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Historical Novels - How Accurate Do You Have To Be? -- by David Neilson

Destinni paced the floor of her ancestral manor. Did Captain Rick FitzHazard, the only man she had ever loved, swing from the gallows like the pendulum on her father’s clock? Or — she pressed her hand to her lips — had he escaped Cromwell’s hangman?

Sadly, we’ll never know. But we can be clear about the shortcomings of this English Civil War epic. For one thing, nobody in 1640s England was called Destinni.

For another, the clock can’t have a pendulum: that kind of timepiece came in after the Civil War. 


How important are these mistakes?

The first kind of error, insensitivity to historical atmosphere, is pretty much the result of the self-publishing revolution. Editors of the old school could put stuff like Vikings, Napoleon, and the Romans into historical order without drawing breath, and they expected their authors to have the same feeling for their period.

Today, however, a writer's outright ignorance of the past may not trouble readers. Some won't wince when the footman announces Lady Cherish de Randall, and not even when the French win the Battle of Trafalgar.

So how come you don’t merit the same indulgence when you make the second sort of mistake, when you mess up the actual facts? You may live so intensively in the Middle Ages that you think Britney Spears is standing for US President in 2016, but just that once you pin a duke's cockade on the wrong side of his helmet and you end up with a withering notice on Amazon. Meanwhile Destinni has 250 five-star reviews and is #1 in Free Historical Romance. Life can be so unfair.


Errors happen

You’ve read the advice out there — how to do research, and (just as important) how not to swamp your historical fiction with it. But no matter how deeply you delve into your subject, sooner or later you’ll assert something that simply wasn’t so. 

And even if it were possible to be spot on, every single time, there’s a subtler sense in which you can never be quite accurate. True-to-life historical dialogue will lose you readers quicker than fleas deserting a plague rat. And, since those readers will be less than grateful for your comprehensive treatment of events — the ones that academic historians fight duels over — simplifying the past is the only practical option. 


How do you handle the past, then?

The ideal historical novel remains an illusion. However much it might convince, however intensely it entertains, it’s a rendering of the past, not antiquity itself. And if it’s a real novel, a character-driven story, even the most critical reader should be sufficiently entranced to forgive your occasional mild slip. 

Secondly, your take on the past may allow for, even be enhanced by, playing fast and loose with history. Writing a brand of noir set in Mozart's time, improbable in itself, I permit my characters to say and do things which are anachronistic. (My worst offence is to have a gang in 1774 do a SWAT analysis of a Venetian moneylender’s operation.) I'm satisfied that this approach suits the stories, and all I can hope is that character, narrative, and atmosphere carry the day.


Going forward

If you’re more extreme than this, and your historical writing is really a kind of fantasy, paranormal or not, you’ll keep on doing it anyway, and your readers will know by now not to hold you to account, assuming they care. If, like most historical novelists, your fidelity to the past is stronger than your wedding vows, you’ll torture yourself when you’re caught out, and that won’t be often.

Do be aware, though, there are categories of historical novel where inaccuracy will be severely penalized by readers. Stories which turn on precise technical points — such as military or maritime accounts — or mysteries over which speculation has long been intense, like the fate of Grand Duchess Anastasia, or the identity of Jack the Ripper, need to be grounded in the known or the knowable. 

But over and above that, it's fair to say that the notion of accuracy needn't maintain an iron grip on your historical writing.



(For those of you who have to know: Rick FitzHazard overpowered his jailer and escaped on faithful Diablo.)

David Neilson is the author of The Prussian Dispatch. For more information about the series, visit

This blog entry origiinally appeared on Book Marketing Tools

Posted by David Neilson 8 Dec 2016 at 01:15
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Responses to this blog

Sherryh 9 Dec 2016 at 14:07  
Excellent post! I think a lot hinges on readers' expectations. I am one of those who flinch at historical inaccuracies when I catch them, and both my husband and I have been known to put down a book and go fact-checking when something seems awry. (Kudos to authors who catch me out by being in the right!) But if I know something's meant as nothing more than a fluffy pseudo-historical romp, I'm inclined to give it more leeway.

Mad, mad respect goes out to authors who know their history so well that they can tinker with it - creating alternate timelines or historical fantasy that rings true even though the details are altered from the timeline we know. Naomi Novik's Temeraire series and much of Harry Turtledove's work come to mind.

For me, one of the most important elements of historical fiction is that the voice and the dialogue, both spoken and internal, ring true. I may skip over an outlandish name - certainly common enough in modern fiction as well - or a detail about the workings of a clock, but an overly modern turn of phrase or misuse of period grammar can throw me right out of a story. It's amazing to me how many writers of historical fiction have a tin ear for period language.
Vienna 9 Dec 2016 at 15:40  
"an overly modern turn of phrase or misuse of period grammar can throw me right out of a story. It's amazing to me how many writers of historical fiction have a tin ear for period language.Ē

Hi, Sherryh, and thanks. Thatís an extremely interesting point to me. Iím inclined to play about with the language of the time, almost using it as my own Play-Do. I could write one of those things in eighteenth-century language, sounding like Sterne or someone of that kind (only just perhaps not as good) but in fact I enjoy the occasional jarring phrase. My hope is that readers know Iím doing it, maybe why. (Any of my characters who sounds very 18thC is probably up to no good, or just very pompous.) But I very much agree that if someoneís trying to catch the period tone, but simply hasnít absorbed enough of it, it can be a bit of a hoot. D
Bean60 11 Dec 2016 at 13:03  
I was reading a free book on Kindle, don't remember the title nor author, about a modern woman who inherited a house from an ancient relative - formula stuff. And in telling about herself she used the 'John and I' thing incorrectly. (Go to the store with John and I. which is incorrect now, as well as it has been forever,) But when she used it in backstory about the relative's past, in the 1700s, the author lost me. I put the book down and couldn't finish it. I know people say it, incorrectly, a lot. But writers should know the rules, and know when to break them - that was not one of those times.
Vakdevi 11 Dec 2016 at 15:57  
I have been away for quite a while, so my experience stems from my interest mostly. When I was writing my first effort at an historic novel, I worked back and forth between what I knew through personal exposure and a number of historic timelines I fleshed out as I needed. So, if my characters heard bombs going off in the distance I attempted to place the time of their story to coincide with an event that had bombing. I worked like a crazy person and read articles published during the period to get details of the mood, etc. it was exhausting and I needed to really withdraw from my other life activities. It came to a point when I knew I needed to put it aside until family things were in a more secure place. That time seems to be approaching, and I find myself wondering if it would be less taxing if I try to create a world that has no ties to reality and focus on the story.

Aud 11 Dec 2016 at 21:11  
This is a timely piece for me. I'm working on a historical novel, one I hope teachers will use for South Carolina history, which is taught in the eighth grade. As I do the research I often wonder how anal I am or if I can loosen up a bit and not have everything exactly right. What will attract the attention of the kids and what will drive them away. Obviously they don't need to know there was a place to buy ice cream on Rutledge Street in Charleston in 1886, but they might be interested in what the local buses, or horse cars, were like. The hardest part is trying to find the relationships between blacks and whites.
Dkdwriter 14 Dec 2016 at 13:29  

Patricia16 15 Dec 2016 at 10:06  
History is hard to do. I never lived in the first century AD. I never knew a first century Jew. And I do value accuracy. But, like you say, they probably didn't talk like that. Who could read it if it were written in Hebrew? But I was inspired to write my book because I read another on the subject that ignored history so thoroughly it was insulting. Every reader knows it didn't happen like that. And it spoiled the story because the reader was distracted by the errors. For my story, at one point I started to use the word "charlatan" until I looked it up and found the word came into use in the 15th century. Thankfully someone on Critique Corner does know the period and has been a godsend, as all who take the time to critique have. But if I miss something, I'm sure there will be reviewers happy to tell me (and the world).
Vienna 15 Dec 2016 at 16:13  
I canít think of many historical novels that really manage to confine themselves 100% to the vocabulary of the period. Robert Gravesí Wife to Mr Milton is one; I donít believe thereís a word in there that hadnít been uttered by the period of the story. But mostly I think it makes sense to avoid howling anachronisms (unless, like me, you actually enjoy them and hope that the reader enjoys a judicious one too). Some writers, of course, canít actually hear the anachronisms.

Wouldnít your characters be speaking Aramaic if not in the synagogue? Iím very far from being sure of that, though...
Desertphil 17 Dec 2016 at 15:57  
One of many problems with writing history or historical fiction is that First Order Sources are often sadly lacking in details. The writers of diaries and memoirs assumed future readers would know basic details about "how people live" so the writers did not include them. One fine example of this is found in books written by and about Victorian England and its people; David Morrell, when writing his Thomas De Quincey novels, spent a few years researching basics of life, even traveling to London, because period books at the time did not include them. For example, what did people in London use for fuel to cook meals with if they could not afford coal? (They ate uncooked meals.)
Pelwrath 16 Jan 2017 at 02:18  
A nicely done article. In historical fiction, you really shouldn't change things. We know when 'X' happened. You can use famous people, but do the research to know and learn about them.

If you change history, you now have a unchronia or alternate history story. Nothing wrong with that, but is that what you wanted.

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