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Historical Novels: Fact And Fiction, by Stephanie Cowell

“How much is real? What is true?” I always hear these questions when I speak about my novels. I try to give an overall view. I say, “We can’t know what great people said behind the closed bedroom door,” and they all nod modestly in agreement.

It was a rather terrifying moment in my writing life. I had been asked to read from my novel Marrying Mozart at a scholarly conference: the Mozart Society of America. Here were a group of people who had dedicated their lives to studying aspects of Mozart’s life and music. (One or two were so scholarly that I have no idea what they were saying!) I got up rather tremulously and decided to be honest. I told them, “Thank you for all your hard work. I take your work, mix it with a little imagination and turn it into fiction.” And to great surprise, they loved the scenes I read.

So is what the historical novelist writes fact or fiction? “Both,” I say. “In a sensitive, creative, respectful and sometimes daring combination.”

Many years ago, I had dinner in Oxford with the great Elizabethan scholar Dr. A.L. Rowse. There I confessed to him that I wanted to write Elizabethan historical fiction but felt shy about making up dialogue. His eyes widened and he said, “But of course you have to make it up!” That was my blessing to go forward and I was happy to dedicate one of my novels to him.

“But what is historical fiction?” people also ask and I reply, “It’s fiction based on history.” More, it is a dramatic piece and must tell an interesting, hopefully gripping story. To do that it must have a plot and dramatic highlights; it must not be repetitive or meander. Real lives do both. You must trim and shape real life into fictional form.

Shakespeare wrote historical fiction in his history plays. Some people have never forgiven him for making Richard III an evil guy, but Shakespeare was writing under the reign of the granddaughter of the man who dethroned Richard, so he shaped his character to something that would please her. He also has Henry V cry passionately before the Battle of Agincourt, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends!” In real life Henry might have said, “My boots hurt,” but it would not be as memorable and not nearly as stirring.

We find facts in history books; we find living truth in historical fiction. And if a reader is introduced to an area of the past or a great historical figure she loves through fiction, she can always turn back to the work of historians. Nothing makes me happier as an author than to hear that I have made some part of history as real to readers as if they were transported to that time. I wanted to live then as well. It is because I love some periods of the past and certain people who lived within them so much that I became a writer.


Stephanie Cowell’s author website:

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Marrying MozartClaude & Camille: A Novel of Monet     Necessary LiesTrue Soldier GentlemenSpartacus: The Gladiator

Writing Historical Novels

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Oh, it is so good to hear that you tell your audiences the same thing I do 🙂

    January 26, 2013
  2. I am currently writing my first historical fiction novel and was plagued by many of the questions you have answered here. Thank you for a very interesting and informative piece.

    January 26, 2013
  3. I particularly like your concept ‘we find living truth in historical fiction’.

    January 26, 2013
  4. Excellently put, Stephanie. A beautiful historical fiction like your “Marrying Mozart” greatly encouraged my writing HF about a composer, albeit a much lesser known one. And I can so relate to the nervousness about offering it to the scrutiny of scholars! Once my novel, A House Near Luccoli, was published I contacted the foremost expert, a professor at Pisa University in Italy, on its real-life protagonist 17th century composer Alessandro Stradella, sent her a copy of my novel, and for a little while wondered if it was the ‘right’ thing to do as she took issue with my portrayal of him as having done anything untoward to contribute to the scandals and eventual tragedy that befell him. But, the on-going conversation between us has been fascinating and satisfying and she has even commented that it has made her happy that we were discussing him (an obscure composer like Stradella rarely gets discussed outside of academic circles). Of course, I have totally respected the fact that she has spent 25 years painstakingly researching his life and music, and she understood that as a novelist I had to make Stradella and his story come alive in an interesting way. I think the thing that has united us is the love for the man and his music, and the intent to let many more know of both. And intention is everything! Thank you for your lovely writing.

    January 26, 2013
  5. One of the best compliments I received on my first book was when the mother-in-law of a friend of mine read it. She ordinarily does not read fiction, but since there was a personal connection she read it and loved it. She really liked my historical notes at the end telling what was historically true and she was very eager to read more about the Regency era and the Prince Regent. I think historical fiction is a way to immerse yourself in another era and really understand what life was like for individuals. You can’t really get that from a history book. Many times I have read a historical novel and found myself looking up the historical figures as well as the era itself. I love all the historical fiction writers I have met since being published because they totally understand when I stop in the middle of a conversation to go look something up. I admit, however, that my children found this more cause to roll their eyes than an endearing quality. You could see it going through their heads: “Oh Lord, Mom is going for the reference books (or internet, as the case may be) again!” Thanks for the excellent article.

    January 26, 2013
  6. I think the pitfall most historical authors have is not understanding the culture and not learning important historical facts. The book turns out reading like a comtemporary.

    January 26, 2013
  7. I loved “Marrying Mozart”, Stephanie, and think you did an excellent job in bringing Mozart and Stanzi to life. So excited to see you posting on this blog now. 🙂

    January 27, 2013
  8. The distant past is like a worn tapestry with many blank patches. The writer of historical fiction fills in the blank spaces.Each writer fill them in differently. My Quintus Fabius Maximus is a wily old fox. Another writer portrays him as the evil nemesis of Scipio. Which of us is correct? It may be impossible to know. Some modern portrayals of Richard III make him a sympathetic character.

    January 27, 2013
  9. Thanks to everyone! I am glad the little essay spoke to you!

    January 30, 2013

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  1. Month In Review with Steve Rossiter (January 2013) | Writing Historical Novels

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