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Using Real People As Historical Novel Characters, by Julian Stockwin

I think it is vital, right from the outset, to establish your own ground rules about how you will deal with real characters in your historical fiction. Some writers take the biographical details of  people from the past as a rough guide only, giving a very modern spin to their characters. I am not going to be prescriptive – there are all kinds of writers and readers out there, but for me, it is very important to be true to the historical record.

There are many people whose name history has recorded for some deed or other but about whom we know little. If I use such people in the pages of my books I obviously have to fill in the gaps myself when I am writing. This is where a knowledge of the times in which they lived comes in. I ask myself, given what we know of him or her: Is this a reasonable extrapolation? Could this person have been like this in this period? Making a little-known-about character come alive is one of the great challenges, and pleasures, for historical fiction writers.

Then there are the characters whose lives are very well known.

No sea writer dealing with the period I write about – the French wars – could ignore Horatio Nelson. He had such a huge impact at all levels, in life and in death. I personally believe he was Britain’s greatest hero.

When I was researching the Battle of the Nile for my book Tenacious, my admiration for the man increased even more. Nelson came across the French at anchor in Aboukir Bay off the coast of Egypt at sunset. They were facing outwards on what was essentially a lee shore. He then had to make up his mind in just a few minutes about what his intentions were to be. Then the wind backed just a few points, and he saw his chance! Abandoning entirely his plan of attacking by divisions he more or less threw his whole fleet in a single column at the head of the enemy line, knowing that the northwesterly was going to allow them to pass down the length of the line, smashing in broadsides as they went.

To me, the most amazing part is that the whole thing – abandoning the previous plan, the evolution with the anchor cable, and the insight to demolish the whole enemy line starting from one end – was achieved with just four signal hoists. And, at this time Nelson was a junior Rear Admiral with his very first command.

When I came to write my book Victory, which as the title suggests is about HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, I approached the task with some trepidation. After all, it was the grandest spectacle in naval history and has been the subject of hundreds of books. Everyone knows Nelson died at the battle. My challenge was to bring a new and fresh treatment to readers.

I read scores of books on Nelson and pored over charts and actual plans of the battle. As much as possible I used actual words he spoke. Having been both a naval officer and a psychologist helped me in building up a mental picture of the man.

But it was still a daunting prospect to write about such a hero – and I hope I did him justice.


Julian Stockwin’s author website:

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TenaciousVictoryBetrayalQuarterdeck     Prison Ship: Adventures of a Young SailorA Matter of HonorCardington Crescent

Writing Historical Novels

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great post! I totally get what you mean about your admiration for Horatio Nelson increasing during your research. I’m working on a book that centers on Turlough O’Carolan, and I’ve felt the same thing. It makes for exciting writing and, hopefully, exciting reading! 😀

    March 11, 2013
  2. Thank you, Shea – and all good wishes for your own book!

    March 11, 2013
  3. Hi Julian,
    A friend sent me the link. Very interesting post. Nelson certainly was a man among men. I write historical fiction with romantic elements, and generally mention famous people of the period, but my main characters are fictional. For me, the most important aspect of historical fiction is accuracy of historical facts, and plausible actions of the characters for the era in which the story is set, (well maybe a little lee-way, to make it readable to a modern audience, but not too much)



    March 11, 2013
  4. Hi, Margaret – Delighted you enjoyed this post. So would have loved to have met Nelson…

    March 12, 2013
  5. Dave Wakeling #

    Hi Julian… I’m just about half-way through my 4th reading of your Kydd series since I discovered him. I was struck by the contrast between the first 4 novels and the apparent sigh of relief in your writing in Quarterdeck when, not only was there evidence of your usual impeccable research, but a sense, in me at any rate, that you had relaxed into the nature of relations between officers and the lower decks and had drawn upon your own experiences in the navy. Also, that perhaps you were revelling in the knowledge that you were a good writer and now had the confidence to explore the characters more fully. I’m afraid that I cannot give specific examples since I am into The Admiral’s Daughter and have a rotten memory. Am I way off here? I am also wondering if there is anything of the Cornishman Lord Exmouth in your novels, since I was given Stephen Taylor’s excellent biography “Commander” for Christmas.
    Cheers Dave Wakeling (Falmouth Shout)

    March 27, 2013
  6. Wow! Fourth reading – I’m humbled… I was intrigued in your comments about QUARTERDECK; I certainly did draw on my own experiences in the navy in writing about Kydd’s elevation. (I myself did the same trip from forward to aft.) And, after a number of books I do think I probably was relaxing a little with my writing – but a writer can never forget you are only as good as your last book! By the way, Exmouth is one of my naval heroes and he, along with others such as Collingwood, Nelson, and many others all feed into my writing.

    March 29, 2013
  7. Admittedly, I am somewhat restricted in my reading after entering elderly age, and tend to focus more on Napoleonic war themes. I’ve read them all you may believe. But, aside from the Hornblower series, I have re-read the Kydd series from the beginning after finishing each new offering, thus the first, KYDD, is an old friend indeed. Somehow, I feel closer to this Surrey lad.

    As an aside, I wonder at the historical animus usually found in period British novels and history.
    for the person of Napoleon. To my experience, the opinions of the wider European thought are nowise similar. I have found there, generally, a glowing, fond, and wistful recounting of history relating to Napoleon. Naturally, the U.S. seems torn between histories written by British, as opposed to wider European aspects. Sometimes I wonder if Napoleon was really any worse than some governmental higher eschelons in Britannia, or America, or Russia, or …

    May 23, 2013

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