♫ Bonaparte’s Retreat ♫…and other mysteries
If you’ve never come across Bonaparte’s Retreat, it’s a traditional folk song for the fiddle, or at least usually played on that instrument. I mention it because I tried recently to discover its origins, without much luck. (For anyone interested there’s a slightly modern-traditional version here). The earliest reference is to the tune being improvised, on the bagpipes, by a Scots regimental piper to celebrate his comrades’ performance at the battle of Waterloo in 1815. Or as a dirge for its casualties.
Maybe it was… perhaps it wasn’t. Which got me thinking…
One of the problems in writing HF is catering a readership which may vary from the totally ignorant (in the nicest possible sense) to those with an encyclopaedic knowledge of your period. And while you need the reader to be able to feel themselves ‘in character’, the balance between imparting facts, which may be brand new to the novice but old hat to the expert, and telling your story, can be difficult to strike.
So – how far can you go in bending history; moulding events to suit your own plotline? Purists will scream ‘NOOOOO!!!’ Me? I think you can, but not with impunity.
♫ It’s a mystery, it’s a mystery…♫
…so the song goes. And a recent post on another history-related blog here got me thinking even more about what we accept as being the ‘true facts’, as Americans would say, of many historical events.
When I started to write Walls of Jericho, one of my prompts was an event which, though the barest details were included in a number of non-fiction accounts, didn’t ring true. The problem was, as a self-confessed history duffer, was I making assumptions I had no right to?
♫…I’m still searching for a clue… ♫
In the end I wrote down the apparent facts and a series of what were, to me at any rate, perfectly logical questions related to each. I thought there were bound to be answers somewhere if I looked hard enough.
♫ …It’s a mystery…to me… ♫
But what I found surprised me. No article or chapter or diary answered every question; most offered no explanation for any of my queries. In fact some even hardened the – fictional – ideas I’d had for that part of the novel into certainties.
Why was that? Surely an event could not have been widely misinterpreted? And by numerous historians, who simply ignored related facts which, when put together, didn’t make any sense? It seemed so.
♫ A shot in the dark, big question mark…in history ♫
Then I thought I saw an explanation. Historians rely on sources, both primary, from original documents, and secondary; accounts by other historians who have studied the same subject. And the problem with both is that sometimes neither tell the whole story. Or they’re slanted by the views of the original writer.
♫ …Is it a mystery..to..you? ♫
So if historians don’t really know the whole story, even if they think they do, would it be fair to write a fictional interpretation which took into account these known-but-ignored facts, in a logical manner, but did not affect the real outcome of the event? I thought so.
I thought, in fact(!), my fictional account might be nearer the truth than history books tell us, but…maybe that’s taking myself a bit too seriously!
Do you think bending ‘true facts’ is fair, in fiction?
Oh – and it’s Toyah Wilcox (1981), in case you were wondering.