Historical Fiction: Fact or Stereotype?

One of the things that makes historical research the most difficult is the unreliability and bias that is inherent in any source. As a writer, I strive to be historically accurate. When it comes to details like what tools were made out of, or what kind of hat was worn, or even the weather in a particular place on a particular date, the informaiton is often well-documented and readily available.

I find it much more difficult- subjective, even- to determine accuracy when it comes to questions of cultural and societal norms. While factual data is recorded in great detail, emotional and psychological data is often biased or entirely speculative, at best.

For instance, I’m currently researching a Native American tale which occurred locally, but over 100 years ago. There are two distinctly different versions of this story, each with a dozen or more variables influencing both the outcome of the story and people’s perceptions about what “really” happened. I wish to re-tell the story in a YA novel, from the perspective of the 16-year-old girl- a viewpoint which has never been examined.

In existing accounts, the young girl’s love interest is portrayed as both a suicidal/homicidal, drunken, Native, rapist/kidnapper AND as a displaced, homeless, hard-working, responsible victim of white racism. How much of the historical record is biased and based on stereotyping and media sensationalism? What part of the historical record is accurate and true? Can any of it be really true, or is truth subjective, dependent on the storyteller?

For my story, I’ve decided that human desires and motivations are the most consistent factors that I have to work with. I will stay true to what makes the most sense emotionally and research to get factual evidence accurate, and tell the best damned story I can.

How much do you depend on historical novelists to be accurate regarding time, places, people, societal norms, etc.? How much impact do you think historical accuracy has on a fictional story? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments, and I look forward to hearing from you.

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