Every so often I feel a need to defend myself against the charge that I somehow betrayed my training as a professional historian by switching my emphasis after retirement to write historical fiction. I admit that there's a lot of dreck out there -- "historical" fiction that bears little resemblance to what actually happened. When I first went back to graduate school to study medieval history, I had to unlearn a lot of silliness i had picked up from a steady childhood diet of medieval story-telling. I now loathe the kind of novel that mixes fact with fantasy, or that takes a "what if" approach to explore alternative universes.
But it is also true that historical fiction, when written by a true professional, can cast much light upon confusing historical events. Many important historical figures have fascinating background stories that clarify their actions. Sometimes obscure individuals stepped forward at a crucial moment, did something that changed the course of history, and then fell back into the shadows -- their stories lost. And every writer of historical fiction that I know spends countless hours getting such details right.
My own failing is that I tend to get so involved in the historical trivia that my writing time turns into research hours. Just recently I needed to write about a character who experienced the great Charleston earthquake of 1886. I started by looking at internet pictures, then turned to newspaper accounts, and then ordered two books devoted to the event, both of which I read in depth. When it came time to write the actual description, it took only 420 words. But I had spend three weeks reading and distilling those details. Can the history in my novels be relied upon? I certainly believe so!
Today on Facebook I ran across another example of how hard historical novelists work to get things right. Elizabeth Chadwick writes medieval historical fiction, most often centered on figures from the 12th and 13th century, among them, Eleanor of Aquitaine and William Marshall. Even the Royal Historical Society recognizes her excellence as a writer.And today she demonstrated her historical precision on Facebook with an extensive article on the effigies of medieval knights.
Sound dull? It's not. These effigies, found all over England in medieval cathedrals, have an amazing variety of poses, and she explores the validity of some of the interpretations historians have imposed upon them. Her article recalled for me a discussion I had with my own 12-year-old many years ago, when he asked me why a certain reclining effigy had his legs crossed. When I admitted that I didn't know, he suggested that maybe the knight had to go to the bathroom. Of course I knew where that answer came from -- the kid had been traveling with us by car across France and had been told more than once to "cross your legs and hold it" until the next town.
Elizabeth does not include that particular explanation, but her article is well worth reading, both for its historical approach and her own reasoned conclusions. You can find it here: http://the-history-girls.blogspot.co.uk/2016/02/cross-your-legs-and-hope-to-die-what.html