Historical fiction dilemma #1: Ethics

History, no matter what they tell you in school, is not objective. Writing about history, or conveying history indirectly as part of a narrative, is even less so. Writing historical fiction for younger readers brings with it a whole range of questions that need to be answered and sometimes can’t be:
– Conveying a complex international political situation in a few brush strokes
– Delving into age-old prejudices and divisions without taking a too-obvious position
– Dealing with critical issues (like slavery) without hectoring
– Balancing contemporary moral codes with those of history.
Why ask? I’ve written adventure books about a young girl who is kidnapped by pirates and then becomes one. Pirates, needless to say, are vile creatures. Does she become a vile creature? Does she kill anyone? Rob anyone? Do the people around her? Are they all horrible?
This isn’t about levels of violence (that’s a different dilemma) but about creating a consistent, credible, and appealing character.
Does she, who was once a slave, help take slaves?
What would a reader of nine or eleven make of a heroine who did or didn’t behave in these ways?
The broader picture: Piracy in the Mediterranean from the age of the Crusades to the end of the 18th century was largely divided along pseudo-religious lines. The navies of the Islamic states and the Ottoman Empire attacked so-called Christian ships, and vice versa, with the Knights of Malta the most dramatic example of legal Christian pirate/Crusaders. (Except that most normal pirates were hardly religious types, and everyone seems to have attacked the poor old Greeks, who were seen as being far too Levantine in their Orthodoxy, and somehow responsible for the loss of Constantinople.)
So the characters in a book set in this era must present this world view, regardless of the author’s position.
It’s a situation that holds some resonance in the 21st century and it’s impossible not to be conscious of that. I’m also conscious that any statements made by characters will be interpreted by young readers in the light of what they know about the world today.
It’s an old dilemma, obviously. Flaubert argued that, “An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere”.
I don’t know, frankly, if I’ve managed it.

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