In July of 2017, I attended a panel discussion on the authenticity of historical fiction at the International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds. While several authors of note were present, conspicuously absent were a few who I thought would have meaningfully contributed to the discussion. Chief among them was Bernard Cornwell, whom I interviewed this past September. Today I have the honor of interviewing another author who I believe would have made an excellent addition to the panel: bestselling author Eric Schumacher, author of the book series Hakon’s Saga.
The topic of the round table was defined as follows: “Fiction offers a degree of creative freedom unavailable to the scholar, yet as both readers and critics, we desire authenticity in these texts – particularly because, for many, such texts are the first point of contact with the medieval world. Thus, historical fiction as a genre raises important questions. How ‘historical’ is it? How does the fiction writer balance creativity against the restraints of historical ‘accuracy’? What is the relationship between research and storytelling? This round table discussion will explore these issues, as well as practical aspects of writing and publication, with published fiction writers whose works can be broadly classed as ‘medieval historical fiction’.”
Eric Schumacher, thank you for taking the time to answer the panel questions.
How historical is historical fiction? What does the term historical fiction mean to you?
I would like to think that historical fiction is very historical. Meaning, it should transport the reader back to that bygone period in time. Readers should get a good sense of what it was to live in that time and in that setting, based on what we know. To me, historical fiction is the telling of a good story in that historical context.
What is the relationship between research and storytelling?
I think research is great for unearthing stories, for putting historical facts in order, and for understanding what it was like to live in the past; but it should never get in the way of a good story. As a writer, you want the characters to come alive on the page, you want the plot to carry you along, and you want the setting to lend to the authenticity of the story. Research can and should support all of these things, but in a way that doesn’t bog down the story with unnecessary detail.
What is historical ‘accuracy?’ Can authenticity exist in fiction writing?
My books take place in the Viking Age. We know much of events that occurred in that age and how the people lived, but new facts are coming to light all the time. Given that, it’s impossible to be 100% accurate, but with thorough research, we can certainly try our best. That accuracy lends itself to authenticity. However, there are certain judgment calls an author has to make for the sake of the story that can affect authenticity. The hope, for me, is to find a good balance between those two.
How do you balance accuracy, authenticity, and creativity?
That’s a great question. I start off by staying as close to the facts as we know them. That’s not always easy, especially for the Viking Age, when facts are in short supply. For instance, birth dates of certain people can vary in historical texts. Dates of certain events can vary. The location of battles can vary. So there’s much we don’t know, but there is still enough to provide plenty of historical guideposts. Once those are set, I then overlay a story, and try my best to put the two together in such a way as to tell the most entertaining, and most plausible, story possible.
Where authenticity plays a big role for me is not only in the setting, but in the mindset and motivations of the characters. It’s all too easy to overlay a modern way of thinking on an ancient character. So I frequently stop myself to ask whether I’m approaching a problem from a modern point of view or from a Viking point of view. Of course, we have no way of knowing if I’m 100% accurate in that thinking, but there’s enough research out there to at least point the way.
Sometimes, it’s a judgement call whether to exercise our creative license for the sake of the story or for the sake of authenticity. For instance, authenticity demands that I use the old Norse form for names of people, places, or things. I usually use the modern form. Why? Because I’d rather have the reader focus on the story than try to pronounce a place name like Þrœndalǫg for the sake of authenticity. Others will disagree, but that’s OK.
How do you access research materials? Does academia hold a monopoly on the information necessary for historical fiction writing?
Written research materials are everywhere (in libraries, online, etc), but those materials don’t hold a monopoly on the information necessary for historical fiction writing. Rather, I would say that they give me a skeleton for my writing. For instance, with research, you can dig up interesting stories that might make a good novel. You can find fascinating factoids to use in your writing. You can gather dates of certain events that affect your plot either directly or tangentially. That said, relying solely on research for stories about Vikings isn’t always possible because scientists and archaeologists and historians are still putting the pieces of the Viking Age together! That’s partly why I love writing about this period in time — I get to dream up plausible relationships between what we know occurred, what might have occurred, what certain people might have been like, and so on. You get to put the meat on the bones of history, and I love that!
What is the responsibility of the historical fiction writer?
I would say there are two. The first, and most important, is to tell a good story. The second is to use history to help tell that story but to do so responsibly. Overload your story with historical facts and you end up with a historical textbook. Embellish or change facts too much and you end up with something closer to fantasy.
More about Eric Schumacher
Eric Schumacher is an American historical novelist who currently resides in Santa Barbara, California with his wife and two children. He was born and raised in Los Angeles and attended college at the University of San Diego.
At a very early age, Eric Schumacher discovered his love for writing and medieval European history, as well as authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Those discoveries continue to fuel his imagination and influence the stories he tells. His first novel, God’s Hammer, was published in 2005. God’s Hammer is currently the #1 bestseller in Norse and Icelandic fiction on Amazon.