I'm working on a magazine article, which is a bit different from my usual writing. I've done a couple of them, for a couple of reasons. One is it's a challenge to do something that doesn't allow me to veer from the truth, and the other is that it gets my name in places where people will see it. This article is called "Macbeth & MACBETH: Where Is Truth?"
I chose in MACBETH'S NIECE to ignore reality and go with Shakespeare's depiction of Macbeth, but I felt a little guilty about it. There's no proof the man did any of the things we think of today when his name is mentioned. Worse, the characteristics attributed to his wife in the play are those of another woman completely, one who lived 100 years before Lady Macbeth. So my article is a chance to set the record straight, to explain why Bill S. and I both did the Macbeths wrong.
Nonfiction has different demands, of course. We must be careful to use good sources, and the story line is proscribed: no added characters, no assumptions that we know what a person was thinking. Fiction is more fun, but readers often don't get the difference. A woman at one of my talks got quite upset when I explained that historical fiction meant the author took certain liberties with reality. "Then how do we know what to believe?" she sputtered. I gave my stock answer, which is good advice. "Read a variety of books on an era or a person and compare the information." For example, the currently popular THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL is diametrically opposite of other novels about Anne Boleyn such as Norah Lofts' THE CONCUBINE. A reader is ill-served to read only one of them, but together they stimulate us to think of Anne in different ways. And who among us is one-faceted anyway?
Nonfiction is perhaps more reliable than fiction where facts are concerned. Reading biographies by respected authors means you don't have to wonder if they've changed the time frame to make the story work. Still, everyone has biases, even subconscious ones, that color what we tell. We can't step into the mindset of a person from history. We simply aren't capable of thinking as they did. For a good demonstration of that concept, consider the times that you couldn't understand your own parents' thinking because they are of a different era. Now multilply that by six or sixty more generations. So even nonfiction is an approximation of truth.
Which is better? Some readers find nonficiton boring; some turn their noses up at novels as being tainted truth. I happen to like both. Nonfiction gives us the facts of a time in history; fiction gives us the flavor, so I recommend a little of each.