History in Fiction

How true to fact does historical fiction need to be? Do you get stuck on the details that don’t quite fit, or let the author’s poetic license weave a story that has universal appeal?

Traditionally, historical fiction uses incidents that happened at least a hundred years ago.  Authors expect the reader to make the connections to history, but also to know the author is creating conversations and actions that probably did not really happen. The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane and the many Phillipa Gregory historical romances come to mind. The more realistic they seem, the better the book. When a movie follows – even more digression from the facts.

Often authors offer a disclaimer that their story was inspired by an incident, a person, a place – that appears in the book as an anchor – but the rest comes from the imagination of the writer – like The Cellist of Sarajevo. Some readers don’t believe it, among them, the actual cellist, who has heard about (not necessarily read) the book.  Maybe the author needed to wait a few hundred years to write it.

If the authors of historical fiction are not accurate – this is fiction, after all – do they risk misinforming the literal reader?  creating alternative history?  Do some readers want, like the Queen in Hamlet,  “More matter with less art” ?

What fiction have you read based on real history? How did that work out for you?