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Historical Research And Accuracy In Historical Novels, by Tim Willocks

All that research. Years of it.

What’s the point? How much does it matter? Who cares? Who even notices?

Much more often than not, those who appear to notice or care (they looked it up on Wikipedia, but not in the Bibliotheque Nationale) are wrong.

Personally, as a reader or viewer, I really don’t mind pure fantasies of the past. If anything, the purer the better. I love The Iliad and Richard III. I was actually quite upset to discover that Blood Meridian was precisely based on real events: up until then I had I been in awe of McCarthy’s imagination. I think it’s great that Shakespeare made most of it up. The fact that in La Reine Margot both Isabelle Adjani (39) and Daniel Auteuil (44) played historical characters who were less than half their own ages did not undermine my enjoyment in the least; and since Dumas’s magnificent story is absolute tripe in terms of historical accuracy, there was no point in letting it do so.

The truth is that it is simply not possible to create an accurate portrait of the past. No one can faithfully reproduce the reality of the 1970s, let alone the 1570s. Speaking for myself, I couldn’t recreate last week. If one is rash enough convey the fact that there were no sewers in 1570s Paris, which meant that the streets were asphalted in excrement, readers and reviewers complain about the smell. Just about every great historical fiction ever created, from The Iliad to War and Peace, would fail as an essay from a History undergraduate. Charlton Heston’s Moses – or Michelangelo – is essentially just as good as anyone else’s, in historical terms. All that matters is that the fictional work in question achieve what we hope for from any good art. Since when was art in any form supposed to be ‘accurate’ in such a depressingly pedestrian sense?

So why, I ask myself, have I spent years of grinding toil on research that is, in essence, irrelevant? More to the point, as I contemplate doing it again, can I avoid it? Can I throw wide my window and scream: “I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Re-enter, once again, the truly great Charlton Heston.

Would many historical novelists of a certain age be writing historical novels if not for him? For what it’s worth, I don’t care that he waved a Kentucky rifle at NRA meetings; it’s a small price to pay for Chrysagon and Major Dundee.

I once met Gore Vidal, whose ‘Lincoln’ provoked a fantastically funny (and lengthy) exchange of letters in the NYRB, in which he blithely humiliated a squadron of bleating historians (well worth Googling). Imagine Gore’s horror when, some years after the novel was published, convincing evidence emerged to the effect that Lincoln was bisexual, and wasn’t too careful about concealing the fact. Anyway, Gore told us a story – I suspect one of his party pieces – about working on the script of Ben Hur. One day at Cinecitta he saw an art director who was dressing the set for a feasting scene by putting a bowl of tomatoes on the table. “So I asked if Mrs. Hur was planning to make Ben a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich.” His point being, of course, that tomatoes came from the New World and didn’t exist in Palestine in 30AD. (Apologies, but ‘CE’ holds no grandeur for me).

This story has haunted me ever since. Did they eat potatoes in Malta in 1565? It’s cutting it fine, I know, but not impossible – and would Gore Vidal review my book and humiliate me as he did the professors from Yale?

Thus at a certain moment I found myself wondering if there was a chiming clock in Paris in 1572, because it would be very useful, plot-wise, for my hero to hear it. After some hours of research I discovered that not only did the clock of the Conciergerie chime, it was in the perfect location to be heard at the moment I needed it. I wrote the scenes. The chimes worked marvellously. A month later I discovered that the chimes were not installed in said clock until 1573, under Henri III. Do I take the chimes out of the novel and re-write three chapters? Is there a single living soul among the few who will ever read the book that will know this exceedingly obscure fact? If they do, will they forgive me?

Gore’s tomato story returned to haunt me, along with the ghost of Charlton Heston and his BLT. I took the chimes out. I struggled to find a way for the hero to see the clock instead of hear it. A convenient gap – a wharf? – between the buildings crowding the right bank of the Seine? Knock the buildings down? (Who would know that they were ever there, except the odd art historian who might remember the paintings thereof?) Have him climb on the roof?

I rewrote it. But should I have? You multiply that kind of problem by at least a hundred time per novel and it becomes a recipe for insanity. Or at least for the urge to write a novel about last week.

Any advice would be welcome.

The illusion of historical ‘realism’, and the whole question of ‘history’ itself as a vast and shifting work of fiction/propaganda, are topics that will have to await future posts.


Tim Willocks’s author website:

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     The Winter Palace (a Novel of the Young Catherine the Great)

Writing Historical Novels

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Well, yeah. But I write for ME, primarily; and I would have had that irritating extra pre-chime year as a burr under my skin 🙂

    January 20, 2014
  2. Surely from a reader’s perspective of historical fiction, where there is a desire to immerse oneself in engaging action about another era to savour its idiosyncrasies or ‘colour’ as an excursion of the imagination into another worldview, can be a major part of the satisfaction of literature? If a reader also senses the author possesses a truly believable command of the era’s realities (however unlikely that may be in reality), this satisfaction can be greatly enhanced. That’s always been the promise of historical fiction, and is occasionally delivered. Otherwise, read academic history, which has its own separate disciplines.

    George Gardiner
    “The Hadrian Enigma” (Amazon).

    January 20, 2014
  3. danielfbowman #

    It is worth it to keep it historical. We read to get a story but we read historical because we want accuracy. That said, a few pages of historical nte at the end make for interesting reading while showing that you know the truth.

    January 21, 2014
  4. I don’t mind a little poetic license in historicals if they are minor or greatly enhance the story (such as the chimes), but I’m a sucker for the author notes in the back of the book explaining their exceptions to actual history. Makes it richer for me.

    January 22, 2014
  5. I agree with the notes. Especially when fact has made the apparent fiction you’ve stolen for your character almost unbelievable, which seems to happen quite a lot.

    Nice post though – I’m still gutted I wrote a 19th C soldier’s shirt as cotton, instead of linen or wool, even though it might have been possible. Still, no-one else has noticed so far 😉

    January 24, 2014
  6. Links in with Anna Belfrage’s post on Anachronisms the other day

    I enjoy good plotted stories, and I do accept that some things do need to be embellished or altered to make the plot work smoothly and engage the reader. However, anachronism – such as an 1700’s labourer enjoying a tea break is just sloppy, as is using buildings and part of a city that didn’t exist in that time, or using modern phraseology in a character’s speech.
    As a writer, there are things I have altered in Staymaker – for example, Thomas Lillywhite’s trial was moved into the timeframe of the book rather than with KIngsmill’s as a dramatic device – explained away in the Historical note.
    As a researcher, I simply enjoy the research and want to use it in my writing to build a picture of the era that people can see, feel and smell.

    January 27, 2014
  7. Stephanie Dray #

    Why not keep your chimes and add to the author’s note the information that you found?

    April 3, 2015
  8. Mrs Hur wouldn’t have made bacon and tomatoes for Ben. Bacon isn’t kosher.

    April 4, 2015
  9. Eileen #

    Tomatoes in ancient Palestine – a definite no. Chimes a few years earlier than when they were installed – maybe, leaning to ok. You are correct that there is no way a historical novelist can get it all right, but the obvious stuff should be right.

    Also, sometimes the historical record is just plain wrong. Or has no way of being correct. One woman I am writing about was, according to what I have found, supposedly 50 years old when she gave birth to her last child. Given that doing so in the 21st century, with all of the sanitary, medical and nutritional benefits of the current day, is almost impossible, managing to give birth 1,000 years ago at that age has to be impossible. So clearly she had to be at least 10 years younger than the record shows.

    You are correct, though, about how this effort at getting the details right can drive you a little crazy.

    April 4, 2015

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