I think a lot about the intentional and the unintentional rewriting of history. I love history, and I write historical fiction. Real events and occasionally real people are part of the story, even if they aren't THE story.
As I go through my final manuscript edits, I check and recheck dates and people time and time again. For example, in Le Chevalier, the Marquis de Lafayette was shot at the Battle of Brandywine. I must have looked up the date of that battle ten times to make sure I had at the right point in my timeline.
I dug up the military hospital they would have taken him to. (Most likely Bristol, although I don’t remember the source where I eventually found this. Maybe in Lafayette or in Guide to the Battles of the American Revolution both of which are in my permanent collection.) I researched how long it would have taken my main character, Mont Trignon, to get to his former commander on horseback. How far is Bristol from Philadelphia? How many miles can a horse travel per day? What is the terrain like between Philly and Bristol? Was there any British held territory he would have had to circumvent?
Then I made it purposefully vague in my story so the inevitable miscalculations wouldn’t be obvious to any horse riding, east coast living, military enthusiasts who might happen to pick up a romance novel.
Perhaps a little rewriting of history is inevitable. The further we get from actual events, the more things will be distorted. But as a fiction writer, I try to do as little damage to history as possible. The same is not necessarily true for all artists.
Take the painters…
|Declaration of Independence|
Artist: John Trumbull
First, there’s John Trumbull's famous painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Never happened. Not that the Declaration wasn’t signed, but the first person to sign it, John Hancock, did so with only his secretary as witness because the 2nd Continental Congress had adjourned and gone home. The others would gradually add their signatures later.
Then there’s the famous Crossing of the Delaware. Would you stand up in a fishing boat while navigating an icy river? Not me, and I doubt Washington would risk it either.
|Washington Crossing the Delaware|
Artist: Emanuel Leutze
And how about this painting of Napoleon crossing the Alps? That beautiful white horse of his wouldn’t have made it up the first foothill. Unless you have a 747 handy, your best bet for crossing the alps is a donkey. Not having a jumbo jet handy, my understanding is that the Little General made use of the next best thing. Of course, what self-respecting future emperor would have himself painted on a donkey?
|Napoleon Crossing the Alps|
Artist: Jacques Louis David
Perhaps it’s natural to give painters a little more leeway. Before the modern age, they were paid to distort the truth. (Now, we just do it ourselves with Photoshop.) And perhaps authors should be held to a different standard. Since reality isn’t the theme of our work, for a fiction author, at least, that which touches on reality should be as close to the truth as possible.
What do you think?
Note: Wikimedia Commons is the source for all of the images in this post. Each of them is in the public domain in the United States because the terms of their copyright has expires.