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Natacha Tormey




Writing about History: Truth or Dare

Posted by Natacha Tormey on 23 September, 2016 at 10:05

This article was fist published by Women Writers, Women Books at


I was recently confronted by a reader, who took it upon herself to inform me that the main character in chapter 1 of my book, 'Cults: A Bloodstained History', did not exist. 'Everyone knows that Joshua is a mythical character', she scoffed at me. As if that was not enough, she went on to verbally assassinate chapter 2. 'I may as well tell you that your second chapter is incorrect as well. The zealots did not commit suicide. They chose to die rather than be taken as slaves by the Romans. They had no choice really; death was their only option.'


I am quite certain that this is not the last time I will hear such comments and I accept all opinions on my book, though I would like to express my own in response. Firstly, it is nigh on impossible to get all of your facts right when you are writing about a situation that happened several thousand years ago. For one, the internet is crammed full of inaccurate information and even highly respected historians often disagree on facts and have opposing views on events.


I went to extreme lengths to obtain the most accurate information possible about all the characters in my book. Having quickly realised that the internet was full of inaccuracies, I travelled six hours to Chester where I spent two days at the amazing Gladstone Library, reading through every account I could on Joshua, the zealots of Masada and other characters in my book. I gleaned a significant amount of information but even though these books were written by renowned historians, I found that they often contradicted each other when it came down to the cold, hard facts.


What does a writer do when faced with such a situation? The same thing that a journalist does - go with the source that you trust most and the facts you believe are accurate. What other option do we have? Should we give up on writing a book simply because we cannot travel back in time to interview the subjects in person? It is rather unfair that authors of historical books are so often at the receiving end of criticism.


Sure, there are authors who fail to do their research and I would be the first in line to criticize any writer who publishes blatantly incorrect information just because they were too lazy to check their facts. But for the rest of us who try our best to provide an accurate account of historical events, please, give us a break! And now on to my second point, which applies to both the claim that Joshua did not exist and the opinion that the zealots of Masada did not commit suicide. I can sum up my response with one word. Perception.


Some people hate peas (myself included), some people love peas. Some people vehemently defend O.J. Simpson while others cannot believe that anyone would fail to recognise his guilt. It's all about perception. Wouldn't it be a dull world if we all felt the same way about everything? As an author, I share my perception in my books. I mean, who would buy a book that began with, 'Rumour has it this person didn't exist but I'll tell you about him anyway...'?


When it comes down to it, writing about history really is like playing a game of truth or dare. You try your very best to find the truth, but ultimately, you have to be daring enough to come out with your opinion, knowing that you may face criticism from readers who disagree with you. Writing about history, particularly when it concerns religion, is a big task to take on. Not only does it involve an enormous amount of research but it also puts you, as the author, directly in the line of fire. There is nothing that sparks conflict like religion.


I remember when I started my first job in Human Resources my manager told me that there were five topics I should never bring up in order to avoid conflict at work: politics, sport, sex, money and religion. What can I say, I am attracted to trouble and when faced with negative comments I put on my best PR smile and follow the great example of the penguins in the cartoon, Madagascar.


'Smile and wave; just smile and wave!'

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