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Accuracy In Historical Novels, by Kathleen Benner Duble

As a writer of historical fiction, it is important to truthfully communicate the way things you are writing about actually happened.

As a writer for teenagers, this is even more important. Many young readers will take your description of historical events as fact ‐ often learning more about the past from your work of fiction than they will in mastering their history lessons at school.

So, as the author of that work, you have a responsibility to keep your facts completely accurate – keeping in mind that you are not only imparting a great story to your readers but helping them learn about history as well.

For instance, did Marie Antoinette really say, “Let them eat cake”? In doing research for a book I wrote on the French Revolution, I discovered that there is no actual proof that she ever uttered those words. So even though having her mutter, “Oh, let them eat cake,” and having my main character hear the queen might have highlighted Marie Antoinette’s callousness toward the French people, I couldn’t use it. It wasn’t true.

On the other hand, there are some facts whose concept is just too hard to convey in books for kids.

For example, while writing The Sacrifice, I discovered that Puritan family meals were taken upstairs in their bedrooms instead of by the fire in their kitchen. I confirmed that with my local historical society. But neither they, nor any other experts on the period I contacted, nor any books I read, could explain why this was so. I didn’t want to write the story with this as part of the book, knowing that kids would be baffled as to why my character and her family were eating upstairs when they had a perfectly well‐equipped, warm kitchen below. I couldn’t give them an explanation.

In this case, I made one of the few exceptions to my own rule and had Abigail’s family eat in the kitchen.

While writing The Sacrifice, I also found that including every one of my great‐grandmother Abigail Faulkner’s five brothers and sisters was becoming cumbersome. To make matters worse, Abigail’s mother was named Abigail and her brother’s name was Francis as was her father’s. It was a common practice in Puritan times to name a child after oneself but, again, a bit confusing for my readers. So I gave Abigail one brother and two sisters rather than five and altered their names.

If it becomes desirable during your writing to make changes such as these, be sure to note the exceptions you have made in your Author’s Notes, informing readers of what you have changed for the sake of the story.

As writers of historical fiction, we are guardians of the past. It is our duty to ensure that the world we create in a story and the characters we help inhabit that world see and do things that would have been true or possible.


Kathleen Benner Duble’s author website:

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The SacrificeQuestPhantoms in the Snow     The Bad Queen: Rules and Instructions for Marie-AntoinetteThe Detroit Electric SchemeFortress of Spears (Empire)

Writing Historical Novels

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nice post. It is something I tend to worry about when I write historical fiction because I’ve gotten confused myself, in recalling historical events, whether what I’m remembering is history or historical fiction and I have to go check my facts. Getting the facts right is also becoming more important as it seems that many books listed as history seem to blur the line somewhat into historical fiction.

    July 5, 2013
  2. Reblogged this on Whispers in the Wind.

    July 5, 2013
  3. I agree with you completely. I prefer the historical fiction book in which the characters are fictional (aside from prominent people such as Presidents, Generals, Foreign Leaders, etc…) but the events are historically accurate. When the events are changed it ruins a book for me.

    July 5, 2013
  4. The past is like a faded tapestry and the writer of historical fiction must fill in some of the blank spaces to create a coherent picture. The writer should never write anything that he or she knows to be contrary to historical fact. I recently read a book on the Second Punic War that had Gaius Tarentius Varro as Fabius’ master of horse while the ancient historians clearly state that it was Marcus Minucius Rufus who held that position. I think that such deliberate errors for the sake of the story destroys ones credibility as a writer of historical fiction.
    There are many myths that persist about ancient history which are repeated in historical fiction.. One is that upon destroying Carthage, the Romans salted the earth around it so nothing would grow. This is not mentioned in ancient sources and the myth arose in more modern times. Historians these days discredit this story but it continues to crop up in historical fiction

    July 5, 2013
  5. It’s vitally important to get all these little details right in any historical fiction, And historical non-fiction, which is what I mostly publish. The difference, on my experience, has been the nature of the details required. Historical non-fiction – as in the quest for broader patterns and understandings – demands a very different style of research from historical fiction. A blooper in fiction – such as attributing the wrong quote to a historical figure – kills the suspension of disbelief right away.

    July 5, 2013

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