How Accurate Do You Want Your Historical Fiction?

Most literary agents and publishers will tell any aspiring author that novel writing requires an unusual amount of focus, dedication, uninterrupted time and a very thick skin. Historical Fiction writing adds mountains of research to that list which makes the task even harder. So why bother?

The agents and publishers were right – it is harder. You cannot simply rattle off a story out of your head, imagining the scene, the people, how they dress, the mannerisms and most importantly – the speech. People didn’t think, speak, converse, dress or even eat in the same way we do today. You have to take all these things into account when delving into a past time. Your characters need to be of their time as well as part of it.

The question, therefore, is how accurate should historical fiction be, or is the story the most important aspect? In which case it’s acceptable for your Tudor characters speak in modern vernacular. Some readers relish the flowery speech patterns, the ‘thee’ and ‘thine’, the ‘prithee’ and the ‘forsooth’ which they feel is necessary to give a real essence of the era, but it's also possible to convey authentic ancient language without making it impossible to read.

Is it acceptable to change history? An historical novel might be a reader’s introduction to that particular era of history. Thus if your story says Richard III won at Bosworth Field, is this doing your readers a disservice by giving an "incorrect" version of what actually happened? If I describe an item of clothing which did not become popular until twenty five years later – am I insulting my readership?

Novelists are not history teachers – but personally, I want my stories to reflect history as accurately as I can. If I’m not sure of something, and sources do vary, I leave it out, even if I really wanted to include that snippet in my story. Mainly because there is bound to be a history buff on social media who will cheerfully expose me to the world as a distorter of ‘the truth’.

I find researching a novel is the most fascinating part of the writing process, although I always gather a lot more information than I will never use. None of it is wasted though as everything I discover gives me a feel for the era. My readers won’t necessarily be fascinated as I am with how the Tower Subway was built for instance, but if I stick to the story arc and sprinkle, don’t dump, I won’t bore my readers.

But then is accuracy in history subjective and history is written by the winners. Personally, I liked Phillipa Gregory’s adaptation in The White Queen where Elizabeth Woodville sends her younger son away and lets an imposter die in his place.

Comments

Petrea Burchard said…
You're right, there will be at least one person who points out your error—if you make it, that is. This is one reason why I liked writing about 500 AD. A lot is known, but I could fudge a few things. And King Arthur isn't a historical figure, so...more fudge.

I think it's like anything else, though. Does the tale you're telling work within the parameters of the world you've created? Richard III could win the battle in an alternate history, but not in a historical novel.
Jen Black said…
Always difficult to hold back on the research when some of it is so fascinating. Most parents would do what Elizabeth Woodville did re the imposter child. I remember being chilled when a work colleague said she would throw anyone off a bus to get her child on it. She meant it!

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