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Story And History In Historical Novels, by Adrian Goldsworthy

Writing a novel is a very different thing to writing conventional history, or to writing non-fiction about the current day.  People may well be drawn to read a novel set in the past because of a more or less deep interest in the history of that period, but in the end the overwhelming majority will enjoy it only if it works as a novel.  If you simply want to tell people about the past, then it is better to go down the route of non-fiction.  Even if your main focus is on an event, it is important to make the characters and their personal experience sufficiently involving to grab and hold on to a reader’s interest.

From the start it is important to know what your story is and then keep focused on it.  How far you shape the history to fit the story is a matter of personal choice.  You may simply want a convincing background of a society and time period.  Within this setting your fictional characters can live entirely fictional lives without direct contact with any specific real events or people.  Or you may want to have your characters caught up in the big events, their role either entirely invented or based on the actions of real people.

A lot of fictional characters find themselves caught up in real events.  Another option is to mirror actual events, but change the chronology and attribute them to a fictional hero.  Many of the incidents and combats in Patrick O’Brian’s naval adventures are based firmly on the actual career or Lord Cochrane, and some of the later battles on the actions of others.  This is especially true of the early books.  Over the course of the series he, like most other writers of similar series, invented sea-fights to keep Jack Aubrey busy.  In my stories all of the major battles are real, as are some of the smaller skirmishes, and in many cases the minor incidents within them come directly from eye-witness accounts.  I have invented one or two small encounters to fit the story.  In this case you look at the history and try to create something plausible.  The aim is to make the action in the stories dramatic, but not too over the top.  If it did not happen and such people did not exist then it could have happened.

History fascinates me, and the main reason I will tend to pick an historical novel over any other kind is that I like learning about and ‘visiting’ the past.  This means that I like a novel to accurate historically.  I also want it to be a good read, but am inclined to give the author the benefit of the doubt and keep reading for longer if I think he or she knows the background thoroughly.  This does mean that I am a dreadful audience for novels set in the ancient world, and especially anything dealing with the Roman army.  Little mistakes in these will bother me far more than they should, and certainly far more than 99.9% of other readers.  I know less about other topics and so tend to be less critical, which tends to mean that I read more fiction about other periods.

I was recently flicking through a novel set during the First Punic War and one of the first things I noticed was that the Roman galleys were rowed by slaves.  This is absolutely wrong.  Rowers were free men – usually citizens, albeit poor ones – but the image of Charlton Heston and his pals chained to the benches and rowing away to the beat of drum is so powerful that people expect something similar. Something like that quickly tells me that the book is not for me, although it may well be a great read.  (Oddly enough I can happily watch something like Ben Hur and enjoy it, but hold back from reading something similar).  The great majority of readers will not come with all this baggage and can simply enjoy the story as they should.  Didn’t Alexandre Dumas say something like ‘history is but the peg on which I hang my stories?

In my own books, I like to get things right and do my best to make the historical details accurate.  For Beat the Drums Slowly I came across a published journal of a staff officer who recorded the weather for each day, and followed this in the story.  This sort of thing really won’t matter to anyone else, but since the characters spend almost all their time outside and exposed to wind, rain, and snow, I thought this was important.  How far down this line you go is entirely a matter of taste, and I suspect the really important thing is that you know what you are doing.

Some authors freely alter history, including quite big events, because they want to tell a dramatic story and feel that this is more important.  Conn Iggulden’s Emperor series is based around the life and career of Julius Caesar.  From the start he consciously used the history as a canvas, and played around with chronology and individuals, so that, for instance, Cato the Younger kills himself quite a few years before this really happened, and the relationship between Caesar and Brutus develops differently.  This was not sloppy research, but deliberate choice from an author who tries his best to get the detail right in how things worked while telling his story.  Similarly you might choose to run a couple of incidents together, or for the sake of simplicity have a single real or imagined character combining the actions and activities of several people.

For author and reader alike, the balance they want between story and history comes down to personal choice.


Adrian Goldsworthy’s author website:

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True Soldier GentlemenBeat the Drums SlowlySend Me Safely Back Again     EquinoxPhantoms in the SnowThe William Monk Mysteries: The First Three NovelsThe Winter Palace (a Novel of the Young Catherine the Great)

Writing Historical Novels

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Reblogged this on Whispers in the Wind and commented:
    I really like how you call your preference for reading a historical novel “visiting” the past. Done well, a historical novel takes readers to that era and gives them a tour of that time. A well-done history book is like viewing a wonderful museum exhibit. You may be fascinated by the dioramas and information, but you are still rooted in your era.

    July 15, 2013
  2. I’m writing my first historical novel and find myself immersed in the research. I’m not sure what balance I will strike for the reader but I see the more I understand about the time period, the more I realize what my characters would notice, appreciate and feel.

    Thanks for the reminder that “for author and reader alike, the balance they want between story and history comes down to personal choice”.

    Hopefully I will find a balance that fits.


    August 8, 2013

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