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Posts from the ‘Accuracy in historical novels’ Category

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.


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

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Tell Me A Story, by Paul Fraser Collard

It may seem odd that I should bother to take the time to write a blog piece with such a title. I am, after all, attempting to write things of interest to other creative minds that are involved in the world of writing historical novels. But it was one of the first subject titles that came to my mind when I first thought of writing this series of blogs. I shall attempt to explain why.

Historical fiction is a hard genre to get right. Not only must we create wonderful stories with characters that can grab a reader’s attention and a plot that will leave them gasping for more, but we must do this against a historical background that we know intimately enough to bring to life in a reader’s mind.

This is no easy thing. Research can be overwhelming. It can consume you. The effort we put into discovering every detail of the past taking us longer than it takes to write the actual novel we are planning. Yet it has to be done. Research is crucial and details simply have to be correct. If we want to be taken seriously then we have to convince everyone that we know what we are talking about. We need to breathe life into the dusty, dry words of history, giving it a life force so that readers can not only see the world we are describing but they can smell it, hear it, feel it and, hardest of all to achieve, understand it.

But (you must have known that this was coming) there is a central tenet that we must never forget. We are writers not historians, entertainers not teachers. We are there to tell a story.

Now for a confession; I pillage the past. There, it is out in the open and I hope you are not too shocked. I take history and thrust my fictitious character, Jack Lark, into its midst, using his eyes to see the events of the past whilst taking him on a journey through what actually happened to real people. I do not do so lightly but I am trying to do one thing, and one thing only; I am trying to tell a story.

I like to think I am honest about my dreadful act of robbery. I will always include historical notes that should explain where I have deviated from the real history or whose stories I have stolen for my Jack to enjoy. I feel bad for using the past in such a way. This is why I could never write a novel around a real character from history. That would feel too impertinent. I feel that I would be claiming that I know what a real person felt, said or thought, when I am sure they alone know exactly what that might have been. Still I take the past and adapt it for my own use, and for that I always feel the need to apologise.

It has been said that I am a writer “who wears history lightly enough for the story he’s telling to blaze across the page”. This is a wonderful line that, to my mind at least, has two meanings. A few people have read it and come up to pat me on the back to console me and to tell me to ignore the nasty man who wrote it. After all, I am a historical writer and wearing history lightly may not be a good thing at all. I take it as a great compliment (and I hope to goodness it was meant this way or I shall look a hopeless fool). I have set my stall out to write fast, pacy and punchy fiction. I want my story to blaze across the page. I long for nothing more than to set a reader alight with my passion, for my characters to be so real that they leap off the page and into their mind.

I want this because I see my job as being to tell a story. I shall try incredibly hard to get every last historical detail correct, yet I shall never be a grand historian. My stories will run fast and hit hard, and if you enjoy that, well, then I am doing my job. For I am a storyteller and I have no ambition to be anything more.


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     Hannibal: Enemy of RomeEscape by Moonlight

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Month In Review (December 2013)

Writing Historical Novels has reached the end of its final month of articles from the multi-national line-up of novelists for 2013.

You can connect with Writing Historical Novels on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Tumblr, or via Novel Writing Quotes on Facebook or Google+.

Articles for December 2013

On Form And Medium For Creative Works by Emma Darwin

Traveling To Research For My Historical Novels by William Dietrich

Random Thoughts About Writing Historical Novels by Stephanie Cowell

Using Language Specific To The Setting Of Your Novel by Anne Perry

Developing A Writing Routine by Adrian Goldsworthy

Writing My Historical Novel ‘The Kirilov Star’ by Mary Nichols

How I Became A Bestselling Historical Novelist by Ben Kane

Being A Disciplined Author by Julian Stockwin

Tips For Writing Historical Novels by Paul Dowswell

Writing Profiles For Your Historical Novel Characters by Michael White

Using Catherine The Great’s Memoirs When Researching My Novel ‘The Winter Palace’ by Eva Stachniak

Historical Novels You Shouldn’t Miss by Gary Worthington

On Book Trailers by Kathleen Benner Duble


‘Month In Review’ Updates

For more articles on writing novels you can check out Writing Teen Novels and Writing Novels in Australia.


Writing Historical Novels

Tips For Writing Historical Novels, by Paul Dowswell

As a final entry for these 2013 blogs, here’s what I’ve learned from two decades of writing about history, taking writing classes and writing for Writing Historical Novels.

If you can, visit the places you write about

I know this is impractical for some readers of this blog, but for stirring the imagination, nothing beats the experience of walking in the footsteps of your characters. When I wrote Powder Monkey, about a boy in Nelson’s Navy, I got half a book worth of ideas from a single afternoon aboard an early 19th century frigate. (HMS Trincomalee, in Hartlepool, UK.)

Stray from the mainstream at your peril

My most successful novel (Auslander) is set in Nazi Germany. My least successful (The Cabinet of Curiosities) is set in Renaissance Prague. I loved writing them both. Trusted critics (family members who don’t just say ‘that’s nice’, my editor, my agent…) were very positive about both. The plain fact is that lots of people in the Young Adult market (where I work) enjoy reading about the Nazis. They’re history’s baddest apples after all. On the other hand, most people in this demographic don’t give a fig about the Roman Emperor c.1600 and the first stirrings of the Scientific Revolution.

Don’t be too pedantic in your regard for historical accuracy

‘Chillax, Romulus. Remus is a jerk but there’s no need to waste him.’ That’s plainly wrong (!).

Calling Stalin’s NKVD the NKVD when they were actually the NKGB for three months in the time you’re writing about (April to June 1941) is a calculated decision based on not trying the patience of your reader. It’s a novel you’re writing, not an academic text book.

Not everyone gives a hoot about historical accuracy

Personally, I dislike novels and films that are cavalier about historical accuracy. I know this is a subject many readers and writers of historical fiction care about. I think it’s essential to the credibility of your story. But vast swathes of readers/viewers don’t care. One successful seller in the field I write in has two 12 year old German refugees parachuted back into Nazi Germany ‘on a top secret mission’.

Political correctness is a minefield

We wrestle with this all the time. I’m all in favour of not offending people and I’m happy to avoid historically accurate terms that were fashionable and/or acceptable 200 years ago (or even 30 years ago), but which aren’t now. But the whole PC subject is so sensitive that even discussing it is almost impossible. So, to borrow an awful Americanism ‘Don’t even go there.’ (I like lots of Americanisms too, in case anyone thinks I’m being snooty about Americanisms.)

Publishing is a business

Writing to purge your inner demons, or air your pet interests, is fun and/or therapeutic. By all means do it if you enjoy it. But don’t expect a publisher to want to publish it. (Unless you’re an especially brilliant writer.) Publishers need to publish books they think will repay their investment in:

– your advance

–  the wages of their editors/designers/marketing/publicity/sales people who work on your book, and

– production and distribution costs.

It’s always worth remembering that publishers want a book they think will sell to a readership.

Thank you to the readers of this blog who have taken the trouble to respond to my articles and I wish you all a happy New Year and a successful 2014.


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AuslanderSektion 20Powder Monkey: Adventures of a Young SailorPrison Ship: Adventures of a Young Sailor     Hannibal: Enemy of RomeEscape by Moonlight

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Writing My Historical Novel ‘The Kirilov Star’, by Mary Nichols

They say you should write about what you know, especially when you are feeling your way as a writer, but that can be dreadfully restricting and, if you did that, you would never write books with historical backgrounds. Think what opportunities you would be missing!  The story is the thing. As long as your research is thorough, there’s no reason why you can’t attempt something a little more adventurous.

I’ve been fascinated by Russian history ever since I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina, and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment as a schoolgirl – in English, I hasten to add. Then later when Dr Zhivago was made into a film it renewed my interest, especially in the Revolution and the terrible fate of the Tsar and his family, and the rumours that the Grand Duchess Anastasia had survived. A film was made about it and for a long time it was believed, but this has since been disproved with DNA tests. It was a time of such upheaval that people simply disappeared. The idea for a book simmered in my mind for a long time and, though I planned it out, I hesitated to begin writing for fear of biting off more than I could chew.

When I told my family about it, I began receiving books about Russia for birthday and Christmas presents. That set me collecting books to help with my research, until I had dozens of them. The more I read, the more I became immersed in the history and eventually I couldn’t put it off any longer and The Kirilov Star was born

My aristocratic family, distant relatives of the Tsar, are separated when trying to leave Russia during the civil war in 1920. The only survivor is four-year-old Lydia Kirillova, too young and too traumatised to tell anyone what happened and where she comes from.  She knows her name but the only other clue to her identity is a fabulous jewel sewn into her petticoat. She is taken to a British diplomat who has been instructed to oversee the evacuation of the refugees and then leave himself. He is left wondering what to do with her.

He could send her to a Russian orphanage, but they were notoriously dreadful places and for someone who appears to be of aristocratic stock, it would be worse. He and his wife are childless, something they both regret, could Lydia fill that gap? He could give her a good life, but would his wife accept her? Would Lydia later blame him for taking her from her homeland?

He decides to risk it and Lydia grows up in the privileged background of a stately home and seems content. But Kolya, another Russian émigré, sows the seeds of her discontent and persuades her to marry him and go back to Russia with him to look for her real parents. It is the biggest mistake of her life. Russia under Stalin is a dangerous place for an ex-aristocrat to be. Her husband leaves her for another woman, taking their son, Yuri, with him and she is trying to track him down when the second world war breaks out and her situation becomes desperate. She has left a good home and loving family to chase a dream which turns into a nightmare. She is forced to abandon her search and return to England and only much later when Stalin is dead and it becomes easier to travel is she able to resume her search for her son, helped by the man who has always been in the background of her life and has loved her for years. But when Yuri is finally found, the years apart and the different cultures are not so easy to bridge.

Having written it, I wanted someone who was familiar with the country and the times to look at it before I submitted it to my publisher. I was lucky. Two of the books I had used for my research were Moscow 1941 and Across the Moscow River, both by Sir Rodric Braithwaite who was British Ambassador to Moscow from 1988 to 1992 and I wrote to him asking if he would take a look at the manuscript. It was a long shot but to my delight he agreed to do so and, besides making some very pertinent comments for which I was very grateful, told me my research had been very thorough and he had no quarrel with it. It just goes to show you should never be afraid to be adventurous. Most people I have approached with queries have been happy to oblige. Taking a chance paid off.


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The Girl on the BeachEscape by MoonlightThe Summer HouseThe Kirilov Star     The Winter Palace (a Novel of the Young Catherine the Great)

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Using Language Specific To The Setting Of Your Novel, by Anne Perry

I agree with Alice from Alice in Wonderland: I don’t like a story that has no conversation.  But in what sort of language will your characters speak?  Will it be correct to the time and place of your story?  Well we can completely forget those set in ancient Egypt for a start, and countries where people speak a language other than our own.

The question really is, how about those who spoke our language (in my case only English, I’m afraid) but in a different period of time?  Vocabulary, references, even grammar change over a few years, never mind centuries.  And dialect changes from one area to another, over a very short distance in older countries.  And what do you do if your characters travel?

The choice is between being accurate and being understandable.  My belief is that if the reader doesn’t understand, if not exactly then at least approximately, then you will lose them.  Writing is, above all, an art of communication.  Some meanings can be guessed at.  In other places meaning doesn’t matter, it only adds colour, and if not understood will not spoil the story.  This might be the case with dialect words, and they can add a great deal of individuality to a setting or a character.  The same can be true of accent.  I suggest just a few altered sounds as enough to indicate difference.  You don’t want a reader stopping every few lines to try to work out what the word is.  Never break the spell, if you can help it.

Actually that just about sums it up.  If you confuse the reader or make them leave the story to look up a word, then it isn’t going to work.  You are trying to involve them, make them think and make them care.  You are not trying to confuse them and impress them with your scholarship.  If you want to do that, write a text book.

You need variation in vocabulary from one character to another.  Sometimes it takes a few re-writes to secure that – at least it does for me.  Some people use few words, some many.  People have favourite expressions, and so on.  (For heaven’s sake, don’t pepper it with ‘Gadzooks!’  or such phrases.  Did anybody ever say that?  With a straight face?)

The difficulty is to avoid neologisms, i.e. modern phrases we now use naturally, reference to events that have not yet happened, and the language that will come from them, inventions and discoveries not yet made, dishes not yet invented, music not yet written, countries not discovered (or re-named) fabrics and materials not invented – you get the drift.

I remember having someone’s heels click on linoleum – then wondering if it was even invented at the time, or, if it was, that it would be too new and expensive to be in the income level of the house I was referring to.  I looked it up and it was fine – but it might not have been.

My agent draws a little skull and crossbones sign on my manuscript where I have used a modern turn of phrase.  It happens now and then.  They are in my thoughts.  There is also the issue of modern grammar.  (There is no such word in English English (as opposed to American English and other forms of English) as ‘gotten’.  (Well-bred Victorians would say ‘I have’ rather than ‘I’ve got’.)

They are small things, a word here and there, but then an extra teaspoon of salt in your food is a small thing – but it ruins the flavour.  It is the sort of error you take care of when you re-write.  Polishing, tidying up can be fun.  Make it the best it can be.


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A Christmas HomecomingAcceptable LossSlaves of ObsessionThe William Monk Mysteries: The First Three Novels     Wounds of Honour: v. 1 (Empire)Quest

Writing Historical Novels

Location Research To Write Historical Novels, by Paul Dowswell

I’ve met historical novelists who are proud of the fact that they don’t go to visit the places they write about. If you can write successful books without having to do that, then good for you. Personally, I love to go to the places I’m researching. Walking the same streets as my characters helps me bring my stories alive.

A good ten years ago, when publishing advances were a lot more generous, I spent a wonderful two weeks in Australia, researching my book Prison Ship, about a boy sailor who is transported to New South Wales in 1801. I went in the middle of the Australian winter, when flights were at their cheapest. I stayed with a lovely lady who usually rented a spare room to academics. (A friend recommended the University of Sydney accommodation office, who were happy to put me on their books.) Staying with a local is much more sociable and a lot cheaper than a hotel. You have company and you can cook, which saves having to eat out on your own.

My landlady, Bobbie, also introduced me to friends who took me to see places I would never have thought to visit. Best of all, when I went to explore the bush outside Sydney, I spent a very anxious three or four hours completely lost and got a good four chapters out of that. I loved standing at the Rocks in Sydney at sunset trying to imagine what it would have been like two centuries before. A chat with a friendly lady in a bookshop led to an introduction to one of the curators at the New South Wales State Library who kindly volunteered to check my book for historical accuracy. 

For Powder Monkey and Battle Fleet, the first and third book of that same series (and for considerably smaller outlay), I visited HMS Trincomalee in Hartlepool and HMS Victory in Portsmouth. Just being aboard these surviving ships from 1800 was the best thing I could have done to get my imagination going. My trip to Trincomalee probably inspired a good quarter of the book, which is not bad for an afternoon’s nosing around.

I went to Moscow this time last year to research my latest book (due next year) and was surprised how cheap it was to go. It’s not a big tourist destination and going in October meant a modest outlay of around £250 for a return flight from the UK (if you’re from Britain you need to spend another £150 on a visa, too). Through friends of friends I also managed to find a family who were happy to have me to stay and that saved a fortune on Moscow’s infamously expensive and ramshackle hotels. Museums were fascinating but, not being a Russian speaker, I was unable to make use of libraries and archives. Still, being able to walk around the Kremlin, where my story is set, and the streets of central Moscow, was absolutely invaluable. A lovely woman I met there told me a fascinating story about her family that ended up providing a major plot twist in my novel.

Berlin is also somewhere I’ve visited to write about for my novels Auslander and Sektion 20, both set in the 20th Century. It wasn’t as expensive as I feared. I managed to stay with people who volunteered to rent an apartment or share theirs for one or two weeks. This was much cheaper than a hotel and, again, I saved a lot of money by cooking rather than eating out. When I shared an apartment on a second visit, my landlady introduced me to a friend who became the inspiration for the main character in my novel.

Berlin is also brilliant for libraries and archives. Almost all the librarians spoke English (handy for me as I know about three words in German) and many of the libraries had a very good supply of rare and very useful English language books. 

My own instinct is that any historical novel will be improved immensely and made considerably easier to write by a visit to its location. Being there will fire your imagination and give you leads you would never have had if you’d just stuck to library books.


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Powder Monkey: Adventures of a Young SailorPrison Ship: Adventures of a Young SailorAuslanderSektion 20     The SacrificeThe Tenth GiftThe Barbary Pirates: An Ethan Gage Adventure

Writing Historical Novels

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