Historical Accuracy, or, More Resistance

Nothing freezes a project faster than fear. Writers have many different types of fear. “What will my mom think?” “What if no one wants to read what I write?” “My story sounds like everyone else’s.” “My story doesn’t sound like anything else…”

The fear that has popped up most often for myself is “What if I have it wrong?” Sure, it’s FICTION. It is made up. Cicero never had the particular slave about whom I am writing. I am writing a purely fictional story within a historical framework. But sometimes, that framework can feel very restricting.

I love ancient Rome, and I am certainly no stranger to it. I studied it for five years in junior high and high school, and I studied it sporadically throughout my college career. I did better on my Latin SAT 2 than I did on my English! I won the Junior Classical League’s silver medal twice. I received an honorable mention for a short story I wrote for Monmouth College ages ago about Catiline. I know my stuff. But maybe I know it too well. I have this awful fear of messing up. Historical fiction fans have no qualms about letting you know if you have messed something up. And to be honest, I have a pretty thick skin. I can take harsh criticism. It’s not the criticism that worries me, but the injustice I would be doing to my topic. I like being right.

I do a lot of research. I probably spend at least an hour per day researching details of daily Roman life. That does not include the larger topics I must research. In my stories, if something is an established fact, I do not like to go against it for convenience sake. If someone is dead, they are dead, it doesn’t matter how nifty it would be to have them talk to a character at a certain time (I am thinking of an ABC miniseries a few years ago where Cicero was present at Octavian’s triumph over Mark Antony. Hello?). I’ve been told by many people, “It’s fiction, and we, as writer’s, have artistic license.”

Well, yes, this is true… to a point. This is why I can have my main character be who she is, where she is. It wouldn’t have happened like that in real life. But I take what I know of Cicero, which, thanks to his plethora of correspondence, is a lot, and use it to explore an idea; namely, about household slavery. A whole aspect of the idea would be lost, however, if I could just make up stuff to “fill in the blanks.” I’m sorry, but if history and my story cannot agree on something, it is my story that much change, not the history. And I have a pretty fair amount of material I can fudge, at any rate, because so little is known about it. I can take plausible guesses and run with them; until I hit a roadblock, that is.

The things that make me freeze, however, are the minute details (and sometimes, those not-so-minute details) that could be so easily overlooked. I can’t name them. I do as much research as I am able, and I write as accurately as I can, but I KNOW there will be some sneaky thing that I miss. This petrifies me. It’s something I have to get over, but still, it does. And it makes me obsess over things that NO ONE COULD POSSIBLY KNOW. But I can’t help but wonder–What if someone does? Questions like: What color were Cicero’s eyes? and what was Tiro’s personality really like? It really makes you appreciate how small our tiny speck of history really is.


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