The picture above is a cairn of stones placed at the site of the Appin Murder. It is located in the beautiful Scottish Highlands not far from Glencoe. This is the place where Colin Campbell was murdered in 1752. The man who was hanged for the crime was most likely not guilty. According to legend, members of the Stewart clan know the identity of the murderer but keep it a secret to this day.
The murder became part of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Kidnapped. In it, the young protagonist is present at the murder and presumed to be an accomplice. This did not happen but it makes for a great story. Of course, Kidnapped is not intended to be historically accurate. Stevenson acknowledges this fact at the beginning of the book and lists several places where he takes liberties with historical events.
Countless authors have based their stories on history. A lot of movies purport to be based, or inspired by, true events. Many, like Stevenson, freely acknowledge their poetic license. Words like “based on” and “inspired by” allow a lot of leeway. Some authors try to stick very close to what happened. The book Killer Angels is a good example. It tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg and while it is a work of fiction it is told from the point of view historical characters. It also follows the historical events closely.
Other books, like Kidnapped, simply use historical events as a place to start a fictional story. Even those that stick closely to history will sometimes change things in some way to suit the story. They might combine distinct events into one, or have their character do something that somebody else actually did. Movies make even more changes since they have to tell a story in two hours. Of course, adding romantic elements is also standard practice. Some people are quite disappointed when they learn that movies and books have altered what actually happened.
I don’t mind because if we want to know what happened we can read a history book. Most authors of fiction do not claim to be writing history. Fiction gives us something else. If it’s done right, it gives us the “what it was like” experience. We get a small taste of what it was like to experience Gettysburg. It’s a window into the emotions and experiences of people who lived long ago.
Once I went to a civil war reenactment. As I watched the boys in blue march across the field, I got a glimpse into the past. Was it exactly what happened? Probably not, but it was a way to connect with people who lived long ago. In a way good historical fiction is a reenactment of the past. Not the events so much, but the emotions and dreams of people who came before us. It is more than that of course because it is work of imagination, but as we read it we make a connection with the past. Good fiction bridges the generation and helps us see ourselves in another time. Find a good historical fiction. Travel through time without leaving your seat.
Read about the Appin Murder here.
I play around with history a lot in my books, too. It’s challenging because for Ireland, history *matters* in a way that might feel foreign to Americans who tend to get most of their history from Mel Gibson movies. I try to be as accurate as possible, but in the end I have to remind myself that I’m trying to deliver a good story, not an academic paper. I hope that through my writing, readers will be inspired to learn more about Irish history and mythology.