“The first law for the historian is that he shall never dare utter an untruth. The second is that he shall suppress nothing that is true. Moreover, there shall be no suspicion of partiality in his writing, or of malice.” Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.)
As a historian and historical fiction writer, I’ve always loved this great Roman statesman’s quote. If we aren’t objective in our study of history, if we twist the facts or rewrite history to suit our own opinions about the past, we not only cheat ourselves–we also fail to learn our ancestors’ past lessons that we can apply to today’s events.
We historical fiction writers should strive for objectivity, which also means accuracy. While weaving our fictional characters’ stories into historical events, we should accurately depict these events and the historical figures involved in them.
Is it ever acceptable to engage in a bit of artistic license? Maybe twist a small fact? I believe it’s acceptable, but shouldn’t be done often. Bernard Cornwell shows us how to do this in his novel, Redcoat, set during the American Revolution. In a historical note at the end of the book, he tells readers that he took “some liberties with the Revolution’s chronology,” and then he explains what these liberties were. So if we do engage in a bit of license, follow Cornwell’s example and let your readers know.
Cicero’s advice is sound, though. We historians and historical fiction writers do well to heed it.