Since all history is interpretation, and all interpretation is by nature subjective (or biased), even historians don't always agree with each other on the causes, meanings, or realities of historical events. All one can say for certain is that at some point in history, this or that human wrote that this or that thing happened. Possibly there are records to prove an event happened. What events mean, or the realities surrounding events are interpretations. Even contemporary perspectives of characters and events are often colored by biased interpretation, and altered by things added or left out, or by the filters through which events and characters are viewed. Historians or historical writers can sometimes create the illusion of clarity while actually providing a very fuzzy picture, and the older the historical era or event the more this is true.
Into this fuzziness good historical fiction writers dive!
Historians sometimes accuse historical novelists of distorting historical "facts."
While it would be nice to have all fiction stories align with history, it is after all fiction and never advertises itself as anything else. On the other hand, good historical fiction writers may find themselves in controversy with some historians because of differences in interpretation of historical facts. This is especially notable when modern historians and historical fiction writers interpret history--previously interpreted from a patriarchal or dominant culture perspective--from feminist or multicultural viewpoints.
Historical fiction writing may require one to stretch or distort reputed historical facts, in order to express deeper truths, or to explore social and cultural possibilities.
Fiction writers can be encumbered by inability to travel, lack of financial resources, and even (especially if they are students) time constraints that make extensive or personal research difficult or impossible.
Contemporary historical fiction writers are (at the least) aided by the internet, by historians at nearby universities, and by local libraries with sympathetic and knowledgeable librarians. Due diligence is, I believe, a responsibility of any contemporary writer of historical fiction. However, the very nature of fiction writing gives an author license to invent. The key is to invent with intentionality, believability, and respect for one's readers. When one does this readers experience history at its best.
What are your experiences with historical fiction? How accurate does the "history" have to be for you to enjoy reading a historical novel? Please add your thoughts to the comments section of this post!
You might also find the following of interest:
Researching the Historical Novel: Advice For Next Semester's Novel Writers (Maye Ralston)
Seven Rules for Writing Historical Fiction (Elizabeth Crook)