That is a question all authors of historical fiction face when choosing a time period or incident to write about. Yes, the answer can vary, but so can the results and repercussions of the choice.
Generally, historical fiction can be broken down into 4 categories of choice regarding the amount of fiction involved. These run the gambit: history light, history interwoven, re-imagined and based upon a true story.
History light and history interwoven are perhaps the two easiest to distinguish. History light would include the old Harlequin or Silhouette romances along with paranormal, where history is just a flavoring to the story and not essential. History interwoven are stories when the characters seamlessly interact with the real people and society of the time. The more tricky categories are the last two: re-imagined and based upon a true story. Don’t confuse the two as being interrelated, because that isn’t necessarily the case.
Re-imagined or alternative takes history and people and re-arranges them in order to form a different outcome. Heavy fiction is used but tends to extrapolate the known facts with alternative theories and conclusions. For example, Fatherland by Robert Harris written in 1992 is set in Europe after the Nazi victory. Some would consider Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand in this category of a re-imagined America.
Taking the re-imagined/alternative approach often generates the most backlash upon an author. History purists are usually appalled while speculators cheers. It requires a deft hand to craft a re-imagined story to satisfy both sides with facts and conjecture.
Based upon a true story can be a mind-field, especially if an author is dealing with recent history and some people involved are still alive. Perhaps the best example of this deals with the Kennedy family. So many fiction and non-fiction books are floating out there about what some consider the ‘royal’ family of America.
Basing a story upon recent history, the author must be well-armed since legal ramifications are very possible when portraying individuals still living in a fictional account. Other incidents in history that are well documented can also generate problems for an author. Yes, writing fiction authors can – and often – claim creative license, but what is the purpose of writing a story based upon reality if not to bring it to life as it happened?
Many readers of historical fiction are history buffs and can smell a false representation a mile off. Sure, they can forgive if the story is engaging and well-written, but what about responsibility to those of whom the story is written? Again that is a conundrum facing authors of historical fiction – audience vs. history?
Such was the case for me when writing Glencoe. True, all the incidents happened in the late 1600s, but it is well documented and the repercussions still felt today. Personally, I felt my literary freedom balanced by the desire to correctly portray the events and people.
In the end, each author must choose the amount of fiction and history, and with the choice, face the results.