Breathing New Life into Real Historical Figures

There are a few real-life historical figures in the Mistress of Fortune series. King Charles II, for one. Nell Gywn, one of his mistresses, is another. Much has been written about both of them, so why would I include them as characters in my own novels when it’s already been done?

I’ll tell you why: for me, they’re too compelling not to include. The key, however, is not to regurgitate the same old material, the tired characterizations we’ve seen over and over again. Rather, my recreations of these characters are entirely of my own imagination, based upon what historical accounts have revealed them to be. It’s not easy, but it’s a whole lot of fun.

I personally dislike when historical fiction authors use real quotes as dialogue. Any authenticity it adds is negated by the contrivance it creates–it feels like info dump to me.

For example, today I’m writing a scene for my second novel, Mistress of Lies, in which Barbara Palmer appears. Barbara was perhaps the most well-known (certainly the most notorious) of King Charles II’s mistresses, and undoubtedly possessed more power, for more years, than any other. This is saying a lot, because Charles II had a lot of mistresses.

Portrait of Barbara Palmer, 1st Duchess of Cleveland

Barbara Palmer, 1st Duchess of Cleveland

Barbara is, in some ways, the nemesis of my protagonist, Isabel Wilde. Though she moved to France before the Mistress of Fortune series starts, she played a key role in Isabel Wilde’s history. Isabel, who in 1665 served as a spy in Amsterdam for the crown, was essentially sent there by Barbara Palmer, who was at that time the king’s most powerful mistress. Though nearly thirteen years have passed since then, Isabel will never forgive Barbara Palmer for her interference in her life.

She doesn’t appear at all in the series’ first book, Mistress of Fortune, though she is mentioned. She wasn’t supposed to appear in the sequel, Mistress of Lies, either. She was just a piece of backstory. But in plotting Mistress of Lies I found that I needed someone to reflect what Isabel Wilde’s life would be if she’d made different choices. Barbara Palmer is just that person.

Isabel Wilde, of course, is a fictional character. But not only was Barbara Palmer a real-life historical figure, she is one that has appeared many times in fictional accounts of the Restoration time period. Now I find myself with the challenge of portraying a different side of her than perhaps we’ve seen in the past. Barbara is usually shown at the pinnacle of her power, when she’s arrogant, selfish, and certain that she’ll never lose the king’s love. But my novels take place several years beyond that, when she’s been banished to France because she fell out of favor. In Mistress of Lies, she returns to London, hoping to regain her spot at Court. She’s still arrogant, but she’s also desperate and aging (at 38, she’s considered old).

There are many quotes attributed to various historical figures who lived during the Restoration. But I personally dislike when historical fiction authors use real quotes as dialogue. Any authenticity it adds is negated by the contrivance it creates–it feels like info dump to me. Rather, such quotes give me an idea of how the historical figure spoke, and what their sensibilities were–I use that in creating my own dialogue. But the words and actions I attribute to them are wholly my own. To me, that’s the only way to truly bring a real historical figure to life.

What do you think? Do you like it when authors use real-life historical figures in their fiction?

Holly West

5 Comments

  1. I do like it when authors use real-life historical figures in fiction. And I also like it when authors uses quotes attributed to historical figures. Call me crazy, especially from someone who teaches history, but I loved Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (not the movie). I thoroughly enjoyed the cleverness of slightly changing Lincoln’s written words to create a whole new story. The story wouldn’t have worked otherwise.

  2. I very much enjoy historical figures showing up in fiction, even if it’s only by reference. When done properly, it can add a good deal of authenticity to the story.

  3. I agree with you about the dialogue! If a seventeenth-century figure is going to be directly quoted, I would think it would stand out in a negative way (since presumably, the author did not write the entire book in 17th century parlance). capture the spirit of the period, spirit of the figure–that’s what I think. I think its fine when someone re-imagines a real historical figure if done in a fair way; personally I don’t like if they completely change history (for example, saying that Henry VIII decided to spare Anne Boleyn). But I haven’t read much alternative history, so perhaps in the right hands (with the right reason), it works.

  4. I’m not a fan of “alternative history” but I think, that as historical FICTION authors, we can take some license.It needs to be taken with care, and with boundaries. I treat real life historical characters as I do any other. They’re crafted, but in this case you have the benefit of a true-life record to guide you in your creation. To me, there is a big difference between a “real life character” and one BASED on a real life character. If you’re making a whole lot of stuff up, you really shouldn’t be referring to the real life person. Change their name. But if you’re willing to be true to the real life character as–i said above–history reveals them to be–then use the real name.

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