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S. J. Parris and Stephanie Merritt

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How true should historical fiction be?

Wednesday 19th March 2014

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Does historical fiction have a duty to be factually accurate? It's a question I've found myself discussing a lot lately, most recently on BBC Radio 4's Today programme with Sarah Churchwell, who claimed that some historical novelists use "poetic licence" as an excuse for sloppy or minimal research. I had a conversation on the same theme the week before at the Independent Bath Literature festival with fellow novelist Sarah Dunant, who argued forcefully that authors have a responsibility to not present readers with deliberately false information about a historical character or period, and to make clear how much they have invented.

It's certainly true that historical fiction is enjoying a boom at the moment, from heavyweight prizewinners such as Hilary Mantel and Andrew Miller to more populist series from authors including Philippa Gregory, or historical crime by the likes of CJ Sansom, Jed Rubenfeld or my own alter ego, SJ Parris. It's also the case that for many readers, a historical novel might be their point of entry or perhaps their only real window into a particular period. Shouldn't authors therefore take care not to spread an "incorrect" version of what actually happened? ...

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