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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.


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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

Writing Historical Novels

Researching The Trojan War For My Novels, by Glyn Iliffe

Research is all about getting a feel for the period, place and people you are writing about. Get the research right and not only will you convince your reader they’re in Byzantine Rome, Napoleonic France or the middle of the Korean War, you’ll convince yourself. As a writer, there are few feelings more uncomfortable than writing out of your depth, so having confidence in the characters and scenes you’re creating is essential.

It helps, when choosing the period you want to write about, to have a passion for it. This makes researching it a joy rather than a chore. If you love Jacobean Scotland reading about it will be easy and you’ll hoover up the facts; if you don’t, it’ll be hard work and the little details won’t stick. It’ll show in your writing. That isn’t to say you can only write about eras you’re familiar with. A basic fascination with history should be enough to drive research for a book about the past.

There’s also the old adage write what you know. If you intend to pen a novel set during a specific period in history, having a baseline to build on will serve you well. This can be a simple interest fuelled by years of reading around the subject. Such interests are often sparked in childhood, perhaps from listening to granddad’s war stories or watching films on TV. My love of the ancient world started with Jason and the Argonauts and Spartacus, and re-enacting the battles with my Airfix Romans.

The single greatest advantage I had in writing books about the Trojan War was studying Classics at university. Being steeped in a topic for three years is invaluable. You feed off the knowledge of others – from lectures, seminars, books and commentaries – and are surrounded by people who share your passion. All that exposure to a single topic gives you more than just head knowledge. It leaves you with an instinct for your subject. The same deep appreciation is gained by those in re-enacting societies or other historical focus groups.

Whether you have a deep knowledge of the period you want to write about, or just plenty of enthusiasm for a new era in history, you’ll need to establish that feel for period, place and people that I mentioned at the start. When I planned my series of books on the Trojan War, as seen through the experiences of Odysseus, I had already studied Homer and Greek mythology in detail at university. So, from the perspective of retelling the Trojan myths in a single narrative, I re-read many of the texts I was familiar with and tried to come up with ways of bringing the disparate sources together. I also looked at modern summaries of the legends – Robert Graves’s Greek Myths was particularly useful for this – to give me an overview.

This helped me to form the structure of the story and plan all six books in the series. Next came my research about the Bronze Age itself. This was not something I had studied in detail as part of my degree course, so the first thing I did was to look for books that would provide a good historical outline of the period. The best was Michael Wood’s In Search of the Trojan War: a well-written, readily digestible introduction to the available information about the era. From here I was able to follow threads into specific areas of importance for the story I wanted to tell, such as details about sailing, agriculture, religious practice etc.

One point of note here is my reliance on books, rather than the internet, for research. Personally, I think that taking the time to read a book pays dividends in increasing your understanding of a subject or period. This is because books form structured arguments that explore topics in depth, usually backing themselves up with references and evidence. Internet research, on the other hand, frequently involves a trawl of different sources, sometimes with conflicting viewpoints and often based on conjecture or personal opinion. Where the internet comes up trumps, I find, is when topping up research that has already been carried out – a quick fact here and there, useful images or just for refreshing something half-forgotten.

Another important – and enjoyable – aspect of research is to travel to the places you are writing about. This isn’t always an affordable luxury, but I think a book benefits hugely if the writer has visited the place he or she is depicting. Although I have taken a few liberties with my depictions of Ithaca, Delphi and the Peloponnese (based partly on the fact they would have looked different three thousand years ago), having been there, smelled the air, felt the warm wind on my cheek and seen the sun setting over the mountains is something that has helped me to fix those places in my imagination.

Finally, despite advocating the benefits of research, there are a few get-out clauses when writing about the Trojan War. The first is mentioned above, namely that the physical geography of places is very different now to then. Second is that historical facts about the Bronze Age are still limited, in spite of the achievements of archaeologists in recent years, so you’re not writing in a strait jacket – there’s room for a bit of imagination. Another is that what we know about the Trojan War comes from myth, which by its nature goes against the factual approaches of history and archaeology. The most celebrated source of these myths is Homer, who is known for being a mismatch of different eras. So if a Classical era temple suits your needs more than a Bronze Age cave, then you can always say you’re just being “Homeric”!


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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

On Book Trailers, by Kathleen Benner Duble

I love movies. I love going to the movies rather than watching a movie at home. In the movie theater, you are surrounded by the darkness and the big screen looms large in front of you. At home, there are phone calls, chores, kids and other things to distract me. In the theater, I have nothing to divert my attention. I am completely and wholly present. So I am sure you can guess that when I go to the movies, I have to be there for the previews. I want to see all the trailers, all the upcoming attractions that may divert me for a few hours in the future.

Movie trailers work for me. They draw me in and encourage me to see the movie. Do book trailers work, too?

There has been a lot of speculation on whether book trailers are an effective marketing tool. I don’t have the answer. That said, I know there are many books I have picked up because I liked what I had seen­ – not what I had heard. I read The Missing by Margaret Peters Haddix because of her amazing trailer. I have picked up Girl Stolen by April Henry because her trailer scared me half to death.

I also believe that there are a few elements that will make a book trailer work and a few that will make it flop. So here goes:

1. No book trailer video should be over a minute and a half. Unlike the Hollywood trailers, you are NOT making a movie. You have made a book. So your trailer should be short and to the point – like your writing.

2. Summarize your book quickly and creatively. You are a writer. This is what you do best. It amazes me when I see a book trailer and the writer has practically written a second novel for the trailer. I am NOT interested in reading the book on a video. Give me a quick synopsis. If you can do it, three sentences or less. Make your words sing and get me interested fast!!!! As an example, see my trailer for Phantom in the Snow at

3. Borrow footage from someone who can shoot. We are not moviemakers, so as writers, we have to rely on people who are. Professional videographers are often happy to lend their outtakes as long as you give them credit. In Phantoms, Jeff Thomas, who does extreme skiing video footage, kindly lent me his outtakes. They were far better than anything I could have done.

4. Don’t put faces in there if you can avoid it. Readers like to envision characters on their own. Good looks are relative. And if you chose a face unwisely, you may lose readers. Leave the imagining of your characters to them.

In this crazy world of book marketing, I believe book trailers have their place. They may not be the most effective tool in your arsenal but they are a tool that can be useful just the same.


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QuestThe Sacrifice     Motor City ShakedownThe Barbary Pirates: An Ethan Gage Adventure

Writing Historical Novels

Historical Novels You Shouldn’t Miss, by Gary Worthington

In a current literary climate that tends to emphasize the latest works, it can be easy to forget that so many good historical novels were published years ago. They may no longer be prominently displayed in your local bookstore but they’re still definitely worth seeking out and reading.

This is likely my last posting in this series, so I wish you the best of luck. I’m always on the lookout for additional unique, well done historical fiction, so I look forward to seeing your own published work!

Here are a few historical novels that have inspired me over the years. I learned something about writing from each, and I’d bet that you will too.

Balogh, Mary. Truly. 1996. An historical romance set in 1840s Wales. The hero returns after a ten year absence to claim his estate but finds that his tenants hate him because of his ruthless managers. He takes up the cause of the tenants and the poor in general by assuming the disguised role of “Rebecca,” who leads the peasantry in various acts of rebellion against the power of the gentry. The romantic details and complications are sometimes from stock romance fiction, but those flaws are more than compensated for by an exciting plot with plenty of suspense.

Barber, Noel. Sakkara. 1984. A novel of 20th Century Egypt, narrated by the son of a wealthy  British envoy growing up in Cairo and in love with an Egyptian neighbor’s daughter who is promised to his brother. Impressive for the detail and flavor of the times and Egypt’s struggle for independence.

Brooks, Geraldine. Year of Wonders. 2001. Realistic-feeling experiences of the inhabitants of an English village that quarantines itself during a period of bubonic plague in 1665. Narrated by a young widow and mother, the challenges and suffering of the residents result in compelling reading with an added dimension of religious conflict.

de Bernieres, Louis. Birds Without Wings. 2004. Outstanding depictions of villagers and their daily lives in Turkey during a challenging period of change at the beginning of the 20th Century and World War I. A remarkable cast of strong characters, all very different, with encounters between ethnic Greeks and Armenians and Muslim Turks.

Grieseman, John. Signal & Noise. 2003. Epic in scope, depicting influential engineers, inventors, and entrepreneurs during major events in the 1850-60s such as laying the first trans-Atlantic cable and solving London’s “Great Stink” with drainage and sewers. Some minor flaws in that characters’ motivations aren’t always entirely clear and shifting points of views can slow momentum. But still impressively done.

Harris, Robert. Pompeii. 2003. A young roman aqueduct engineer goes to Pompeii in AD 79 to try to restore water flow to the nearby cities, where he faces mystery and danger culminating in the massive eruption of the volcano. A romance element and the excessive power of a newly wealthy man seem somewhat improbable, but on the whole the work is suspenseful and intriguing.

Mackin, Jeane. Dreams of Empire. 1996. Mystery novel of the Napoleonic occupation of Egypt, with a French woman artist heroine and her philanderer husband accused of trying to poison Napoleon. The pursuit of a major artifact from the time of Alexander the Great adds to the adventure. Excellent for the flavor of the time and romance and intrigue.

Michener, James A. The Source. 1965. This huge tome, a bestseller in its time, firmly established the template (similar to that of Michener’s earlier Hawaii) for that author’s later historical novels and for those of James Rutherfurd. It also was the inspiration for the format of my own India Treasures and India Fortunes. A series of novellas set in various historical periods let the reader experience an overview of the historical evolution of the land that is now Israel. The stories are focused especially on the site of the ruins of a fictional ancient town, and the excavations of the various layers by an archaeological team in the 20th Century tie together the tales from the earlier eras. Not a fast read, but well worth the investment of time for an understanding of the roots of this area of the Middle East.

Rufin, Jean-Christophe. The Abyssinian. 1999. Translated from French. In 1699 the young hero is sent on a mission from Egypt to Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) to establish a French mission there despite the ruler being hostile to Westerners. The lowborn hero also hopes for success so he can win the hand of the French consul’s daughter. Though somewhat heavy on narrative, the extensive details of caravan life and of sights on the route and in the capital are impressive.

Wood, Barbara. Virgins of Paradise. 1993. Novel of women in a wealthy Egyptian family living in a huge joint family house and gardens in Cairo. Excellent for the details of life in a Muslim household from the women’s perspective, and how the changing political climate severely impacts the family over half a century.


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

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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

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