When do you write a historical event as a true story, and when do you take the leeway to allow your historical character to take a fictional journey rooted in real events?
Presently, the trend in popular televisions series and films are plots that make history come alive. For example, the award-winning HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” focuses on the early '20a, with the rise of the Mobs (Italian, Jewish and Irish) through bootlegging caused by the Volstead Act, plugging in historical events as they arise within the story.
The popular History Channel “Vikings” series also takes great pains to authenticate the Viking time period in Norway. The attention to detail makes the unique people and history come alive. In our recent past, two Borgia historical series looked at a specific corrupt Catholic Pope's reign in 1497, and “The Tudors” popular series was based on King Henry VIII's reign.
The Oscar-winning “Argo” centers around a historical event in the '70s, and of course Steven Spielberg‘s “Lincoln” looked at a specific time in Lincoln's presidency. And now
Ben Affleck's new “Live by Night” — produced by Pearl Street Films owned by Affleck and Matt Damon — is a book by Dennis Lehane which is set in the late '20s that tells a story about bootlegging and rum-running in the south.
Although the story around “The Great Gatsby” is not necessarily a historical plot, it touches upon societal truths of the late '20s. The history comes alive with the surroundings, such as fashion, automobiles and architecture. And, let's not forget the popular movie “Elizabeth,” which focused on her reign as Queen of England.
Popular trend firmly established, here's my advice as a historical fiction writer on how to interweave the truth of historical events with a narrative to drive a story that engages and excites today's audiences.
History vs. Fiction in Historical Fiction
First and foremost: Any storyteller focusing on a historical period or event needs to understand the difference between a historical biography, which is truth, supposedly, and historical fiction, which is historically true but with a fictional story. This viewpoint has a big impact on how you approach the story.
I find when writing historical fiction many readers want the story to do more than it is supposed to do. For example, “Argo“ is historically fictional, which is mostly true with a literary license to create a fictional ending. Some readers of my book, “The Ivy League Chronicles: 9 Squares,” want the book to do something that it is not meant to do; the point of the story is to tell the historical implication when we voted in a shadow government by allowing the Federal Reserve Bank and the Council of Foreign Relations created and governed by the ruling elite.
It is important that the viewer or reader understands that historical fiction is mostly true but not all true. When writing historical fiction, however, the audience or readers want it to be historically accurate as much as possible. The above noted movies and television series are key examples of what our readers and viewers expect.
In Ken Follet's historical fiction book “Pillars of the Earth” set in 12th-century England, Ken spans several generations. Not only was his book a huge success, it was also made into a TV movie series. In a movie, every visual element from the set design to clothing can make a period come alive. But in a piece of writing, the words have to make the historical time period come alive. I often say a writer is the director of the written story as the movie director is the director of the story in a movie.
Both must focus on historical details which make the piece come alive as if you lived during that time. Dan Brown, author of “The Da Vinci Code,” based his writing on historical events and built a fictional story around them. For example, he highlighted corruption in the Catholic Church and then developed a fictional plot to help the historical truths come alive. Both the movie and the book were blockbusters.
When writing my historical fiction mystery series, I reviewed Ken Follett's and Dan Brown's writing styles to formulate my approach to what I wanted to say: In the early '20s, the forming of the Federal Reserve Bank and the Council of Foreign Relations is a direct result of many of the concerns we have today questioning who truly rules the world. Thus, I formed a plot with the historical detail examples of Ken Follett's writing and Dan Brown's historical portrayal of corruption to tell an historical fiction story.
Bringing a Character to Life in Historical Stories
Understanding the importance placed on researching all aspects of a historical era is imperative for character development. First and foremost, the clothing, speech, reactions, traditions and social classes are essential multiple factors that should stay true to the historical period.
In an earlier guest blog on The Wrap, “3 Steps to Writing Good Historical Fiction, I discussed three general keys to embedding historical fiction: (1) in the narrative discussion, (2) infuse in plot and (3) in character dialogue. Character dialogue should be a platform for not only portraying the historical aspects of the character as mentioned above, but any background historical events as well.
For example, to enhance history and embed characters within the early '20s, character dialogue could be used to discuss the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank and the Council of Foreign relations; if it fits the plot of the story, of course. Even the use of flapper language in dialogue would make characters come alive within the historical context of the '20s: "You are the bees knees! Who's this song bird?"
Although your approach to the format of writing whether screenplays, novels or short stories will vary, all must embed characters within the details of the historical period to make characters believable and come alive. These differences and many more must be understood when developing characters to enhance the time period.
Remember: It's all in the details. Historically speaking, that is!