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We Need a Veracity Scale for Historical Fiction

Updated: Oct 23, 2020

A Modest Proposal for the Book Industry

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How Loose is Loose?

Wouldn’t it be nice if when you bought a historical fiction book, you’d have an idea of how much is fact and how much is fiction?

You’ve heard the phrase “loosely-based.” The term means that the premise of the story comes from a real-life event but when translated to the page or the screen, many things have been altered.

A chasm exists between a book that’s “loosely” based on a historical event and a book that’s meticulously researched and filled with verbatim quotes pulled from letters and speeches. There’s a world of difference between books that create dozens of daily events and books that follow an exact timeline of known occurrences. Yet both versions are classified as historical fiction.

Historical fiction is a wide genre, mostly defined by the fact that the setting, the costumes, and the activities are from more than fifty years in the past. One author even quips that

“Most book lovers agree that Historical Fiction is the closest we’ll get to actual time travel.”

Time travel, indeed. But if I’m going to step into a time machine, I want to know that it’s going to get me to my desired destination and not inaccurately shoot me to an unrecognizable place or era.

Fact versus fiction

When I choose a historical fiction book, I want to know that it’s not just “loosely-based” on an event or a person but that it’s been researched and is as close to the facts as a “fiction” book can be. YOU may want the opposite. You may choose to go to an imagined place with fictional characters, a place you can escape to knowing that it’s “pretend” even though the original idea came from an actual event.

Determining the amount of fact vs fiction exists in a particular work is NOT a judgment of good versus bad. It’s a matter of helping consumers choose what they want. And if customers are happy, they’ll come back and buy from you again. Isn’t that what publishers and authors want?

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A modest proposal for the book industry

We need a veracity scale for historical fiction. I’m no mathematician, but I know that somebody good at statistics, data, and algorithms could put together an effective formula.

When authors submit to agents, or when agents sell to publishers, they’d include the following six pieces of information so that the book could receive a “Veracity” rating. A template could even be created as part of a book proposal or contract. Self-published authors would want to take advantage of the scale, too, so that their readers know what to expect.

1) Percentage of real vs created characters

If all the characters in the book are real, with none invented, then the rating would be 100%. If all the characters in your book are fictional, the percentage would be zero. If you have 10 characters in your book, and four of them are based on real-life people, you’d rate 40%.

2) Percentage of real vs created events

Did everything in the book happen, or were meetings, parties, gatherings, and assignations created to propel the plot forward? What’s the ratio of real to imagined occurrences?

3) Adherence to the timeline of recorded events

Does the plot of the book adhere to the dates of historical events? Was the timeline condensed, or does the book start with one event and manufacture events from that point on?

4) Percentage of verbatim words drawn from historical documents

Are the conversations in the book completely fictional, or have any of them been researched? What percentage of the words are recorded statements, drawn from letters, speeches, newspaper accounts, and public records?

5) Inclusion of bibliography

Does the author include a bibliography of sources consulted during the writing of the book? Bonus points for End Notes.

6) An author’s note

I just finished reading The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore. It was the best example I’ve ever seen of an author detailing exactly what was true and what was not. His historical fiction novel is based on “The Current Wars,” which was the fight between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse to control America’s electrical grid. All of the characters in his book are true. All the events are true although the timeline has been condensed, and he spells out every variance from historical fact so there’s no doubt as to how much was embellished.

A simple scale of 1–5 would suffice

I have to admit that I’ve been heavily influenced by Ben Blatt’s book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve. He is a data analyst who uses computers to count words and phrases to determine author tendencies. He calculates how those tendencies translate to sales. He looks at literary trends based on real data. I’m certain those same scientific principles could be applied to the genre of historical fiction to formulate a rating based on the above criteria.

A rating of “1” would be the epitome of “loosely based.” We all know the Civil War happened. Any book set in the Civil War based around fictional characters and imaginary events would be “loosely based” on the War Between the States from 1861–1865.

A rating of “5” would be mostly history, heavily researched, using real characters, a large percentage of actual words, and a close approximation to the timeline of recorded events.

This “Modest Proposal”

I’m not suggesting we eat our young like Jonathon Swift’s “Modest Proposal.” I AM suggesting we give readers insight into the kind of book they’re about to purchase. Since it’s hard to judge a book by its cover, and since 675 MILLION books are sold every year, a “veracity rating” for historical fiction would only help readers buy the books they really want.

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1 Comment

M Fxston
M Fxston
Sep 12, 2021

Was circling back to see how the Beneath blog was coming in terms of views and noticed this one.

I think the idea is good, but doubt the industry will ever agree.

Also think your "5" sounds like all-but if not what is sold as narrative nonfiction (but often ought not be presented as such).

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