I am writing a novel of historical fiction containing a short scene in which the city of Kiev is bombed on the first day of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Twenty-two people were killed and 76 wounded in Kiev, according to official statistics. A 2011 Kiev newspaper article about this event mentions about ten specific targets that were bombed, and states "production and military facilities" and "peaceful city districts" were also bombed.

I have written a scene in which bombs fall on a large group of people who are celebrating within a certain park, which I name. I do not know if any bombs actually fell on this particular park. However, this one is germane to my story, and one of my characters is killed by a bomb blast there.

My question: Is it "permissible" to name this park without knowing for certain if there were casualties there? Although I think that this falls under "artistic license" I would like to read some other opinions. Thank you.

  • 1
    Permissible? Sure. But if bombs didn't fall on that park, be prepared to get flak from angry historisplainers on GoodReads pointing out "Well actually, that park wasn't bombed until 1943." Aug 1, 2016 at 20:55
  • 1
    You'll also get angry comments if there wasn't any public celebration held on that day, or if all civilians had already taken shelter when the bombing started. Aug 2, 2016 at 9:47

4 Answers 4


It is definitely permissible, but as Lauren pointed out you will get angry keyboard warriors explaining (in detail) why you're wrong etc.

One way around this though is to make absolutely clear that you are writing a Historical Fiction based on real-world events. Bernard Cornwell does this quite well (particularly the disclaimer in Azincourt - a brilliant book to read if you haven't already read it). He highlights, in particular, that he was taken liberties with the story and characters (and briefly explains where), but the most historically significant events occurred when and where they were meant to (and even includes references to the research he undertook).


Look at it this way: artistic license is granted by the reader. You are not entitled to it in any blanket way. Some readers will grant you more; some will grant you less. Generally, they will grant you more the more you charm or entertain them.

If you are trying to write what I like to call diorama fiction, you will get very little license on these kinds of details, because physical and temporal verisimilitude the the chief pleasure of diorama fiction. (Though moral and philosophical verisimilitude are generally not wanted at all. Diorama fiction is a reenactment by modern people in period costume; historical values and patterns of thought are definitely not wanted.)

But if you are not writing diorama fiction, then your intended audience is not going to care, nor are they necessarily going to be deterred by the slings and arrows of the outraged diorama fiction addicts with too much time on their hands.

I tend to look at these matters this way: what pleasure is my book designed to provide? Will doing this or that enhance those pleasures or diminish them? There are no absolutely wrong techniques. It is all a matter of which ones create the pleasure your book is trying to deliver.

  • Thank you, one and all for your comments and suggestions. Your responses were right in line with my expectations.
    – Suttroper
    Aug 2, 2016 at 21:43

Fiction writers routinely take far bigger liberties than this with real life.

One I find amusing for some reason: The movie "The Wind and the Lion" is based on a real-life incident in the early 1900s in which an American, Jon Pedicaris, was taken hostage by what today we would call a terrorist group. In the movie, Mr. Pedicaris was played by Candace Bergen. That is, they turned a man into a woman. Before Caitlyn Jenner, even.

The movie "Argo", about a CIA operation to get six Americans out of Iran during the hostage crisis, shows Iranian authorities figuring out the plan at the last minute and chasing down the runway after the airplane as it takes off, creating a dramatic scene where the audience is supposed to be on the edge of their seats wondering if these people will be caught so close to escaping. In real life they boarded the plane and departed without incident.

Or to take an extreme case, the comedy "Which Way to the Front?" has a group of American mercenaries capture Hitler during World War 2, which you probably know didn't really happen.

And almost every work of historical fiction puts people at the scene who weren't really there. There are probably more fictional characters who have been placed on the Titanic than real passengers. Maybe that's why they didn't have enough lifeboats: they didn't plan for all the fictional characters on board.

The question is not whether you can get away with changing the facts of history, but how much? I don't think there's any hard and fast rule. Of course for an alternate history story you can change anything. Readers will give you more leeway for a comedy than for a serious story.

I think the guidelines are:

(a) The less well-known a detail is, the more free you are to change it. In your example, only the most ardent students of history would know off the top of their heads how many people were killed in that particular bombing. If you said it was hundreds, few would even know that was wrong. If you said that Pearl Harbor was attacked on November 7, I think lots of readers would be laughing at the error.

(b) You can change facts when they're relevant to your story. If you said Rommel was killed in Africa, and this "fact" has no relevance to your story, many readers would question it. But if there was some reason why you need to get Rommel out of the way for your story to work, I think most readers would accept it. You just need to establish the reason before the event, so the reader is prepared for it. More realistically, you can insert your fictional characters into events where the reader knows that no such people were there pretty freely. Readers tend to accept that fictional characters are, well, fictional.

(c) The more "serious" the story, the less flexibility you have. A screwball comedy can play fast and loose with the facts and the reader will just laugh. A story that is very serious and gets 99% of the facts right will be considered glaring if it gets one or two wrong.

I guess it also depends on your audience. A book about WW2 written today can probably get away with a whole lot more than a book written in 1946, because there are far fewer people around who lived through it.

  • Your (b) point seems to contradict your (a) point - is this on purpose? Inserting fictional characters I agree with, but altering where and when Rommel died is like altering when and how Pearl Harbour was attacked. That takes it from the realms of Historical Fiction to Alternate History.
    – user18397
    Aug 3, 2016 at 5:31
  • @Thomo I was thinking that, from an American perspective, a very large percentage of Americans know when Pearl Harbor happened. Most don't know where and how Rommel died. I'd guess quite a few wouldn't recognize the name.
    – Jay
    Aug 3, 2016 at 13:14
  • but the world is so much larger than America...and anyone who is reading historical fiction generally already has an interest in or some knowledge of the period
    – user18397
    Aug 3, 2016 at 20:09
  • @Thomo Fair enough. You have to know your audience.
    – Jay
    Aug 4, 2016 at 13:17

In a historical novel, you should not alter historical facts. What you do in your "fiction" is to insert fictitious characters into those factual events.

For instance, the backdrop of my Revolutionary War novel is the fact that some 40 guerrillas set free some 150 American soldiers taken as prisoners of war (POWs) after the British won the battle of Camden, South Carolina. You should not claim that the Americans won the battle of Camden when they lost it (badly), but you can insert your main characters in the successful POW rescue. Here, one of the rescuing guerrillas takes home one of the rescued POWs to meet his sister, and you have a story.

Similarly, you can have your hero as an aide to General George Washington. But make sure that Washington actually said and did the things your hero reports he did.

In a historical novel, only your main characters are fictitious; everything else is fact. In essence, you want the reader to "believe" the story about your characters. To create the necessary "suspension of disbelief," everything else other than your characters has to be accurate.

  • This is simply not true. There are thousands and thousands of historical novels which play far more fast and loose with history that you are suggesting. There is what one might call a sub-genre of historical fiction that seeks this kind of accuracy, though it might be truer to say that there is subset of the audience that expects it. But this is simply not the case with historical fiction generally. Historical fiction is a branch of fiction that happens to choose settings from the past for storytelling purposes. It is not a branch of history and has no obligation to historical fact.
    – user16226
    Aug 9, 2016 at 2:55

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.