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Posts from the ‘Historical novel research’ 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)

Writing Historical Novels


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

For a writer of historical fiction, period memoirs promise to be the ultimate primary source, a treasure trove of inspiration for a novel’s scenes and the language in which those scenes are couched. But memoirs are not always entirely reliable and need to be read with caution. It may be that what they do not mention is far more important than what they do. The Memoirs of Catherine the Great provide an illuminating example.

Catherine the Great started writing her memoirs a few times in her life, but none of these attempts were ever finished. The longest attempt and her final one – abandoned in 1794, two years before her death – begins with the following sentence: “Fortune is not as blind as people imagine. It is often the result of a long series of precise and well-chosen steps that precede events and are not perceived by the common herd….” To a careful reader, it quickly becomes quite clear that the memoirs themselves constitute one of these well-chosen steps. For what Catherine is giving us is not an act of confession – so popular in the 18th  century – but a carefully woven story produced by a savvy politician who knows what she wants.

I’ve read and re-read these memoirs many times in the course of doing research for my own novel and, every time I reach for them, I’m awed by the perfect pitch of Catherine’s reasoning and her guiding objectives. Her writing is lucid, straightforward, and logical. She assumes that the reader is familiar with the facts of her reign, so what she provides are the intimate details behind the facts and her thoughts, all carefully chosen to justify why she had the right, moral if not legal, to claim the Russian throne. Before we learn of her orderly habits, her work ethic, and her readings, she makes sure we learn that her late husband was inept, slovenly, and fond of drink. That instead of accepting the Orthodox religion as she did, he “took it into his head to dispute every point”. That he was childish and “resistant to all instruction”.

In contrast to Peter III, we read, Catherine II did everything to be a good wife to her inept husband and a loyal subject to empress Elizabeth Petrovna. Bit by bit she produces further evidence of his unstable character. Peter III, we learn, once executed a rat; he also tortured her, his long-suffering wife, with his fiddle playing. Incidentally – in a telling admission – Catherine also confesses to being tone deaf and finding all music to be an infernal noise.

Catherine presents further evidence of her credentials. She doesn’t spare the details of how she was mistreated – her aunt-in-law left her unattended after childbirth and refused to allow her to see her newborn son – but she also makes sure the reader knows she is not vindictive and doesn’t indulge in self-pity. Yes, she tells us, I was mistreated but I raised myself up and worked with whatever life brought my way. She makes sure we learn of her fortitude, her cheerful disposition, but most of all of her good sense and judgment. For this captivating account is Catherine’s way, not just to elicit our sympathy, but to sway us to her way of thinking. After putting the book down, the reader must be convinced that Catherine deserved to become empress because she was wise and enlightened, a just monarch who had the right to the absolute power she had seized.

Yet, as we read these memoirs we can see how Catherine writes herself into a corner. It soon becomes clear that no matter how enlightened, just, and reasonable she is, she cannot justify her husband’s murder. Yes, he was immature, silly, inept. But was he a threat? Was he the monster she wants us to see in him?

In the end Catherine gives up. The memoirs end in 1759, when she is still Grand Duchess and empress Elizabeth Petrovna is very much alive and in charge of the Russian court. The last few pages are notes for the subsequent chapter, ending with the following words: “… things took such a turn that it was necessary to perish with him, by him, or else to try to save oneself from the wreckage and to save my children, and the state.”

A tall order.

I can imagine her staring at these notes, wondering how on earth she is going to convince the reader that this was the case. And at the end abandoning the whole project altogether.


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The Winter Palace (a Novel of the Young Catherine the Great)Necessary LiesGarden of Venus     EquinoxTrue Soldier Gentlemen

Writing Historical Novels

Researching To Write A Historical Novel, by William Dietrich

Start with history, add your five senses, and conclude with heart and mind.

That’s my formula for researching to write a historical novel; a genre that requires a combination of accuracy and inventiveness. In the case of my Ethan Gage novels, I have a fictional American interacting amusingly with famous real people but I have to make it convincing.

The Ethan Gage novels move sequentially in real time, meaning that unlike a James Bond or Sherlock Holmes tale, we know what year it is. Ethan’s adventures are tied to the events of the day.

My first step, then, is to read general histories of the period and create a timeline for, say, 1803. What was happening, and where?

A decision is then made to send my hero on an adventure in a particular place. That means more reading of what was going on during that particular episode, plus biographies of people Ethan might meet there.

Some of this history, while impressively researched, is dull as told. I read boring books so you won’t have to. I take notes off the books of lively incidents, curious personalities, witty quotes, and colorful locales so only the ripest fruit can go into my novels.

From this I work up an outline. Since Ethan must plausibly affect history while remaining an outsider, and because I need a dramatic conclusion, I must map out the story to make he sure he can get from Point A to Point B by the recorded date in history.

I can invent, but only in the context of a real world with real events.

The research will continue as long as I am writing the novel. Answering new questions as the story progresses can be as simple as looking things up on Wikipedia to tracking down reprints of memoirs written centuries ago.

I try to travel to the places I write about. Museums, castles, forts and churches can be tremendously useful, as are photographs taken of the locale.

I’m also trying to find out how things look, sound, smell, taste and feel. Historical re-enactors can show me what a musket sounds like, kicks like, and how much gun smoke it generates. I can watch smiths, craftsmen, eat period foods, and study clothes. I’m reminded how big a horse is, and how smoky a hearth smells. Novel writing requires visualization, so I’m building a movie in my head.

Historical novels don’t require a ‘message’ but the biggest problem in writing a book is deciding what it’s about.

That’s where the heart and mind comes in. Part of researching is plumbing oneself. What would a key character desire? What would they feel in a historical situation? What would their actions mean about how we live our lives?

That’s what gives a novel depth. By thinking about a book so long, you begin to discern its meaning. You create a world that seems almost tangible.

Then, by the end, you’ve read enough to map out where the hero goes next.


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The Barbary Pirates: An Ethan Gage AdventureBlood of the ReichHadrian's Wall: A NovelNapoleon's Pyramids (Ethan Gage Adventure)     The Silver Eagle: (The Forgotten Legion Chronicles No. 2) (Forgotten Legion Chronicles)Auslander

Writing Historical Novels

Avoiding Anachronisms And Cliches In Historical Fiction, by Gary Worthington

Nothing can be more jarring when reading historical fiction than encountering a scene or event that’s obviously from a later time period or is just clearly inappropriate to the era involved.

Fortunately most serious writers are conscientious enough to do thorough research on the relevant time period. My own historical fiction to date has been set in India, and I’ve been meticulous about cultural and historical accuracy, sometimes almost to the point of obsession.

It’s fairly rare that I encounter something really significant in the work of other writers that’s clearly out of place, but it happens. The worse example I’ve seen personally was in a novel about the building of the Taj Mahal published a few years ago. The book had such major inaccuracies that I eventually had to stop reading it. The writer depicted an architect unrelated to the ruling families traveling on horseback around the Indian countryside alone with a Mughal princess, with a romance developing between the two. This was a major theme of the novel, and it absolutely could never have happened. In actuality, the Mughal rulers were Muslims and the women in their family were in purdah, strictly confined to separate living quarters and seen only by a very few men, who were close family members. If the women ever did travel outside the palaces, they were heavily guarded and were in curtained conveyances to keep them hidden from the eyes of others. Their seclusion was so strict that there are no known actual portraits of the women, only a relatively few imaginary depictions, unlike the male royalty whose likenesses were often shown in paintings.

Even the most minimal research by reading popular non-fiction books about the time period would have made these facts obvious, so there is no excuse for the extreme sloppiness in devising such a story and passing it off as historical fiction. There were other inaccuracies in the novel that could have easily been avoided with only slightly more research in readily available books about the building of the Taj.

If you’re tempted to take shortcuts in your research and think that no one will notice, you’re wrong. There are many readers who will spot even small inaccuracies and will call you on it. Now that it’s so easy to post reviews online, it’s even likely that your errors will be pointed out on Web sites and could well discourage others from reading the book.

In addition to avoiding factual inaccuracies, of course, there is the need to try to avoid word choices and stylistic choices that could be jarring to the reader and break the spell that you hope will be cast to draw the reader into your fictional world.

I think the easiest way to do this is to keep the language fairly “time-neutral” in terms of word choices. If a word or phrase sounds out of place in the narrative it should be avoided. Some actual examples from a story set in the 1700s that are clearly inappropriate: “The next item on the agenda…” and “What planet was your father living on?”

Obviously, never use modern slang. If you’re sure a slang word was actually in common use in the time period you’re writing about, it’s probably all right to incorporate it into your writing if it seems to fit the scene. Just be careful not to overuse it to the extent that the modern reader finds it jarring.

Writers naturally want to avoid cliches, but it’s amazing how easy it is for overused phrases to creep into a manuscript. I’ve found that in my own case it’s usually laziness that results in trite wording. Sometimes the scenes almost seem to be writing themselves, with the words flowing quickly onto the screen. This can be wonderful when it occurs, but it’s also a time when, rather than choosing language carefully, it’s easy to use phrases that we might speak without conscious thought in our typical every day conversations. A couple of examples from a story set in another culture the 1800s are, “like banging his head against a wall” and “the scene was something to behold.”

Another example in a tale set in the 1700s in an Asian country: “[The main character] had the good fortune…” That isn’t an extreme case, but it’s a little anachronistic sounding and stale wording. The same with the following in a 1700s story set in another culture: “And this was the second mortal blow.”

Sometimes even a word choice that’s factually “right” may not seem so to the reader. This is one of the many areas in which it’s crucial to have someone else read your work to give you unbiased feedback. I strongly recommend participating in a writing group that meets often, one in which the other members are knowledgeable about the basics of good writing and are mutually supportive in giving well-meant, helpful criticism on each other’s current work.


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     The Sultan's WifeA Secret AlchemyTreason at Lisson Grove: A Charlotte and Thomas Pitt NovelBetrayal

Writing Historical Novels

Month In Review (September 2013)

Writing Historical Novels has reached the end of its ninth month of articles from this year’s diverse line-up of historical novelists from the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Canada, India and Morocco.

Writing Historical Novels contributors Ben Kane, Emma Darwin, Anthony Riches and Paul Dowswell are each attached to two novel writing retreats in 2014 with Novel Writing Retreats Australia.

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

Articles for September 2013

Research Books And Inspiration For Historical Novels by Stephanie Cowell

Photographs, Ghosts And The Past In ‘The Mathematics Of Love’ by Emma Darwin

On First Person Narration In Historical Novels by Adrian Goldsworthy

Writing A Novel Series by Julian Stockwin

Why I Write Roman Historical Novels by Ben Kane

Family History And Historical Novels by Mary Nichols

Establishing Time And Place In Novel Scenes by Anne Perry

Real History And Plausibility In Historical Fiction by Anthony Riches

Detroit Mob Warfare In My Historical Novels by DE Johnson

On Women Of Nobility In 18th Century Russia by Eva Stachniak

The Hero’s Journey And Historical Novels by Michael White

On The Use Of Politically Correct Terms In Historical Fiction by Jane Kirkpatrick

Location Research For Writing Historical Fiction by Gary Worthington

Location Research In The Moroccan City Of Fez by Judith Cutler

Choosing An Era In Which To Set A Historical Novel by William Dietrich

Finding Inspiration In Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Kim’ by Timeri Murari

Finding A Unique Angle For A Historical Novel by Kathleen Benner Duble

Location Research To Write Historical Novels by Paul Dowswell


‘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

Research Books And Inspiration For Historical Novels, by Stephanie Cowell

I have been accumulating research books, or consulting them when they are very rare, since I first began to write historical novels. In the late 1980s we still had many used book shops in New York City with wood shelves too high to reach but by ladder, shelves often sagging with the weight of books and with that definite smell of wood, dust, old paper, old bindings. Each new book was an enchanted encounter.

I have published five historical novels and have more in draft than I’m willing to admit. Each began with a history book: a rare volume on Elizabethan London printed about 1894 with a red binding, which I found I don’t recall where; a biography with fragile pages of a 17th century English archbishop, which was waiting for me in a very small shop for very little money; a small book with leather covers and gilt-edged pages by Marcus Aurelius, discovered in a cold, empty New England book barn where there were tens of thousands of books and the footsteps of one lone browser…me; the original 1665 book on the early microscope by Robert Hooke (Micrographia) in the New York City Arents Collection; one of the thirteen extant copies of Shakespeare’s 1609 sonnets perused and almost wept over at Yale (was this William Shakespeare’s own copy perhaps?); and the rather astonishingly heavy Victorian Godey’s Lady Book printed in 1848, given to me by a friend, in the pages of which I found a sheath of very dry flowers and leaves, almost colorless (who pressed them there?).

I bought more books by catalogue in the 1990s: newer books but on rare subjects, such as a history of English workhouses or the Glastonbury Tor. I bought books on my travels. On my trip home from England I bought twenty-seven books. That was before the planes weighed your luggage or perhaps the weight allowance was higher. I gasped with delight when I found a map of Elizabethan London.

Then came the fabulous internet and every book I ever dreamed of waiting in some shop in Arkansas or the Cotswolds for me. I ordered How Shakespeare Spent the Day. I ordered an old book on the daily lives of French artists. Now my husband has given me a Kindle and I have found to my extreme delight a number of books on 1860’s Florence published in that time and all for free. One has a list of banks and food shops of the period and where you can hire a donkey cart.

When I finish a historical novel, what happens to the books? Well, I give some away sometimes. I truly recall giving several away which I had used for my Monet novel so I do not understand why a huge pile of them still weigh down the top of a file cabinet in the den. My books on the Brownings are scattered all over the house but my English history books are mostly in one whole shelf. Sometimes I wander from room to room touching the book spines. I hear the books murmuring softly, “When will you write me? There is a story waiting within my pages!”

I tell them, “Perhaps 2013 will be a good year for your story!” I know they are patient books, though they do grumble in their dusty way, and that they know that I truly love them and will come back.


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Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet     EquinoxAcceptable Loss

Writing Historical Novels

Month In Review (August 2013)

Writing Historical Novels has reached the end of its eighth month of articles from this year’s diverse line-up of historical novelists from the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Canada, India and Morocco.

Writing Historical Novels contributors Ben Kane, Emma Darwin, Anthony Riches and Paul Dowswell are each attached to two novel writing retreats in 2014 with Novel Writing Retreats Australia.

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

Articles for August 2013

Embodying The Past And The Present In Historical Novels by Emma Darwin

Writing Characters In Historical Novels by Adrian Goldsworthy

Connecting With The Past When Writing A Historical Novel by Stephanie Cowell

Developing An Idea For A Novel by Mary Nichols

Forming A Historical Mind-Set For Writing A Historical Novel by Julian Stockwin

Science And Technology In Historical Novels by Anne Perry

Writing My Novel ‘Spartacus: Rebellion’ by Ben Kane

Why Write Historical Novels? by William Dietrich

On My Love Of Fountain Pens by Anthony Riches

Using Memoirs And Letters When Researching For A Historical Novel by Eva Stachniak

The Second World War In Historical Novels by Paul Dowswell

Blending History And Fiction In Historical Novels by DE Johnson

Discovering While Researching To Write Historical Novels by Jane Kirkpatrick

Developing Original Plots From Historical Events by Gary Worthington

Writing The First Chapter Of A Historical Novel by Michael White

Titles For Aristocratic Characters In Novels by Judith Cutler

On My Relation To Indian History by Timeri Murari

Location Research In Morocco To Write A Novel by Jane Johnson

Researching To Write Historical Novels 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

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