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Accuracy In Historical Novels, by Paul Dowswell

A few years ago I was listening to a programme on BBC Radio 4 about historical fiction. They interviewed Philippa Gregory, author of The Other Boleyn Girl and sundry other big sellers, and Bernard Cornwell, author of the hugely successful Sharpe series.

Philippa Gregory, who prides herself on historical accuracy, said ‘You go up to the point where we know and then what we don’t know you make up.’ Bernard Cornwell was more casual about it. ‘I’m a storyteller not a historian,’ he said. ‘In the end you sacrifice the history for the story.’

Bernard Cornwell has a valid point, but I’m with Philippa Gregory on the historical accuracy – I think you owe it to your readers to tell the story with due regard to the events, practicalities, mores and all the rest of it, of the times. But I also write for teens and I’m keen to produce the most readable and accessible book I can. I certainly don’t want to bog my reader down with additional historical minutiae.

I’ve recently finished a novel set in Soviet Russia, over the summer of 1941, and I made a few compromises to produce a story that a 14 year-old completely new to the subject would find accessible.

The first was cultural rather than historical. I did follow the tradition of using pet names, depending on the degree of familiarity between my characters. My main character is known variously as Mihail and Misha, and his friend Valentina is also known as Valya. But along with this, people in Russia have three official names – a first or Christian name, a patronymic (the father’s name), and a family name or surname. Also, most Russian surnames have an ‘a’ at the end when the person is female – Mr Petrov and Mrs Petrova. (They don’t have ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’ either.) For the sake of clarity I just gave my characters a first name, and a surname regardless of gender.

I based this decision on my own frustration when reading a book, when you think ‘Who the hell is THIS?’ and I reckoned my reader would have enough on their plate already, with unfamiliar first names and surnames. (I love Russian sounding names but I feel the reader has to take on a lot with a succession of Barikadys, Leonids, Svetlanas and Yelenas. The last names are quite a mouthful too, especially if you live in a country where Russian names are unusual: Durchenko, Dyatlov, Dumanovsky, Dobrolubov…)

I also had a problem with what to call the NKVD, Lavretiy Beria’s repugnant secret police. The story is set in 1941 when they were variously known as the NKVD (Jan/Feb) the NKGB (Feb to July) and then the NKVD again (July to December). Call me slack, but I didn’t feel the reader needed to know that. If you’re doing a degree level paper you do, but not for historical fiction written for a core readership of teens.

The biggest liberty I took was with the structure and personnel of Stalin’s clerical staff. My main character is called Misha Petrov and his dad Yegor works on Stalin’s secretarial staff, performing some of the duties of Stalin’s actual secretary, Alexander Poskrebyshev. Yegor Petrov has a fairly central role in the story and I didn’t want to get caught up in fictionalising the life of Poskrebyshev. It wouldn’t be fair on him or his family, and most of all it would have got in the way of the story I wanted to tell – which was what it was like to be a 16 year old boy at the heart of Stalin’s murderous, paranoid regime.

I did point out several of the things I mention here at the end of my novel. I do think historical fiction is a really useful way into real history – certainly as valuable supplementary reading for anyone studying a period in depth, so I do think it’s important to let your reader know what’s real and what isn’t.


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5 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’m wrestling with decisions like this at the moment. Although I’m getting great satisfaction from fitting my story around real-life events and places, I’m wary of offending living descendants of some of the people involved. Playing it safe, I suppose it boils down to either replacing the historical figures entirely or showing them as pretty flawless and sugary individuals.

    November 30, 2013
  2. Good article, but I think you did what Cornwell is talking about (on a small scale). To make your story accessible, you had to sacrifice historical accuracy, which is fine. It is a novel after all.

    November 30, 2013
  3. The key is that you did put a note at the end, explaining your changes and decisions. I like to think of it as the difference between being accurate and being authentic. Accuracy can be a pedantic trap. (The example of changing initials is a great one.) Adjustments to help the reader experience the story more easily are fine, as long as they do not destroy the authenticity of the period.

    November 30, 2013
  4. Paul Dowswell #

    Hi Greg, Jim and Blyth,

    Thank you for your feedback. Ultimately we’re writing historical fiction, not a history text book. I hate those American films where they completely change history to make the story more ‘entertaining’ and I would never do that, but I think you have to be careful not to be too precious about accuracy.

    All the best from a really wintery UK!


    December 1, 2013

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