The Allure of Historical Fiction…

I enjoy reading historical fiction novels.  I find them informative on the time periods they cover as well as entertaining in their characterizations of notable persons I have heard about through much of my life. These novels, in great measure, bring such figures to life. There is almost no period of history that doesn’t fascinate me, although I have preferences for certain ages that excite me more than others, ancient Greece and Rome being the most notable of these.

Historical fiction has an allure to writers as well as readers.  The old truism “hindsight is 20-20 vision” creates a world of opportunities in providing a protagonist with remarkable  insight, placing him or her head and shoulders above everyone else in the story, endowed  with powers of observation and an ability to see the outcome of actions taken.

There’s an appeal to such a character; we are impressed with his intelligence and savvy; we admire the astuteness and daring he exhibits, especially if this goes against the grain; we respect his opposition because we know he was right and all the others wrong, history assuring us of this.  In this regard, characters of historical fiction novels have an edge over the people who actually lived during the times written about; they often know what influence their lives will have had on the events depicted (at least so I think).

That doesn’t give us a total free hand when writing in that genre without running a risk of turning fiction into fantasy.  Do historical fiction novels need to be historically accurate?   I would say, in order to have credibility -yes.  It helps to have actual historical figures mentioned, even if not the main characters, for the sake of authenticity, and that means  giving them the attributes they possessed in life.  Research is required-you can’t just think these things up.  Much of my work in Polyxena was to assure that I accurately depicted the better known characters of the novel, giving them the personalities and features they were noted for (Cassandra burdened with her curse; Helen for her beauty; Odysseus for his cunning, etc.).

With my heroine, Polyxena, I was fortunate that little is actually written about her; even in works that mention her, it’s almost as if only in passing.  Take the Latin sources: in   Vergil’s The Aeneid  (Book III), a captive Andromache relates to us:  “Supremely happy was Polyxena, beyond all others being doomed to death, by an enemy’s tomb at the foot of Troy’s ramparts.  She was not chosen to be a slave by lot, or pleasure her master with her captive body!” That’s it -nothing more.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Book XIII), we are given a more detailed, but also brief, account of her last moments; in it, he writes that, among other things, she tells Neoptolemus: “The time has come to spill my blood; let there be no more delay: plunge your blade now into my throat or breast”, and she bared both, “for you may rest assured: Polyxena does not desire to live as a slave!” This is a sterner Polyxena than my own creation, whose sense of modesty would have deterred her from baring her breasts (Roman writers loved such displays of bravado).   But that is the beauty of writing about a less known figure -you have a lot of leeway in how you want to present her (I am pleased over how I portrayed Polyxena).

 

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