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Using Historical Research To Support A Good Story, by Adrian Goldsworthy

I like historical novels to be accurate.  A really good historical novel can often give you a far better flavour of the period than reading quite a few non fiction histories.  Other people are less worried by the accuracy and that is fair enough.  Every reader will want a good story, and during the whole writing process you need to keep focused on the story you want to tell.  The essential narrative – who are characters are, what happens to them, and how they cope with it all – is the single most important thing you have to create.

During your research you will have gathered a lot of material, and in probability will have far more than you can ever use.  It can sometimes be hard to let go of all these little nuggets.  If you have spent weeks, months, or even years reading up and learning all about an era, then you are bound to have become entranced by it all.  However, just because you know something, does not mean that you have to tell the reader about it.  Instead it is something that you have at your disposal, and can be deployed to make the background to a scene more vivid, or to provide things for your characters to do or talk about.  In each case it needs to add something to the story or atmosphere and not simply be there for its own sake.  So if you learn a lot about something, for instance how to make a sword or how a machine spins cotton or whatever it might be, only go into detail if it helps to flesh out a character and his or her story.  This could be a description to tell you about their life, or reveal a lot about their character by the way they do something.  Alternatively, it may provide a setting for a conversation or other plot element.

So some detail is very good and useful.  The tradition of naval adventure stories often include a lot about how to sail a ship, usually with quite a few technical terms.  Quite a few readers find this interesting for its own sake, but it also served the useful purpose of showing the competence and skill – or lack of these – of the main characters and supporting cast.  Probably in early chapters they will be sailing in peaceful waters, but this helps the reader to learn about the situation, and so makes it easier to follow when they are doing such things in the dramatic moments of storm or battle.  It is well worth drip feeding the information a reader needs to follow the plot.  Ideally it happens gradually, as the story progresses and they get to know and become involved with the characters.  I tried to do something similar in my first novel, making the characters train and drill so that when the battalion went to war the reader would understand how it manoeuvred.  On the whole, writers of land based military adventures tend to skim over this sort of thing, but it is a fine line between having too much and too little technical detail of this sort.  On the other hand, some readers clearly find this a bit slow.

The biggest mistake is to inject a few pages of straightforward description of historical events, politics, or strategy that reads like non fiction.  In Steven Saylor’s Roman Blood, his first novel about Gordianus the Finder, the narrative pauses to describe the rise of Sulla and his dictatorship in a passage resembling a textbook.  It is quite strange that his editor let this through, and it jars because the rest of the book flows very well.  The lesson is that even very fine writers like this can stumble now and again, especially in their early work.  Saylor’s later books all flow very well.  The principles of writing are really very simple.  The practice is not.  As an example of a good way of getting such information across, look at some of MacDonald Fraser’s explanations of recent history and context, delivered by his Harry Flashman with plenty of cynical wit, which at the same time helps to convey his character.  It is perfectly possible to convey a lot of information quite quickly and still blend it in to the story, perhaps through a mixture of conversation, explanation and action.

Having said all that, you will still find that you do not end up including some wonderful material.  As an example, I stumbled across some terrific stories about Joseph Napoleon, the older brother of Napoleon who was given the Spanish throne.  He is mentioned now and again, and appears as a character in a couple of chapters of All in Scarlet Uniform, although he only says a few lines.  For a while I tried to devise ways to fit in stories about his interests, and especially some of his colourful love affairs.  In the end I had to face up to the fact that I was simply trying to work them in because they were good stories, even though they were not really relevant and did not add anything.  You need to be ruthless with yourself and cut anything that is unnecessary.

Such detail is never really wasted.  On the one hand you may find it useful if you write again about the same period.  Less obviously it will help to add depth to your fictional take on the period and help you to write more convincingly about the real people of those times.  You want to create an impression that the world of your novel is more than just a film set, designed to look fine from one angle, but really just a facade.  It is always good if the reader is left with the feeling that they could turn in a different direction to the main story and yet still find something there.


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Writing Historical Novels

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. I enjoyed Adrian Goldworthy’s non-fiction book The Punic Wars. He has written extensively about ancient Rome. I agree that historical fiction should be well researched and based, as much as possible on fact. Ancient history is like a worn tapestry and the writer must fill in the blank spots as well as he or she can to paint a coherent picture. David Anthony Durham is a fine novelist but I was annoyed that he departs so much from historical fact in his book Pride of Carthage that he has Gaius Tarentius Varro as Fabius’ Master of Horse rather then Marcus Minucius Rufus, and Sophanisba as the sister of Hannibal rather than the daughter of Hasdrubal Son of Gisco, (whom he omits entirely) He also provides Hannibal with a fictitious third brother, Hanno. I prefer my historical fiction to adhere to whatever historical record exists.

    June 7, 2013
  2. Reblogged this on DH Hanni and commented:
    I love the phrase of ‘drip feeding’ the information to readers. It sounds some simple enough but difficult to do.

    June 7, 2013

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