Ethical Considerations for Writing Historical Fiction

1106 Design

June 16, 2020

Guest post by 1106 Design author, Gary L. Stuart. Visit Gary’s blog The Ethics of Writing.

“The one charm of the past is that it is past.”

Oscar Wilde

Persia Wooley wrote a fine “how-to” book in 1997 entitled, How to Write and Sell Historical Fiction.[1]  I bought it because I was unsure of the ethical dilemmas that writing historical fiction always presents. At the time, I was researching what eventually became my first historical fiction book.[2] Chapter Two of Persia Woolley’s book asks the double-question, “How Much Fact, How Much Fiction?” That thirteen-page chapter asks most of the right questions and uses four historical fiction books[3] to unravel the ethical trilemmas writers of historical fiction face—how much fact—how much fiction—and how to get it right. Too much fact kills the story. Too much fiction denies history. And not getting it right is unethical.

Historical writers face other minor ethical issues. Integrating history with your own fictional characters. Choosing a POV that is both relevant and appropriate. Clarifying when you’re writing historical fiction and when you’re writing the fictional character’s take on that history. Most important, minding your reader’s attention span—they skim history for the sake of enjoying the story you’re telling.

All historical fiction is set back into a time different than the reader’s time. The characters in a historical novel react consistently with the historical modes, norms, and events of their eras. There will always be social mores and lifestyles that differ from those of your reader. The writer synthesizes fact with fiction. The reader might not. Some historical novels are based on previous legends. Others are the product of the writer’s own experience—crosshatched into the novel. Some legends (stories) are treated as history. Other legends are treated as folktales. They might have been true and so they’re accepted as true. Urban myths abound, as do Western myths.

Defining “historical fiction” isn’t simple. It takes several pages of well-written prose to dig deep enough to arrive at an acceptable definition. The Fiction Dictionary gives the historical a page and a half to flesh out how broad the term is.[4] “Historical Fiction takes place during a definite, recognizable period in the real past . . . It generally involves important political or social events of the day . . . it uses historical figures as characters in which fictional characters interact with historical ones . . . the focus in historical fiction is more on plot than on character . . . contemporary historical fiction often falls into the metafiction mode, sometimes called ‘mockhistorical, antihistorical, pseudohistorical, fiction histories, or historiographic metafiction.’”

There may come a time—a future event—when the Trump White House will fit into one or all of these so-called contemporary historical modes.

“Your consciousness is your contribution to reality. What you perceive as real becomes real.”


Do historical fiction writers tell the truth or a tall tale? The Fiction Dictionary[5] defines a “tall tale” as “Humorous—sometimes darkly humorous—and often preposterous stories of life on the American frontier.”

How tall must a tale be before we question the writer’s ethics? Is mimicking the truth tall enough? Does the writer try to convince the reader of something that likely did not happen, but might have happened? What say the writer about setting his or her tall tale? Not a plain tale, but a tall one, tall enough to make the details seem believable, but the story doesn’t?

What about the line—that ethical line—between legend and tall tale?

Fact is, tall tales were generally told for entertainment. They are legendary—Paul Bunyan—Dr. Jekyll—Davey Crockett—Mr. Hyde—Donald J. Trump? They are the folk heroes of tall tales. How tall was that tree? Was he a real physician? Did he really kill all those many bears? Was his inauguration crowd really that big? Would he have won the popular vote if those three million votes hadn’t been fakes?

One of America’s best historical fiction writers wrote a book in 2018 that is indubitable.[6]  It is Paula McLain’s “Love and Ruin—A Novel.”[7] In her most recent historical novel, Ms. McLain, author of “The Paris Wife,”[8] returns to the subject of “Ernest Hemmingway in a novel about his passionate, stormy marriage to Martha Gellhorn—a fiercely independent, ambitious young woman who would become one of the greatest war correspondents of the twentieth century.”[9] Some simply accept a writer’s statement that her book is a novel as proof it is fiction rather than history. But Ms. McLain goes well beyond that simplicity. She describes her work as a “blending of fact and fiction.”[10] She “sifts through historical facts on record to find the story within the larger story . . . to tell . . . based on concrete, absolutely essential source material that grounds my research.”[11] In her “Note on Sources,” she cites scores of nonfiction writers, biographers, history books, textbooks, and many works of pure fiction by her subjects, Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn. Most important, she explains the Gellhorn in her novel “isn’t the Gellhorn, for how could she be?”[12]

She says Marty Gellhorn, the subject of her book, is a mystery, the way we’re all mysteries to our friends, family, and loved ones, and even to ourselves. She is clear about discovering Gellhorn who was, “Whatever her flaws, she was incandescent, a true original.” She assures her readers that Gellhorn’s biographers contradicted each other. She found places where Gellhorn herself made errors of memory.

I think the ethics issue is emotional truth rather than literal truth. That’s why we call it historical fiction.

Gary L StuartGary L Stuart is an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. He teaches creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read his bio.





[1] Persia Woolley, Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, OH.

[2] The Gallup 14, Gary L. Stuart, University of New Mexico Press, 2000

[3] Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago; Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind; Colleen McCullough’s First Man In Rome; Irving Stone’s Lust For Life. I’ve read them all and highly recommend them—not for the ethics, but for the master-storytelling in all of them.

[4] By Laurie Henrie, Story Press, Cincinnati, OH, 1995, pages 128-129.

[5] By Laurie Henry, Story Press, Cincinnati, OH. 1995. Page 294-295.

[6] Meaning it is impossible to doubt; unquestionable; as in “an indubitable truth.”

[7] Ballantine Books, New York, 2018.

[8] Ballantine Books, New York, 2012.

[9] See inside marketing flap—dust cover.

[10] Love and Ruin, page 387.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Id at 388. Ms. Plain knows the Gellhorn was a woman of mystery.

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