“History is lies agreed upon.” A sentiment attributed to both Voltaire and Napoleon Bonaparte, but likely first used by Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle in 1724. As I wrote Empress & Soldier, the 7th book in my fictional early-medieval world, this idea is never far from my mind. But not for the big events of the world, but for my characters’ personal histories, and the small events that shape their lives.
History is a matter of interpretation and memory. Oh, we know Bonaparte lost the Battle of Waterloo, but if you asked a dozen people who fought in that battle, they’d all have different memories. Not only would those memories conflict, they’d change over time. Even what we remember immediately after an event isn’t necessarily what actually happened, and memory is malleable, easily reshaped.
Some of what happens in Empress & Soldier has been told before, in Empire’s Exile, although from different points of view, and some of character Druisius’s past history has been told in bits and pieces in all the books after Exile. There are discrepancies. They are, largely, purposeful on my, the author’s, part. Are the characters also purposely misleading? (Bear with me. I know I create these characters, and their thoughts. I will explain.)
Often, yes. My characters lie for all the reasons humans do: to protect another from hurt; to protect themselves from judgement, to hide their wrongdoing, or the actions of someone they care about, to avoid an argument. They lie for diplomatic purposes, for reasons of state security; they lie from love and fear and by the order of their superiors. Their lies are both of omission and commission, things left unsaid, things said.
In the latest-published book of my series, Empire’s Heir, my four main characters have been together for twenty years, give or take, as lovers, friends, parents. That’s a lot of shared history, and a lot of stories told. But in Empress & Soldier, which takes place in the decade before that foursome becomes a foursome, the history that unfolded for Druisius didn’t quite match his later stories.
I could, of course, have changed the unfolding story to match, or simply blamed it on faulty memories. But that would have been far too neat, too fictional, really. Life’s not like that. And then I began to think about the other stories told, and how they reflected a truth, but perhaps not all the truth.
The challenge is to find plausible reasons for the discrepancies in the stories, true to my characters but perhaps also revealing (or at least hinting at) things about them we didn’t know. Why would they have lied, whether directly or by never mentioning something? What purpose did it serve at the time – and will it come back to haunt them?
In the next and last book, Empire’s Passing, when my foursome has had nearly thirty years together, events will lead to questions. What do we know about the people we love? How do we react when we learn they withheld things from us for all that time? Do we know them, or only the person they have let us see? I’m setting up a lot of those withheld things now, in the current work.
It’s not a new theme for me: the idea of the mutability of history, both political and personal, is entwined in the stories, as well as the things left untold.
That the complex bonds among my parents and Druise and Sorley needed both deep trust and deeper love, I had understood. But I hadn’t thought then about the ways their lives were also delineated… Spaces in what they spoke of, too, even behind closed doors.
A price to be paid, for the love and the vision they shared.
Truth is the first casualty of war, it is said. Is it also a casualty of love?
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