Maybe you have read Dan Brown’s wildly popular novel, The DaVinci Code, published in 2003. Perhaps, instead of reading the book, you took in the movie. You may have even enjoyed one or both. After all, the book has sold over 3 million copies and its 2,000-plus reviews at amazon.com rate the novel at over 4 stars.
But, if you enjoyed it, perhaps you shouldn’t have.
Dan Brown is a former English teacher with no training (or apparent concern about) religion, a fellow who hit the writing jackpot though he wrote poorly and, frankly, told several lies—lies that more than likely account for the story’s popularity. (Many in the Catholic Church, for example, were not thrilled by Brown’s lack of accuracy.)
A writer of “historical fiction” may properly turn his imagination loose on everything but the truth. If his work intentionally distorts history, it is no longer historical fiction, but propaganda. While Brown has claimed that all his descriptions of ancient “artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in [the] novel are accurate,” they are not. And one must assume that the 2,000-plus readers who enthusiastically rated The DaVinci Code at amazon.com at 4-plus stars were duped.
Most criticism of Brown’s work (rightly) attacks his amateurish writing.
“Brown’s prose style has been criticized as clumsy, with The Da Vinci Code being described as ‘committing style and word choice blunders in almost every paragraph’.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dan_Brown
But Brown’s lack of writing skill is not my charge against him—bad writing is not a sin and the man sold 3 million books! But perversely misrepresenting history, if not sinful, is a solemn breach of trust. My initial advice here is simple. Do your research and consider yourself bound by the truth.
That is not to say, when it comes to historical truth, that there are no gray areas. In my book, Faithless Heart, for example (which, though generally well thought of, never sniffed high-volume sales), I told a tale set in the last days of the kings of Israel. The “true” chronology of those last five kings has never been universally agreed upon, so I felt free to pick the chronology that seemed to make the most sense and helped me to advance the story.
But I had no right to, say, invent a king of my own and insert him into the succession, or to change a real king’s words or documented motives. History is history. Even under the banner of “fiction,” a writer must not distort it.
All novels, except, possibly, pure fantasy, require research. Future posts at Write Jeremiah will delve a bit deeper into specifics.