When I read historical fiction, I’ve actually been known to put down a book and do a little research when a major detail doesn’t seem quite right to me. If I discover that the author doesn’t have her facts straight, that’s often enough to make me stop reading. With that having been said, though, I do feel there are times when it’s okay for authors to adjust some of the very minor details of history—as long as they follow two unbreakable rules.
First, any change an author makes from historical fact, however minor, should serve the story. If there is not a pressing reason for you to deviate from history, then don’t. You’ll just look like you haven’t done your research. In one YA novel I recently read, it was mentioned in passing that the main character was listening to the news on the radio…twenty years before the first radio news program was even broadcast. I feel that this is a major detail the author really should have gotten right, and I never finished the book.
And second, if you decide to make a slight change to historical fact, include an author’s note that indicates what you changed and why. This is especially important when writing for children—even though the details you’ve altered are presumably minor enough they won’t make a difference, you still don’t want them to get the wrong impression of history. (By the way, if I encounter a detail that’s wrong in a book, I do check for an author’s note and an explanation before giving up on the novel entirely.)
Is there a fine line between when it’s okay to change historical details and when it’s not? Does it frustrate you too when authors get their facts wrong in historical novels?
Melissa L. is the YA Editorial Assistant for Wonders and Marvels. You can read more about her here: Editorial Staff.