Friday, July 11, 2014

When Historical Fact and Fiction Collide

When Historical Fact and Fiction Collide by R. M. Clark

While writing my mystery Center Point, I needed to link together some 300 years of local Southeastern Massachusetts history, including the use of Native American lore and a Revolutionary War battle. Each issue provided a unique dilemma when it came to historical accuracy.

I wasn't sure how to include Native American terms and legends into the narrative of the story and yet still have it sound somewhat authentic. I didn't want to use an existing tribe name or any known legends - too much of a chance of writing something foolish or possibly disrespectful to Native culture. Native legends weave real world, spiritual and metaphysical aspects together in a very unique way and they are an extremely important link to the past.

I decided to keep the story "tribeless" and made up Native warrior names (Komaket and Komagansett) and the legend that went with them. The same was true with with most of the terms, like shingala (the convergence of energy), shongo (a staff) and mahica (30 year cycle of the wolf). It was a generic, but safe, compromise.

Had I chosen to use, say, the Narragansett tribe, I would have been limited to that tribe's lore, customs, legends and other details which would open the door for historical inaccuracies.

My second issue was that there were no Revolutionary War battles of any note in the area. Sure, Massachusetts had the battles of Concord and Lexington and Bunker/Breeds Hill to the north, but none in Southeastern Mass. Moving the story to another location was out of the question; fictional New Dover was a keeper.

So what's a writer to do when confronted with mixing a clearly fictional story with factual events? My choice was easy. I made up a battle. The Battle of New Dover. Fictional town. Fictional battle. I even threw in Fort New Dover. No one (editors, reviewers, readers) ever made it a concern, probably because it was so obviously made up and because, as we say in New England, it was a wicked long time ago.

Had this been a Civil War reference, I may still have been able to get away with it. Many of those battle names and battle sites are familiar: Gettysburg, Yorktown, Bull Run, Antietam. But there were dozens of smaller, lesser known skirmishes and it would be okay to use the (made up) Battle of Gibson's Creek, since there were around twenty battle sites with "Creek" in the name.

Making up a WWII battle would probably be unwise, same with World War I, Korea or Vietnam. As an author, you are subject to real timelines and events of these wars. It's probably not a good idea to say that a character was in the 107th battalion in Vietnam when no such unit existed there (yes, someone would check the historical accuracy and let you know).

Take the movie Saving Private Ryan. It had factual information: Invasion of Normandy, Omaha Beach, right down to the 101st Airborne uniform and patch. Of course, there was no Captain John Miller of the 2nd Rangers or a Private Ryan. But you have to make up characters or there would be no story.

I recall one doozie of a historical inaccuracy from author David Baldacci in his book Stone Cold. When you get some muscle you can write this at the end of your book:

Author's Note:
Hope you enjoyed Stone Cold. One note so people won’t e-mail telling me I made a glaring mistake: I’ve played with the time-line, putting Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko in office as heads of the Soviet Union so it would match Oliver Stone’s career as a government assassin. As a fiction writer, I have full latitude to do so. It’s an entitlement actually granted to me by the Novelist’s Bill of Rights, under the subsection “Why Bother with the Truth When You Can Just Make It Up?” It was duly enacted by Congress, an august body that has enviable experience in same.

The rest of us should probably play it safe!

R. M. Clark's mystery Center Point is available from the Writers AMuse Me Publishing site ( as well as Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, iBooks and Kobo. Visit his author site:

(Also feel free to check out my(Aly's review of Center Point.)


  1. Robert gave an excellent explanation (and primer for those entering the fray of historic novel writing) on how to select historical facts and work them into a novel. The quote from David Baldacci was priceless. Thank you!

  2. love this article! thanks for sharing and go New England!


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