in disgust (and when I wasn't laughing, I felt like crying). Within ten minutes, that film just killed Ancient Egypt as it really was - so it's no wonder that people don't understand the real story. Unfortunately, I think the movie (which so many people took seriously) only succeeded in undoing six months of study about Egypt over the course of an hour and a half. The Book of the Dead is a particularly bad example, as bound literature (especially of that quality) wasn't invented for thousands of years (I believe it was around 1000 AD, but my Medieval history is not as good as my Ancient Egyptian). The chariots and horses wouldn't really be introduced to the Egyptians until the second Intermediate period - so I doubt 'the Scorpion King' would have had access to them.

    It's a real pity in the case of The Mummy because (as my choice of plot highlights) I think what really happened is so much more interesting and dramatic than Hollywod garbage.

    That is probably the fault of the media and their fictitious views of everything. As a result, any preteen can write a piece of fiction that oozes with misconceptions stemming from such classics as Indiana Jones and The Mummy - it isn't really their fault (but don't even mention 10,000 BC to me...that film, in addition to being awful, manages to run rings around The Mummy by taking a sketchy six-year-old's history, running it through a blender and a woodchipper before feeding it to an amoeba and setting the poor thing on fire. Watching it, I certainly felt like I had been set on fire.)

    Admittedly, I'm just shy of 16, so hopefully my work isn't plagued by the interesting concepts that your writing was (no offence intended).

    That was a little more of my concern. I didn't want somebody who actually does have access to information that I don't becoming unhappy about something I write (I love the way that my ego actually thinks they would care!). A disclaimer may actually be perfect. I could also include a short piece at the end of the story explaining what elements of it are actually based on fact and what evidence those parts are based on.

    Of course. As a writer who is already interested, I think that putting something together that is at the very least believable is the only real way to do the story, myself and any readers I may have justice.
     
  5. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    formal lessons in what?...

    as for the fiction vs fact question, just take a look at clive cussler's novels... he plays with ancient history all the time and gets away with it...
     
  6. Obsidian Vulture
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    Obsidian Vulture New Member

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    Isn't it obvious...the violin!

    Seriously though, I was referring to Ancient History (as it is one of my school subjects). Thus, I have been interested in the subject for about 12 years but have only had a teacher for three.

    I figured that looking at what other authors get published would be a good way to get an idea about what is 'acceptable'. I'm aiming for a Christian Jacq-ish level of historical basis (his books are heavily based on real events, but have a bit of the supernatural thrown in). As they are also about Ancient Egypt, they are probably one of the best guides that I am going to get. Wilbur Smith's River God is probably a little too much fiction and too little fact for what I am aiming, although it is quite possibly the best book that I have ever read (in my humble opinion of course - if it isn't the best it is definitely up in the top 5).

    Anyway, thanks for the hints - I am feeling quite a bit more relaxed about the task ahead of me now.
     
  7. wildflower
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    wildflower Member

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    In my opinion speculation is all we can really do if we write historical fiction.

    I write this as well (though not as far back as ancient Egypt). If it were historical fact you were writing, there would be very little room for speculation.

    Have you ever read The Other Boylen Girl (Phillipa Gregory)? THAT was most definately speculative to the severest degree. That's why people read historical fiction - they want to be entertained with drama, not bored with a history lesson

    Good luck with your project
     

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