History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

15 November 2011

Blurring the Lines

Recently, I had the great honor of contributing to an anthology of stories inspired by Jane Austen (there's a reason the title of the anthology is Jane Austen Made Me Do It!). There are some wonderful Austenian stories in there by Regency veterans such as Syrie James and Jo Beverly. Having spent a good deal of time in 1804 recently, I decided it would be fun to do something modern, something a little quirky... something involving a team of ghost hunters and a "real" Northanger Abbey. I call it my Scooby-Doo story.

This has now spawned my absolute favorite angry email. My correspondent irately informed me that if I had taken five minutes to Google, as he did, I would have known that Northanger Abbey wasn't a real place. And I should be ashamed of myself. Hmph.

Okay, so he didn't actually say hmph. It was, however, highly implied.

Of course, Northanger Abbey isn't a real place. (As far as I know-- there are more things in heaven and England....) That's the fun of it. Maybe it says something about my lifelong desire to slip into the pages of the books I'm reading, but I've always enjoyed blurring the lines between fiction and fact, incorporating real people and places into fiction, and, on the opposite end, treating fictional people and places as real.

I've played this game before, with my first book, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, in which the premise was that the Scarlet Pimpernel had been real, and had given rise to a host of other flowery spies, including the Purple Gentian, the Pink Carnation, and their dastardly French foe, the Black Tulip. I once overheard someone solemnly telling a friend that, naturally, I'd made up the Pink Carnation, but everyone knew the Scarlet Pimpernel had been a real person. As a former historian, there's a little fact problem there. As a writer, it de lights me that Baroness Orczy's character has become so real that people believe he existed in the flesh as well as in fiction. (And, to be fair, there was actually a spy running around France under the alias Le Mouron. Sadly, he wasn't Sir Percy Blakeney and he didn't look like Anthony Andrews. In real life, he was French and no one sought him here or there.)

It always thrills me when I come across references to fiction as fact in other peoples' novels. There's an old Regency by Elsie Lee, The Wicked Guardian, in which a character refers disparagingly to "that Blakeney boy" who ran off to play spy in France. Sara Donati incorporates Diana Gabaldon's Claire Fraser in her Into the Wilderness. I was, as you can imagine, over the moon when our own Mary Blayney decided to incorporate my Lord Richard Selwick into her Traitor's Kiss.

How do you feel about fictional people or events being incorporated into fiction as fact?

(And, authors, I know I probably shouldn't ask this, but I can't resist.... What's your favorite angry email?)


Blogger Lil said...

I love it when fictional characters are treated as real. It's really delightful when they are mistaken for real.

One of my favorite tales: The first of George MacDonald Fraser's FLASHMAN books was reviewed as an actual memoir by a historian.

Then there is Sherlock Holmes, who was, of course, real. Any of the Baker Street Irregulars will tell you so.

7:18 AM  
Blogger Rachel Donnelly said...

Yes let's be careful that our fiction does not become to fictiony. Ha!

Perhaps your reader's suspension of disbelief was so great, due to your excellent writing, his discovery that the setting didn't exist sent him over the edge.

Keep up the great story telling.

Rachel Donnelly

8:47 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

It wasn't an "angry email" from a reader---but I did get an email from a reader who sent me a complete synopsis for a second book/story that included all of the characters from my first book, DARK RIDER. No kidding. It was good. She'd laid out who should get married, who will have kids, who will be killed in battle and who will go on to become the next great hero! Loved it!

9:41 AM  
Blogger Sarah C. said...

What do you mean the Scarlet Pimpernel wasn't real?! ;-P (I say this as someone who got ridiculously excited when I was in Paris and saw a sign commemorating Paul Deroulede, because I took it as "proof" that everything else Baroness Orczy wrote about it naturally was real too.)

I love it when fictional characters are treated as real; it was one of the things that tickled me most about 'Pink Carnation' on first reading it.

2:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think fictional people and events can add depth and substance to historical fiction, which might otherwise rely on whatever scant historical records survive. I've really enjoyed Sharon Kay Penman's books, which are reliably accurate from an historical perspective, but don't shy away from adding fictional characters to move along the story.

5:58 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Some authors, like Christine Trent, have made a career of it. And it works. Her major characters are fictional and her supporting ones are historical personages. With my historical fiction, I do the opposite. Either way, a story well told with richly created characters, whether wholly imagined, or the author's imagined version of the historical originals, can be truly wonderful.

I've gotten angry emails about my nonfiction when there's a typo that didn't end up getting corrected in the published version, and so a name is wrong, and the best thing to do is compliment the person on being such an astute reader. But I'll have to point to 2 Amazon reviews, rather than emails: one of a historical fiction novel (this was the result of a firestorm a few years ago where in my infinite naivete I had endeavored to respond to an Amazon review -- not the one I'm about to refer to -- where the reader felt that Mary Robinson in ALL FOR LOVE had been too much of a doormat where her relationship with Tarleton was concerned).

I tried to explain that these were the historical facts of her life and unfortunately she did let him walk all over her and didn't kick him to the curb and that for my personal integrity as an author I felt that I had to be true to the facts of Mary's life rather than fictionalize it, to make her more palatable, more relatable to 21st c. women -- it's eviscerating me to relive the experience, frankly) Someone who had never posted an Amazon review before, then posted a 1-star review of the novel which didn't really review the book at all, but referred to me as "sick" "sad" and "psychotic" and told readers never to buy an LC or Amanda book ever again. Have I ever met this man? Did I ever steal his Twinkies in second grade? Amazon would not remove the review as a personal attack. The other was a 1-star review of one of my nonfiction books which has something like a 60-title bibliography, plus additional articles from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biogrpaphy, all of which were read, cover to cover. The title of the review is "Do a little research before you write a book."

Sometimes, you have to laugh and reach for the nearest bottle of champagne.

9:27 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

To me fictional characters always have "real" lives that continue off the page, so I love it when they appear in works by other authors. It's fun to imagine favorite fictional characters who exist in the same era meeting up. I also love weaving my fictional main characters into historical events and having them interact with real historical people.

12:13 PM  

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