Historical Fiction – but is it true? by Maria O’Rourke

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Having recently published my historical fiction novel Defying the Curse, I have been asked variations of this question by so many people. ‘How much of it is true?’ ‘Did it really happen?’ ‘How much did you make up?’ ‘But what about…?’ Everybody has their own angle and there seems to be an inherent need to know which parts are fact and which aren’t.

Historical fiction is an interesting genre and very popular, if poorly understood. One of the reasons for its popularity is that it is always based on a true story. We all love a true story! Whether it’s a series on TV or a film as old as The Sound of Music, there is an added depth to knowing that the characters are based on real people and real-life events. I never tire of imagining the real Von Trappe family climbing over the Alps to safety, even if they looked or sounded nothing like their film compatriots. Did Maria look anything like Julie Andrews? Was she even a good singer? It doesn’t matter – her story is embedded in our minds, and we learned so much about a period of Austrian history quite accidentally by watching it.

I like to imagine that my book, Defying the Curse, will be a period drama some day! A child, born without limbs into an aristocratic Irish family in the 1800’s (a family who were said to be cursed by a peasant) who went on to become an MP, sailing his yacht across the Irish Sea to the British Parliament. A triumph of the human spirit over disability. A love story within a love story – Arthur married and had seven children within his marriage, although there was another great love in his life. And all of this against the background of a changing Ireland, where tenants were demanding their rights. I haven’t met the right Hollywood Director yet, but I can dream!

The way I see historical fiction is that it can be compared to colourising a black and white photo. The colours may not be exact, but they make the photograph so much more real and interesting. A lot of people who would never read a history book are hooked on historical fiction because of the imagined conversations, scenarios, descriptions and relationships which may or may not be exact but are nonetheless typical of the time and the people. The fiction aspect of this genre is not fiction in the purest sense of the word, but rather carefully researched sketches with details that must be absolutely realistic for the relevant time period and characters. Mentioning one item that hadn’t been invented at the time or Americanised phrase in the wrong place can bring the whole story crashing down and lose the reader.

So, when people ask me how much of the story is true, I say ‘All of it!’ I’ve honoured all the facts and I’ve carefully researched the details, so that the people and conversations are as true as I can possibly make them, while obviously not all have been historically recorded. Historical fiction is a wonderful genre. If our History Books in school had been written in this style, we might have learned a lot more.

Enjoy it!

(c) Maria O’Rourke

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