Writing Historical Fiction and Adjusting History

Research is an important part of writing historical fiction. This is because getting the details correct makes settings authentic. Things like tomatoes in ancient Egypt or European units of measurement in ancient China drive me nuts, and I do my best to keep things accurate as possible. But I’ve learned since writing in this genre that sometimes accuracy must be sacrificed in the name of clarity. Because in the end, the goal is to write a compelling story, not a textbook.

I don’t like making that kind of compromise. Still, I found myself tweaking a historical fact last month due to a pacing issue.

Basically, my manuscript’s problem was that the conflict that sets everything into motion was not only complicated, it didn’t directly involve my main character. The conflict in question was the dispute over the Spartan throne after King Agis’ death. The two possible contenders were his half-brother Agesilaus and his son Latychides. Latychides, though, was rumored to be a bastard, and not just any bastard. He was supposedly the product of an affair Agis’ wife had with an Athenian defector. As for Agesilaus, no one questioned his bloodlines, but he was short and congenitally lame – not the type of guy the military minded Spartans were eager to see in charge.

It was stuff worthy of modern tabloids. It even involved an ominous oracle. In the end, Agesilaus came out on top, but the controversy didn’t die down (well, at least it didn’t in my story). And opposition to the lame king’s reign was what spurred his sister Cynisca (my main character) to action.

Unfortunately, up until her brother becomes king, she’s largely an observer. It’s not until Chapter 4 that she’s really making things happen.

So I was struggling for a way to shorten that backstory and get Cynisca into the action sooner when a new critique partner made a suggestion: cut out the bastard son and focus on the lame king controversy. After all, given what we know of them, Spartans probably would have objected to Agesilaus even without a rival.

I didn’t like the idea of cutting out Latychides, especially since he was such a juicy detail. But it had the potential to solve my problem so I gave it a try.

It worked.

Without having to explain the queen’s affair, I got from King Agis’ death to Agesilaus’s inauguration sooner. I also managed to repurpose the ominous prophecy in a way that gave Cynisca a part to play even before Agesilaus is crowned. And there was an additional benefit.

Something that I’ve learned in my critique groups is that unless a name is an American standard or something super famous like Cleopatra, it’s not going to stick quickly or easily. And the more unfamiliar names you throw out, the harder it is for people to keep track. My previous draft introduced six characters with Greek names in the first chapter, which turned out to be a stumbling block for my critique partners. After the change, I cut four characters, and the number of characters introduced in the first chapter went down to a much more manageable three.

So far everyone in my critique group approves of the changes, and I, too, think it makes for a more streamlined story. Still, the stickler inside me wishes Latychides could have stayed, and if this novel gets published, I’m fully prepared to get that email that says, “You left out the part about the bastard prince…”


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