The “What Ifs” of History

by C.W. Gortner

The Tudor Conspiracy by C.W. Gortner

The Tudor Conspiracy by C.W. Gortner

C.W. Gortner treads the line between fact and fiction.

The current rise in the popularity of historical fiction today is nothing new. Every twenty years or so, readers tend to “re-discover” this time-honored genre, and, as happens with most artistic expressions, from fashion to film to books, we imbue it with our particular perceptions of the past, viewed through the prism of our present. Yet so much heated debate is kindled by the trigger-fuse balance between fact and fiction, with some railing against the defilement of the dead by novelists, and others – albeit fewer and less vocal – championing a reassessment of how we, as novelists and readers, deal with factual material within what are, by their very nature, fictionalized versions of history.

Facts, of course, do not change – until they do. New research can radically alter how we interpret a character. Take, for example, the recent discovery of Richard III’s skeleton, which ignited a maelstrom of speculation on both sides of the divide. Scientific advances today can reveal marvels, providing a precise analysis of battle wounds suffered before death or traces of herbs used to embalm a heart.

However, what these advances cannot do is illuminate the emotional realities of characters we love to read and to write about. While we now know that Richard probably suffered a spinal disorder that caused him near-constant pain, it remains up to the historical novelist to take this arid fact and transmute it through the alchemy of imagination into a flaw or strength.

In my books, the fine line between fact and fiction – a line trod by even the most scrupulous of historical novelists, no matter what they may say – is often put to the test.For The Tudor Conspiracy (St. Martin’s, 2013), my second novel in The Elizabeth I Spymaster Chronicles, my lead character, Brendan, returns to court under the reign of Mary I and is plunged into the unfolding Wyatt revolt. The facts surrounding the revolt are more or less clear; what is not is how much Elizabeth herself may have known about it. Scholarly accounts of her reign tend to fast-track through this pivotal moment, when a possible dethronement of Mary by rebels could have paved the way for Elizabeth’s accession. Elizabeth herself said almost nothing revelatory about the revolt or her knowledge of it; and yet I, glutton for punishment that I am, decided to base part of my plot on this very unknown.

The Queens Vow by C.W. Gortner
The Queens Vow by C.W. Gortner

The desire to tread beyond the facts, indeed, to challenge them at times, is the fuel that drives us. Whether I’m writing about Isabella of Castile’s emotional trajectory to power, as well as her sexuality, as I did in The Queen’s Vow (Ballantine, 2013), or, as in my upcoming novel about Lucrezia Borgia, exposing the price of survival in a rapacious family, I always toy with possibilities that tantalize beyond the iron curtain of history. No one knows for certain whether Isabella enjoyed sex (and indeed I’ve been bemused that in criticisms of that book, no one mentions this, which I so sweated over and feared would be regarded almost as anathema), but her sexuality fits my interpretation of her and some of the facts known of her personality. Still, while we never know which of our fictional “risks” will take root and which will bring us onus, the truth remains that without such risks our books would not be nearly as captivating for our readers. Risk is the weapon of choice in historical fiction.

This, in the end, is what makes historical fiction so exciting: the “What Ifs” of history.

About the contributor: C.W. GORTNER writes about bad girls and likes it. His novels, The Queen’s Vow and The Tudor Conspiracy, are out in paperback. To learn more about him, visit his pied-a-terre at:


Published in Historical Novels Review  |  Issue 65, August 2013

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