Skip to content

How Fictional Can Historical Novels Get? by William Dietrich

Novelists make things up. This is not too shocking unless the novelist is writing historical fiction. Then there are reader expectations of fidelity to fact, and you have to decide what kind of historical fiction you’re writing.

Can the South be allowed to win the American Civil War? It does in Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove, who has a doctorate in history.

Can Hitler win World War II? He does in Robert Harris’s Fatherland. In Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America Charles Lindbergh becomes president of the United States and starts anti-Semitic programs.

Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, in contrast, is a recounting of the battle of Gettysburg that is fictional only in that it goes into the minds of the generals involved. Colleen McCullough’s Rome series adheres closely to well-known history. Hilary Mantel’s Tudor trilogy based on the life of minister Thomas Cromwell is meticulously researched.

I gauge my realism by the circumstances of the story I want to tell. Hadrian’s Wall revolves around a barbarian attack in 367 AD but we know almost nothing about it, leaving ample room for invention. The Scourge of God, about Attila the Hun, uses many more real characters and battles because his campaign against the West is better documented. So little is known about Hunnish culture, however, (a single room of artefacts in the Hungarian National Museum) that I found myself extrapolating from horse cultures ranging from the Mongols to the Plains Indians.

My Ethan Gage series of Napoleonic adventures puts a fictional American adventurer in the midst of real history and people. I try to make the details accurate, down to quoting what the principal people really said, but Ethan’s quests involving ancient mysteries are inventive, and his use of technology is speculative.

Did Robert Fulton really invent a submarine called Nautilus, as recounted in The Barbary Pirates? Yes. Was it used against said pirates, as in my novel? No. Was it great fun to write about, and hopefully to read about? You bet.

So what’s the rule?

To tell a good story that is entertaining and instructive.

Even the wildest fantasies have some foundation in fact. Lord of the Rings is grounded in Tolkien’s medieval scholarship, and Game of Thrones in the War of the Roses. Asimov’s science fiction Foundation series was based on the fall of the Roman Empire, even though it was set in space. Dracula goes back to Vlad the Impaler, and Frankenstein to Jewish legends of creating artificial men called Golems. The more fantastic the tale, the more it benefits from being grounded in reality to help the reader suspend disbelief.

History allows interpretation. Kenneth Roberts used Benedict Arnold as his key character in Arundel and Rabble in Arms but made him an underappreciated hero instead of a future traitor.

Strict adherence to real people and events is no more “serious” than invention to fit one’s theme, but it does carry clear advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is not having to invent as much and achieve a high degree of realism. The disadvantage is that human motivations are often murky in real history and so the novelist takes on the same burdens of the historian in seeking to explain what sometimes seems inexplicable.

The bottom line is that the entire spectrum from strict adherence to the record to fantastic invention has been successful. Whichever you choose, you’re in good company.


William Dietrich’s author website:

William Dietrich’s bio page


United States (and beyond)


United Kingdom (and beyond)


Australia (and beyond)

The Emerald Storm: An Ethan Gage AdventureHadrian's Wall: A NovelScourge of God: A NovelBlood of the Reich     Send Me Safely Back AgainThe Summer HouseNecessary Lies

Writing Historical Novels

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. I was just having this same argument with one of my own novels. Now, I still have the same problem because any decision that I make is absolutely right.

    April 13, 2013
  2. Thanks William for sharing. I often wonder if I should call my books historical fiction or historical fantasy. My first novel was on a real mystery of an emperor who disappeared during the civil war of 1402 in Ming China. As no one knows what happened to him till today, I had great fun filling in the blanks. But I received a review from someone who said I was not ‘historically’ accurate about the plants mentioned during that period. I had to explain that I was not writing a treatise on plants, but a novel on political assassination and a great escape plan that history hints at but does not provide the proof for. The plants were just a descriptions of certain scenes. Anyway, I did prove to him those plants existed in China then, but his point was I should have provided a detailed explanation about the plants rather than leave the plants to mere mention. Did you ever have such a problem, when someone picks something that is totally not relevant to the story and harps on the ‘historical’ inaccuracy of it?

    April 14, 2013
  3. That is a lovely balanced view – that wherever on the spectrum of historical adherence you are, you are in good company. I’ve enjoyed novels from both ends of the spectrum, and love the variety of novels in the genre.

    April 14, 2013
  4. Writing historical fiction requires some knowledge of the country and its culture, I’d say. I prefer it if the known, accepted facts are not changed. Though I love it if an author comes up with a new theory as to why someone acted as they did. The trouble with not sticking to known facts is that history becomes distorted. Thanks to Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, there is a whole section of the population who believes Wallace sired the next king of England. If I read a novel about Italy in the 1400s, about which I know nothing, I expect to learn something, not be fed imaginary ‘facts’.

    April 14, 2013
  5. Well, Hollywood never has any problem playing fast-n-loose with the facts. Of course the more you stray, as in Roth’s “The Plot Against America” it gets closer to being ‘alternate history,’ like Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle” which has the Axis powers winning WWII and Japan taking control of the US, so it’s veering into science fiction/fantasy. I suppose it comes down to the author’s intent, whether they want it to be historically accurate or a fictionalized account of some aspect of the period they’re writing, as in something like “Lady’s Maid” by Margaret Forster which imagines the life of Elizabeth Barrett’s maid, Lily Wilson.

    Probably the more obscure the POV and protagonist, the easier it is to invent the story around them. The more high profile the characters and events, the more you’ll have to stick to facts before it verges on fantasy and the history buffs nitpick it to death 😉

    April 14, 2013

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: