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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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Tim Willocks’s author website: www.timwillocks.com

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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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Paul Dowswell’s author website: www.pauldowswell.co.uk

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Getting Dates And Details Right In Historical Novels, by Kathleen Benner Duble

Accuracy is critical for historical novels. As historical fiction writers for young children, that job is even more crucial ‐ kids will take your written word about life in the past as facts.

But even when you’ve done intensive research for your book, just the slightest change in a date can affect all that groundwork. The exact, and I mean exact dates you choose for your story will determine what your character wears, what he eats, who she knows and what items they use in their daily lives.

When I was in the process of revising my book, Bridging Beyond, my editor and I decided to change the year my character encounters her grandmother from 1925 to 1927. The book went to the copy editor who immediately picked up a mistake that arose from the change. In the book, the Grandmother makes a suggestion to my main character that she and her friends go to California and try to meet the great Rudolph Valentino. But Rudolph Valentino died in 1926. In moving the setting of my novel by just two years, I had created an historical inaccuracy in my work.

Currently, I am in the process of doing research on the medieval period. In doing the research, it is tempting to lump all the information I have discovered about the period into one big medieval vat. Unfortunately, the Middle Ages covered a vast amount of time, specifically from 500 to 1500 AD. During that period, there were a great many changes. For instance, before 1330, clothes were practical. They hung loosely from your neck. The types of fabric you wore rather than the cut of the cloth determined your rank and status. But after 1330, clothing became more distinctive in terms of style. Tailored sleeves allowed clothing to be form-fitting and unique in look, and it became the design of the clothes rather than the fabric it was made from that indicated your wealth. So depending on when I set my story, the clothes my characters will wear will be greatly affected.

Say that you want to write a novel set in 1832. Your character is a sea captain, moving molasses from the Caribbean to Canada. You research the 1800’s and begin to write your novel. Below are some things you’ll need to consider:

In 1832, your character could have used a typewriter to type up the notes about his journey while captaining his vessel, but he couldn’t have used Morse Code to send a message if his ship got into trouble. Morse Code wasn’t invented until 1838. Your character could have had a stethoscope used on him at the doctor’s office when he went to have the chest cough he’d picked up on his recent voyage looked into, but he would not have encountered a dental chair when he needed to get the toothache he got on his travels resolved.

So think about the examples above when picking the date of your novel. Being sure your facts are date-correct can be a laborious task but it is a job that we, as historical novelists, are bound to uphold.

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Kathleen Benner Duble’s author website: www.kathleenduble.com

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Fact And Fiction In Historical Novels, by Michael White

A major question any writer addresses before they start to write any form of historical fiction is: How accurately do I wish to portray past events?

There is a wide spectrum of approaches to writing novels set in past times. Some authors deliberately avoid including real historical figures and documented events, whilst others use personalities and circumstances drawn accurately from the pages of historic accounts as central pillars of their stories.

In each case, the author has to create an authentic world, so if you choose to populate your novel with characters only of your imagining and make almost no reference to people who really lived it remains your responsibility to detail the world you are describing as accurately as possibly or you cannot hope to convince anyone to suspend their innate sense of disbelief. Without such discipline and rigor historical fiction slips into a different genre altogether; it becomes fantasy.

A great proponent of the style of historical fiction based on impeccably drawn real personalities leavened with purely imaginary characters is the British author, CJ Sansom. In his series of historical detective novels set in mid-sixteenth century London and featuring the fictional lead character, Matthew Shardlake, he offers up a world of minutely detailed reality built upon careful research. Sansom clearly set out to write a series of novels rooted in precise verisimilitude.

You may well ask: where is the fun in this? Isn’t the author giving us a non-fiction book disguised as a novel? This is far from the truth. Sansom’s books are packed with exciting action and they rattle along like a Fleming or a Dan Brown, but at the same time the world in which the author immerses you is so well portrayed it adds to the enjoyment and gives it intellectual depth.

The secret behind this is that CJ Sansom and other writers of historical fiction (myself included) enjoy the best of both worlds. Sansom incorporates Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, Richard Rich and other historical figures with his imagined protagonists and heroes. At various times I have drawn in Newton, Cosimo de’ Medici, Lucrezia Borgia and Jack the Ripper, along with fictional good guys and bad guys. The result is pace and menace, excitement and plot dynamics but also intellectual satisfaction. The latter comes from the fact that if you research and write well you will convince the reader; they will have confidence in your words and they will learn something from your novel as well as be entertained by it.

Of course, all of this does not mean historical novels that avoid reality are second rate; far from it. Writing a book set in a past time but populated solely with fictional characters may be every bit as entertaining as a novel that also involves those who appear in history books, but they will, by their very nature, not provide quite such a multi-faceted experience for the reader, and they will probably not satisfy a large proportion of readers – those who buy and read historical fiction not just to be entertained but also to learn something about a past time.

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Michael White’s author website: www.michaelwhite.com.au

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How Fictional Can Historical Novels Get? by William Dietrich

Novelists make things up. This is not too shocking unless the novelist is writing historical fiction. Then there are reader expectations of fidelity to fact, and you have to decide what kind of historical fiction you’re writing.

Can the South be allowed to win the American Civil War? It does in Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove, who has a doctorate in history.

Can Hitler win World War II? He does in Robert Harris’s Fatherland. In Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America Charles Lindbergh becomes president of the United States and starts anti-Semitic programs.

Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, in contrast, is a recounting of the battle of Gettysburg that is fictional only in that it goes into the minds of the generals involved. Colleen McCullough’s Rome series adheres closely to well-known history. Hilary Mantel’s Tudor trilogy based on the life of minister Thomas Cromwell is meticulously researched.

I gauge my realism by the circumstances of the story I want to tell. Hadrian’s Wall revolves around a barbarian attack in 367 AD but we know almost nothing about it, leaving ample room for invention. The Scourge of God, about Attila the Hun, uses many more real characters and battles because his campaign against the West is better documented. So little is known about Hunnish culture, however, (a single room of artefacts in the Hungarian National Museum) that I found myself extrapolating from horse cultures ranging from the Mongols to the Plains Indians.

My Ethan Gage series of Napoleonic adventures puts a fictional American adventurer in the midst of real history and people. I try to make the details accurate, down to quoting what the principal people really said, but Ethan’s quests involving ancient mysteries are inventive, and his use of technology is speculative.

Did Robert Fulton really invent a submarine called Nautilus, as recounted in The Barbary Pirates? Yes. Was it used against said pirates, as in my novel? No. Was it great fun to write about, and hopefully to read about? You bet.

So what’s the rule?

To tell a good story that is entertaining and instructive.

Even the wildest fantasies have some foundation in fact. Lord of the Rings is grounded in Tolkien’s medieval scholarship, and Game of Thrones in the War of the Roses. Asimov’s science fiction Foundation series was based on the fall of the Roman Empire, even though it was set in space. Dracula goes back to Vlad the Impaler, and Frankenstein to Jewish legends of creating artificial men called Golems. The more fantastic the tale, the more it benefits from being grounded in reality to help the reader suspend disbelief.

History allows interpretation. Kenneth Roberts used Benedict Arnold as his key character in Arundel and Rabble in Arms but made him an underappreciated hero instead of a future traitor.

Strict adherence to real people and events is no more “serious” than invention to fit one’s theme, but it does carry clear advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is not having to invent as much and achieve a high degree of realism. The disadvantage is that human motivations are often murky in real history and so the novelist takes on the same burdens of the historian in seeking to explain what sometimes seems inexplicable.

The bottom line is that the entire spectrum from strict adherence to the record to fantastic invention has been successful. Whichever you choose, you’re in good company.

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William Dietrich’s author website: www.williamdietrich.com

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Researching For Historical Novels, by William C Hammond (guest article)

As time-consuming and demanding a process as historical research can sometimes be (a writer wants to write, right?), it is a critically important component of writing a true historical novel.  Data confirms that people read fiction primarily for entertainment and for an escape, but they read historical fiction also to learn about history: their own country’s history or the history of some specific place. So in a real sense the author of historical fiction becomes a teacher of history, the “fiction” part notwithstanding, and as a teacher, the author must endeavor to be as accurate as possible about the historical era he or she is writing about, as well as the definitions and terms associated with that era.  Certainly there is room for creative license – what drives the novel and maintains reader interest is, after all, an engaging plot – and historical research does become less vigorous in a novel that is set in history (for example, Harper Lee’s epic To Kill a Mockingbird set in early 20th century Alabama) as opposed to one that is steeped in history (the novels of Bernard Cornwell, for example, or those of Philippa Gregory).

I research my novels in the Cutler Family Chronicles primarily by reading books, some of them published more than a century ago. Because there are real historical figures in my novels – for example, John Paul Jones, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Horatio Nelson, and Thomas Jefferson – I read a great deal about them, not only published biographies but also, whenever possible, their personal journals. The log that Captain Jones kept in Bonhomme Richard is but one example.  I doubt one can find a Kindle Edition of that title or many of the other titles I have read in the course of doing my research.  And the Internet is a wonderful source for research, especially in providing photographs, videos, or line-drawings of people and places and ships.  I have toured USS Constitution in Boston perhaps twenty times. She is an absolutely gorgeous ship, as awe-inspiring in her own way as is HMS Victory in Portsmouth, England.  While I am living here in Minneapolis, more than 1,500 miles away from where she is moored at the Charlestown Navy Yard, I can take a virtual tour of her anytime I choose simply by turning on my computer.

This brings up the interesting question of whether or not an author should travel extensively for the purpose of doing research.  While traveling to an exotic spot such as Tahiti or Bora Bora in order to be “on locale” has its appeal – and while U.S. tax laws still oblige authors with generous tax deductions in this area -– I personally do not believe such travel is required in our modern age. For example, I have never been to any of the West Indian islands featured prominently in my novels. But I have bought travel books of these islands, and I have studied a great deal about their customs, and their flora and fauna, and their physical terrain.  When combined with photographic spreads readily available on the Internet, such “in home” research usually does the job.  After A Matter of Honor was published in 2007, a reader wrote to tell me that my alluring descriptions of Barbados and Tobago had convinced him and his fiancée to honeymoon there.  He later wrote to tell me of the places they had visited on the islands that matched my descriptions – and to thank me for directing him and his bride to the lagoon with the waterfall where the love-scene in chapter 14 takes place!

An author never knows when good historical research will pay off.  Another letter I received after A Matter of Honor was published was from a gentleman named Tom Mayrant.  He wrote to thank me for how I portray his great-great-grandfather John Mayrant in the novel, serving as midshipman in Bonhomme Richard.  He told me it was as though I had actually met his ancestor!  (A heavy dose of luck was involved, of course, since there is precious little about John Mayrant in the historical record.)

The opposite, of course, is also true.  When you get something wrong, no matter how picayune it may appear to be, readers will let you know about it.  As well they should, especially if they have paid good money to read what you wrote.

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William C Hammond’s author website: www.bill-hammond.com

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Historical Novels: Fact And Fiction, by Stephanie Cowell

“How much is real? What is true?” I always hear these questions when I speak about my novels. I try to give an overall view. I say, “We can’t know what great people said behind the closed bedroom door,” and they all nod modestly in agreement.

It was a rather terrifying moment in my writing life. I had been asked to read from my novel Marrying Mozart at a scholarly conference: the Mozart Society of America. Here were a group of people who had dedicated their lives to studying aspects of Mozart’s life and music. (One or two were so scholarly that I have no idea what they were saying!) I got up rather tremulously and decided to be honest. I told them, “Thank you for all your hard work. I take your work, mix it with a little imagination and turn it into fiction.” And to great surprise, they loved the scenes I read.

So is what the historical novelist writes fact or fiction? “Both,” I say. “In a sensitive, creative, respectful and sometimes daring combination.”

Many years ago, I had dinner in Oxford with the great Elizabethan scholar Dr. A.L. Rowse. There I confessed to him that I wanted to write Elizabethan historical fiction but felt shy about making up dialogue. His eyes widened and he said, “But of course you have to make it up!” That was my blessing to go forward and I was happy to dedicate one of my novels to him.

“But what is historical fiction?” people also ask and I reply, “It’s fiction based on history.” More, it is a dramatic piece and must tell an interesting, hopefully gripping story. To do that it must have a plot and dramatic highlights; it must not be repetitive or meander. Real lives do both. You must trim and shape real life into fictional form.

Shakespeare wrote historical fiction in his history plays. Some people have never forgiven him for making Richard III an evil guy, but Shakespeare was writing under the reign of the granddaughter of the man who dethroned Richard, so he shaped his character to something that would please her. He also has Henry V cry passionately before the Battle of Agincourt, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends!” In real life Henry might have said, “My boots hurt,” but it would not be as memorable and not nearly as stirring.

We find facts in history books; we find living truth in historical fiction. And if a reader is introduced to an area of the past or a great historical figure she loves through fiction, she can always turn back to the work of historians. Nothing makes me happier as an author than to hear that I have made some part of history as real to readers as if they were transported to that time. I wanted to live then as well. It is because I love some periods of the past and certain people who lived within them so much that I became a writer.

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Stephanie Cowell’s author website: www.stephaniecowell.com

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