Truth is Stranger than Fiction



Truth is Stranger than Fiction

Why historical fiction needn’t be all dresses and drawing rooms

Mark Twain once said, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.”

He had a point. Fiction has to deal with events that seem plausible, because we need our readers to willingly suspend their disbelief. But sometimes, in striving to make our stories believable, we overlook true stories we could never make up in a million years.

For me, historical research is like a big lucky-dip, with every new thing I pick out and unwrap a wonderful surprise. With a little research, the fascinating people and odd incidents of history can make the most compelling settings for historical romance.

Rather than write about young ladies languishing while their menfolk are away at war, I’d rather explore the story of James Barry, a military surgeon in the British Army in the eighteenth century – who, on his death, was found to have been born a woman. Think of the things he must have seen! He had an unparalleled reputation for surgery, supposedly fought two duels, and Florence Nightingale called him a “brute”.

Or, for inspiration for an historical with a supernatural twist, I might read about Les Loups de Paris, The Wolves of Paris – a pack of man-eating wolves that terrorised Paris during the winter of 1450. History does not record whether or not they huffed and puffed, but they got in through the city walls and killed forty people before they were hunted down and stoned to death in front of Notre Dame.

If I’m in the mood for a detective story, I could write about Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who successfully investigated at least two criminal cases and yet believed utterly in spiritualism and in the Cottingley Fairies – which weren’t exposed as a hoax until the 1980s, when the cousins admitted they had photographed themselves with pictures of fairies cut out of paper.

Or if science fiction is my obsession du jour, I could do worse than to dip into the works of H G Wells and Jules Verne, who made some astonishingly specific predictions about inventions that were still many years in the future.

H G Wells’ The Time Machine predicted a technology we haven’t mastered yet – time travel. Except that, if it’s done right, I think historical fiction can be a time machine, a way to visit all the weird and the wonderful that history has to offer.

My novel Bone Idol, released on the 12th of December, is about the Bone Wars, a period in the late nineteenth century when palaeontologists went to incredible lengths to one-up each other. Fierce rivals Edward Drinker Cope and Charles Othniel Marsh (See? Even their names are stranger than anything I could come up with) stooped to bribery, trickery and even outright theft to discredit each other and win the title of the Victorian era’s top bone hunter. Bone Idol is the story of another such rivalry…

Paige Turner is an Englishwoman who believes very firmly in the restorative power of tea. Paige likes to write MM love stories with a difference—whether it’s boy-meets-boy in a hot historical or mortal-meets-monster in an erotic otherworld, she thinks that everyone deserves a happy ending.

Paige is currently working on a twisted fairytale and an epic, angst-ridden historical where the happily-ever-after is looking a little uncertain.

For a chance to win a copy of Bone Idol and a cameo role in the next book in the Past Perfect series, and to share your thoughts on the weird and wonderful in history, leave a comment! Winners will be announced on Christmas Day.

Didn’t win? Buy a copy

The BONUS BUMPER PRIZE QUESTION (don’t answer this yet – write them down and I’ll ask you to email them in on Christmas Eve.)

13. Born on Christmas Day 1908, and portrayed on the screen by the lovely John Hurt – who was he?

27 Responses

  1. And of course there’s EM Forster, whose story The Machine Stops is a chilling prediction of the internet written in 1909!

    It’s available free here:

    Bone Idol sounds exciting! 🙂

  2. Hmmm, I don’t think I really know many weird and wonderful things about history but I’ll share some personal family history:

    My great-grandmother used to work as a maid for a local doctor before she got married (I’m very definitely from peasant stock). She had a sweet tooth, and when she visited her mother on a well earned day off, her mother had made her a cake to bring back. The doctor’s wife found the cake in the kitchen and demanded to know where it had come from. When my great grandma told her that she had been given it by her mother, the doctor’s wife ‘confiscated’ it and my poor great-grandma never even got a taste!

    Good look with your release. It sounds like a very unusual story :).

    • Small, personal stories of times gone by can be some of the most effective in evoking a particular time and place – at least I think so.

      Your poor grandma! 😦

    • My grandmother was in service too – strange to think I’m only two generations removed from that being the best career option I would have. The family she worked for owned a company and were going to take my grandfather on as a driver – until they found out he was a Catholic. That was in the 1920s, obviously you could get away with having a policy of not employing Catholics then. It’s like another world. Later he became a miner. I swear, they’re characters from a Catherine Cookson book!

  3. 🙂 super post with some good characters to investigate. Thank you.

    Can I offer you in exchange Charles Babbage, inventor of the ‘difference engine’, the opthalmoscope and the cow-catcher as well as being a cryptographer and natural theologian?

    He stars in one of my favourite web comics on the 2D Goggles website with Countess Ada Lovelace – another strange character. Daughter of the poet Byron, she was a mathematical genius and came up with the mathematics behind modern computer programming.

    • Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace are having their moment of glory at the moment with the current popularity of steampunk.

      I didn’t know that Charles Babbage invented the cow-catcher, though – brilliant!

  4. Really interesting post. I love the weird and the wonderful but can’t think of anything off the top of my head right now. Thank you.


  5. That book looks fascinating. I look forward to that coming out.

    James Barry is such an interesting story. And there are lots of these stories of women serving in the military while disguised as men. And of course, they’re only the ones who were eventually discovered. How many kept their secrets to the grave? I was researching the East India Companies earlier this year and they had women disguising themselves to accompany their men on the long voyages often enough to have official regulations about it. Terry Pratchett does a good parody of it in Monstrous Regiment where pretty much the entire army is women in disguise! 😀

    • It came out on the 12th!

      Yes, I’m sure there were hundreds of stories like Barry’s that we’ve just never heard about. And then of course there were women who took on traditionally masculine roles *as* women – like Anne Bonny, the pirate.

      I absolutely love Terry Pratchett. I devour every new book of his, and he’s my comfort reading if I’m poorly. So sad about his Alzheimer’s. I loved Monstrous Regiment, especially the revelation about [spoiler alert] Jackrum.

  6. Oh, I LIKE this! As someone who was told while writing Beloved Pilgrim that “No woman could wield a sword like a man” I often wwonder why we worry so much when fiction is forced into a mold meant for fact. All Paige’s examples are right on.

    I wonder, where do you think we get this obsession with accuracy? I’m all for accuracy, but I often discover something I believed incontrovertibly true is a myth or deliberate misrepresentation. And it is so homogeneous.. that “no woman could”… As a smart man I know said, “In every time there was every kind of person.”

    Do readers really demand it? Or is it editors or other authors or just ourselves? probably all of them. The funniest one I saw was a customer review for one of Emily Purdy’s books who was incensed when Purdy suggested Elizabeth I was not in fact a Virgin Queen. Thatmay not be truth that is stranger than fiction.. they had spin doctors in the Elizabethan court too, but it certainly shows how someone’s demand for ‘accuracy” can be quite absurd.


    • While I can understand people demanding historical accuracy in their historical reads, people’s ideas of what really went on back in the day can be wildly off the mark 😉

  7. More like James Barry? You betcha! See

    and meet, among others,

    Moll Cutpurse
    Albert Cashier
    Mary Reed
    Catalina de Erauso
    James Barry
    Frances Clalin
    Deborah Sampson
    Brandon Teena
    Billy Tipton


  8. That actually gave me some ideas… Thanks! Great post.

  9. A fascinating period in time — and I know you write fantastic characters, Paige! An insightful post, as always, from an author who does “off the beaten path” so well….Okay, so maybe there’s some beating off going on with your hot men in your stories…sorry, I’ll stop now 😉


  10. ‘Bone Idol’ sounds wonderful. I’m doing on and off research into a slightly later period of history with my Dad: trying to track down the details of the first car-owners in Sheffield and the club they founded around WWI.

    • Sounds like interesting stuff! I’ve got a WW1 book in the works myself, though not until I’ve finished a bazillion other projects 😉

      Paige x

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