Erica Vetsch here. Thank you so much to the P&P ladies for inviting me to join you again! I love visiting with you all. That being said, I am on vacation today…sitting in a car, driving the 1700 miles back to frigid Minnesota from beautiful sunny Florida where I was visiting my awesome parents. I will most-likely be unable to respond personally to your messages until I get into my hotel room for the evening, so please, bear with me!
Using Historical Figures in Your Fiction
Have you ever read a novel that used an historical figure as one of the characters? Was it fun for you to ‘recognize’ a character and see the author’s portrayal of how they might have been in a given set of circumstances? Did the character ring true to what you knew about them?
I love stories that have cameo appearances by historical figures, especially famous cowboys and lawmen and outlaws of the Old West, or presidents, soldiers, and personalities of the Civil War, but when I read one and I see things that are glaringly off with an historical figure’s portrayal, I tend to cringe and put the book down for something else.
So how does an author go about using real people in their novels? Can you use a real person in fiction legally? Are there any rules?
First, it is certainly legal to use historical figures in your fiction. Writing about Richard the Lionheart or Wyatt Earp won’t get you into any trouble, even if you mischaracterize them or portray them in a less than glowing light. (FYI, writing about current public figures has different laws about slander, libel, and image copyright, so research those laws if you want to write contemporary fiction. Even flattering treatments of people who are alive and kicking can land you in a legal tangle.) Second, writing about historical figures doesn’t have any ‘rules’ per se, but there are some guidelines that I try to follow that will endear you to readers of historical fiction.
- Learn the basic facts and personality of the character by reading history books, watching documentaries, and if possible, reading primary sources such as diaries, autobiographies, and first-hand newspaper accounts. (No matter which historical figure you use, there will be a reader or two out there who is an ‘expert’ on that character and jealously guards their canon. As much as possible, try to get the history correct—or you might hear about it later!) Some things that might be important to consider are: the character’s family situation, how they make decisions, attitudes and philosophies about social issues, familiar catchphrases or gestures (Think Teddy Roosevelt and “Bully!”) etc. You will also be able to create dialogue that feels authentic if you can read their own words and get a sense of their speech patterns and cadences from reading primary sources.
- Create a timeline of the character’s life, paying particular attention to the time and setting of your story. If you are going to include an historical figure in a fictional situation, make sure they weren’t demonstrably elsewhere in real life. For example, if your scene takes place in St. Louis on November 19, 1863 and you have President Lincoln show up, EEEK! Lincoln was delivering the Gettysburg Address on that day and couldn’t possibly have been in Missouri at that time.
- Stay true to the things you know about the character. Lincoln was tall, skeletal, with a dry wit. George Armstrong Custer was ambitious, overconfident, with a near-obsessive devotion to his wife. Clara Barton was a shy child, a determined crusader, and an autocratic leader. Readers will respond to an historical figure in your fiction that ‘feels’ like the character they already know.
- When in doubt, err on the side of historical accuracy. Many people read historical fiction in order to learn while they read. Often, readers will take as gospel what they read of historical events and people in fiction, relying on the author to do the research and present it in a truthful way. Sometimes, you want or need an historical figure to do something in your story that you can’t authenticate through research. That’s fine, but be sure that you are staying within the bounds of historical accuracy when you do. (Unless you’re obviously writing a spoof piece like Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies, or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.) If you include a fictional variation that might be misconstrued, use an author note to explain to the reader what is factual and what is fictional.
An example from my own work is the story A Bride’s Portrait of Dodge City, Kansas. I used several historical figures from Dodge City who would be familiar to readers of western fiction. Because they were used fictitiously, I wanted to make certain that readers understood which characters were historical and which were fictional, and which characteristics for real people I had manufactured for the sake of the story. I included an Author’s Note so that readers would feel I was ‘playing fair’ and not misleading them with inaccurate historical information. Here’s that Author’s Note as it appeared in the beginning of the book:
Author’s Note: While most of the characters in this story are fictitious, the characters of Charlie Basset, Luke Short, and Bat Masterson are taken from the annals of Dodge City history. I have tried to stay true to the historical record, with one noted exception: Bat Masterson’s proclivity for keeping printed material stacked in his office is fictional and entirely of my own creation.
In my story, it was important that a piece of paper get lost in the sheriff’s office. Since Bat Masterson was the sheriff during the setting of my story, I needed him to be a bit of a paper hoarder. But I also wanted to be clear to the reader that I had no historical facts that would indicate that he was an office slob. J Hence the author’s note.
Questions for you!
- If you are a writer, have you ever included historical figures in your fiction? If so, who?
- If you’re a reader, do you have a favorite novel that included an appearance by an historical figure?
Answer in the comments below to be entered to win a copy of my newest release, 7 Brides for 7 Texas Rangers!
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Best-selling, award-winning author Erica Vetsch loves Jesus, history, romance, and sports. She’s a transplanted Kansan now living in Minnesota, and she married her total opposite and soul mate! When she’s not writing fiction, she’s planning her next trip to a history museum and cheering on her Kansas Jayhawks and New Zealand All Blacks. You can connect with her at her website, http://www.ericavetsch.com where you can read about her books and sign up for her newsletter, and you can find her online at https://www.facebook.com/EricaVetschAuthor/ where she spends way too much time!