How Much History Do We Want in Our Historical Fiction?

This weekend, a new movie called The Free State of Jones comes to theaters and there seems to be quite a dispute about the historical accuracy of the film. In a Smithsonian article, people from both sides of the issue make interesting cases to plead their arguments.

The movie, based around a rebellion led by poor white farmer Newton Knight (played by Matthew McConaughey), has been the subject of several books already. The story is a source of controversy in Jones County, Mississippi where it is set. Much of the controversy stems from the perceived inaccuracies that are being put forth by Hollywood in the film. This seems to be a common thread any time a movie claims to be “based on a true story.”

As a writer of historical fiction, I’ve found that it is impossible to stay completely “true to historical facts.” One reason is that while researching, I’ve often come across accounts that completely contradict each other. Of course, I attempt to decide which account is more credible, but how is one to know the real truth of something that happened during a time when there isn’t still a living soul to recount it? Another reason is that when you take a “real event” and fictionalize it, you are forced to create dialogue and internal monologues that no one could possibly ever validate. As an author, I just have to go with my gut feeling as to what my characters (who were often times actual people) would have been thinking and saying during their lives.

Most of us like a good story. A story that makes us laugh, cry, think, or experience the world in a new way. My question for you is this: If you read a novel or watch a movie based on real events, does it ruin it for you if there are too many historical inaccuracies? I’d love to hear your opinions!

Watch the trailer for Free State of Jones:

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4 thoughts on “How Much History Do We Want in Our Historical Fiction?

  1. Linda and Bill Johnston

    You raise very insightful questions! Most of us enter these conversations with our own preconceived prejudices, so we tend to interpret the historical “facts” from those perspectives. Good job!

  2. If I read historical fiction, or watch HF films/media/etc, I really want it to be as supported as possible from the historical record. Obviously differing accounts exist as does the idea of creating dialogue that never existed. But in my experience the best Historical Fiction has been so well researched that it’s seamless, smooth, and validated somewhere, even if “just” in critical essays or whatnot. It’s when the “history” or context is either erased, totally revised, or whitewashed that I get itchy about it. That’s one reason I try my best to get my students interested in asking questions in literature so they can gain “more than a nice story” as they read. Sorry, long comment! I just really love this genre!

    1. You make great points! I appreciate you adding to the discussion. I like your terminology, “erased, totally revised, or whitewashed” and it sums up how I feel perfectly. Thank you!

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