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During our conversation last week, Ta-Nehisi Coates offered a maxim for historical fiction: “You can’t violate the spirit of Lincoln.” In other words, it’s fine that Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln included a few lines that the president never said, because it otherwise remained true to the spirit of the era. How do writers of historical fiction manage to walk that line and avoid violating the spirit of Lincoln, so to speak? And why does it matter? I spoke with a few of them to find out.

Finding Truth in Historical Fiction

There’s a difference between history and the past, said the historian Robert Lacey, who consults for the Netflix period drama The Crown. He defines history as an interpretation of the past based on available facts. But that interpretation is not the only—or even sometimes the best—way to understand the past. Historical fiction, he said, can take us a step further than the available record: “It’s imagination inspired by the past.” Historians sift through bits and pieces of evidence to build an interpretation; historical fiction fills in the space around those bits and pieces.

But how accurate does that interpretation have to be?  There’s no consensus over how married historical fiction writers should be to facts, and where historical fiction falls on the spectrum between truth and fiction.  

Anita Diamant’s bestseller The Red Tent tells the fictionalized story of the Biblical character Dinah. For Diamant, the imagination in historical fiction allows the author to provide a counterpart to established historical accounts. “I’m drawn to historical fiction because there are lots of untold stories in human history,” she said. The people whose stories she wants to tell “are not part of history books. They are not queens; they are ordinary people.”

The novelist Min Jin Lee, who wrote the National Book Award finalist Pachinko, agreed. Through storytelling, historical fiction adds insight into the humanity of ordinary people. “I think empathy is our job,” Lee said. Her writing is a form of cathartic storytelling intended to allow the reader to feel in a way that would be difficult to achieve through a traditional historical account. “Writers are told to be objective, but objectivity plus empathy gives us a bigger lens to see the totality of a person’s complexity.” Lacey finds writers can encourage empathy by crafting fiction with a historian’s eye. “The historian has to be humble and have great care and respect for the small threads of life and experience,” he said.

Just how carefully to respect those threads is a question each writer has to answer for herself. For Diamant, accurate historical details are crucial to bringing a narrative to life. “Details that are mundane,” she said, “such as what people were wearing or eating … those details are important as background that serves the story.”

The subject of a story matters too. Lee saw a responsibility to accuracy given the topic of her novel: “I had a duty to be accurate because Pachinko was the first novel in English for adults about Koreans living in Japan. I was very nervous about getting things wrong.”

For Lacey, great historical fiction requires an intangible authenticity—that “spirit of Lincoln”—more than accurate technicalities. He described a scene in the 2017 war drama Darkest Hour, where Winston Churchill rides the London Underground while troubled by Parliament’s deliberation over whether to sign a treaty with Hitler. “The scene suggests he didn’t know what to say and asked people on the train.”

Churchill never took the tube during those deliberations, but that didn’t concern Lacey as much as the inauthenticity he found in a portrayal of the prime minister as gun-shy. “Churchill always knew what he wanted to say about Hitler. The idea that he was canvassing for ideas for a conviction that was within him for a decade is just wrong. That’s the line I would say is being crossed there.”

“Authenticity is not just what happened,” said Lee. “It’s about emotional truth too.” Diamant wanted the characters in her novels to articulate thoughts and feelings that sometimes weren’t spoken about in the time periods she wrote them in. “I find a lot of silence in history,” she said. In order to depict her characters’ emotional truths without forsaking period accuracy, she confronts that tension. In her novel Day After Night, a character is angry that no one is talking about the struggle they all experienced. “She feels like it’s erasing history,” Diamant said. “At same time, she can’t give voice to it because it was so painful. I describe those dilemmas.”

Readers have told her, she said, that, although they dislike reading historical accounts, they enjoy historical fiction. There is a distinct pleasure in reading fiction, agreed Lacey: “As a historian, I feel obliged to make it clear to readers when I write that I’m interpreting history, whereas the historical novelist doesn’t have to do that. The reader knows they are about to taste a cocktail which is a mixture of fact and imagination—and enjoy it if it’s good.”

Today’s Wrap Up

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  • What’s coming: Tomorrow, Caroline Kitchener will follow up on a few cliffhangers The Atlantic left unresolved this time last year.

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