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Truth or dare
Writing Magazine

Truth or dare

Posted 18 March 2016   |   3256 views   |   General Interest   |   Comments (0) Making things up is a novelist’s job, but writers of historical fiction need to make it credible for their readers, says Margaret James

Did it really happen?
As a historical novelist, I’ve been asked that question several times, and quite often the answer is no: I made a lot of it up.

A novelist is supposed to tell the truth about the human condition. But, when it comes to telling the truth about historical events, should the author be under oath? I’d say it depends on what kind of historical novel the author wants to write. I’d add that provided you can make your reader believe while this reader is actually reading, and if you can make everything sound authentic, and if you don’t disgust your reader by letting this reader assume you got something wrong because you were just plain ignorant, you can say anything you like.

You can stretch the truth as much as you dare, or even make absolutely everything up. There are plenty of historical novels that offer an alternative take on what actually took place. Robert Harris’s Archangel. Len Deighton’s SS-GB and C J Sansom’s Dominion are great examples of authors writing about what might have happened, but didn’t.

What if Elizabeth I had been secretly married and had also given birth to a son whose descendants are the rightful heirs to the British throne? What if the Jacobite rebellions of the 18th century had been successful? Who is going to write those stories, if they haven’t been written already?

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