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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)

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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Random Thoughts About Writing Historical Novels, by Stephanie Cowell

This is my twelfth and last blog post for Writing Historical Novels. I have been so very happy to contribute to it and hope that my journeys in writing have added something to yours. So I’d like to conclude with a few random thoughts about technique, inner purpose and this profession of ours. I am writing to myself as much as to you.

ONE: THOUGHTS ON WHERE AND HOW YOU SET YOUR SCENES. As much as possible, set your scenes in a different place or, if in the same place, in a different time of day. Somewhere in my drafts I make a list of all the places a character could go so that as the plot is going forward and the characters deepening, we are also touring their world a little.  In my novel Claude & Camille I have at least 20-30 settings in Paris or its suburbs alone: his studio, her parent’s expensive flat in Paris Ile St. Louis, the Pont Neuf bridge, a crowded restaurant, a café, his bedroom, a bookshop, art galleries, museums, the art studio, the streets, etc.  In this way I show their whole world. You could also change something in the room: make it emptier, or more crowded, or make something missing.

TWO: CHARACTER BUILDING. I find this thought on building a character invaluable. It is by Donald Maass from his book Writing the Breakout Novel. “Every protagonist needs a tortuous need, a consuming fear, an aching regret, a visible dream, a passionate longing, an exquisite lust, an inner lack, a fatal weakness, an irresistible plan, a noble idea and an underlying hope.” Since I found this a few novels ago, I ask these questions for every protagonist I create. It helps to make them real. I make lists and fill in the answers.

THREE: BUILD MYSTERY INTO YOUR NOVEL. Even if it is not a mystery, withhold certain information for suspense. End every single scene with the reader wondering what will happen next. I especially used this technique in my novel Marrying Mozart, which is written from six points of view, with the central question of which of the four sisters will marry Mozart.

FOUR:  MY OWN PERSONAL CREED ABOUT WRITING HISTORICAL NOVELS. A great deal of writing a novel is slowly discovering its innumerable parts and depths and colors and place and people and moving them around with joy and deep fascination to lay them out in the most compelling way it can be told. Then you slowly reveal it in drafts, paragraph by paragraph, deepening and moving order and revelation until it finally falls together in a perfect form for the reader to enter the story and live there. You discover novels more than write them.

FIVE: GIVE YOURSELF A ROUND OF APPLAUSE. I notice that we novelists never give ourselves enough credit for what we are doing. I have met hundreds of people who sigh and say, “If only I could write a novel!” Then they say, “Oh, but I have no time,” or something like this. Most of you have probably written novels or great parts of one. That is hard to do and takes a lot of discipline.

SIX: ON WRITING CAREERS. There are enormous writing careers and tiny ones. There are books which sell hugely and are lost in time. There are great writers who saw little of their work sell and then are discovered. Nobody can write just as you do. Dig deep into your heart. Most of us want bigger, grander careers. Some of us get them. Most of us have more modest ones. No one can write your novel as you can. The work of writers with both kinds of careers gives enormous pleasure to readers.

SEVEN: MY THREE FAVORITE WRITING BOOKS. Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner.

EIGHT: BRING THE PAST TO LIFE. Put a map of London 1800 on your wall or whatever time or place you wish. Live there and come back to our time bringing us your novel of the people you knew and the things you came to love so we can love them too.


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Recommended ‘Age Of Sail’ Reference Books, by Julian Stockwin

It was hard to make a selection from the vast range of wonderful titles out there, but here’s a clutch I plucked from my shelves that I think aspiring writers of historical naval fiction might find useful.

Seamanship in the Age of Sail by John Harland 

Harland’s work came out in 1984, and is a classic of its type. Every aspect of handling a man-of-war is detailed and illustrated with superb line drawings. A definitive guide as to how the ships were actually sailed.

The Seafaring Dictionary by David Blackmore 

This book is an alphabetical compendium of more than 9000 nautical terms covering the earliest days of seafaring right up to the twenty-first century.

Nelson’s Navy in Fiction & Film by Sue Parrill

Parrill has written a comprehensive guide to depictions of British sea power in the Napoleonic era. The book provides summaries and analyses of more than 250 novels and nearly 30 films and also examines the extent to which they  reflect the history, mores and manners of the period.

Falconer’s Marine Dictionary by William Falconer 

One of the enduring classics that have come down to us from Nelson’s time, wonderfully recreated from the original in its full detail. It contains marine technology, data on technical aspects of shipbuilding, fitting and armaments, and the Navy’s administrative and operational practices.

Empire of the Seas by Brian Lavery  

This book, produced to accompany a BBC television series, tells the story of how the Royal Navy expanded from a tiny force to become the most complex industrial enterprise on earth. Gloriously illustrated, the book explores themes such as the Navy’s relationship with the State and the British people and the tactics and initiatives that created such decisive sea victories.

Naval History of Great Britain by William James  

A comprehensive six-volume set that covers the operation of the Royal Navy during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

Nelson’s Navy; The Ships, Men and Organisation, 1793-1815 by Brian Lavery  

This work, written over ten years ago (and reprinted many times), deservedly remains a classic. Beginning with a background on the wars with France and naval administration, Lavery covers the design and construction of ships, training and organisation of officers and men and life at sea.

Nelson’s Ships by Peter Goodwin 

Written by the former Keeper and Curator of HMS Victory this is a superb history of all the vessels in which Nelson served from 1771 to 1805. Referring the ships’ logs, Goodwin also gives a fascinating insight into the reality of life at sea in the Georgian Navy.

Maritime Power and the Struggle for Freedom by Peter Padfield 

Padfield’s illuminating book charts the epic struggle between Great Britain and revolutionary and  Napoleonic France, revealing both the hidden forces beneath the  surface of events and the strategies and battle tactics which ensured  Britain’s final victory.


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On The Craft Of Writing A Novel, by Adrian Goldsworthy

Writing is a craft.  Inspiration and the ability to dream up a story are both essential, but the creation of a good historical novel – or any piece of writing – requires you to use words well.  The only way to hone this skill is to write frequently.  In many ways it does not matter too much what you write about.  Simply try to learn by a willingness to experiment and rewrite any piece of work, honing it gradually to make it better.  I have learned something about the craft of writing from my non fiction histories, and have aimed to make each one an improvement on the last in terms of style and structure.  When I came to try writing fiction, this did give me an established routine, as well as an idea of how to proof read, check and self-edit so that you can send a better prepared manuscript to the publisher.  In turn, writing novels has improved the pace and storytelling style of my non fiction.  Many journalists write novels and often do well because they already have this background of using words and writing to deadlines.

Yet writing a novel is a different thing to either media work or non fiction history, and such experience is a help, but also can be a hindrance.  My first efforts at an historical novel had far too many long passages that boiled down to little more than description of a scene – fine for straight history, but killing off the pace and weakening the story.  Some description is good, but a novel should read like a novel and not a history book.  So sometimes you have to change your approach quite drastically.  In a novel the characters need to do and say a lot more.  You also need to be far clearer about the good old ‘point of view’ – essentially from whose perspective we are ‘seeing’ a scene.

Try to help the reader as much as possible.  At a basic level this is a question of thinking about how easy the book will be to read.  So think about things like the lengths of sentences and paragraphs, and of chapters.  If someone is reading as they commute to work they are more likely to start a new chapter that is ten pages long than one that is thirty or so.  On the whole, keeping things fairly short helps the pace of the story, allowing readers to read more quickly, and so making it more likely that they will become involved with the story and want to read on.  On the other hand it is better not to make it look too regular with everything of the same sort of length.  The look of each page is also important.  Paragraph after paragraph of description can blur into one.  A mixture of short and long sentences and paragraphs, and particularly the insertion of dialogue in and around the description and action will read better.

All of these things you learn by experimentation and experience.  Planning your story is fine and often well worth while, but it is a rare author who will plan absolutely everything before they sit down and start to write.  As the months and years pile up and you are still planning and researching it will become harder and harder to sit down and begin writing.  It is far better to start writing something, even if it is very rough.  It is easy to change it and may even find that you reject the whole thing and start again, but having to think about the story and characters in a concrete way will have helped you to think it all through far more than simply planning and musing over it.

You can also learn from other people’s experience by taking a look at whatever you are reading and looking at how they lay things out and tell the story.  Even more importantly, at some stage get a few people to read your work.  They need to be honest, and you need to be prepared to accept criticism of your cherished work, however much this may – and almost certainly will – sting.  People who come fresh to a story will react to it in a very different way to its creator.  Remember that you have spent a very long time living with this story and it will all seem clear to you.  It is extremely valuable to get a response from someone who does not know who the characters are or what they are doing.  After all, you will always know what you MEANT to say, and that can make it very hard to check your own work and see whether or not this is clear to the reader.  (As an aside, reading the text out loud can be a more effective way of checking your own work than reading it silently because it forces you to pay more attention to each word).

Practise, think about words and layout, and be prepared to be utterly ruthless in changing your work, rejecting passages if they do not need to be there.  This can be hard, as it is easy to become fond of particular scenes or bits of dialogue.  Constructive criticism is of great value, and a good editor who understands what you are trying to do is priceless.  All of us have to learn, and it is wise to take advantage of advice from others.  That does not mean that you have to accept absolutely every suggested change, only that you should only reject them if you are absolutely convinced that it is vital to leave things as they are.  In the end, it is important to write your book in your way.


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True Soldier GentlemenBeat the Drums SlowlySend Me Safely Back Again     The Winter Palace (a Novel of the Young Catherine the Great)The Keeper of SecretsHannibal: Enemy of RomeThe Sultan's Wife

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On Promoting Yourself And Your Books, by Julian Stockwin

Your book won’t sell itself. Publishers vary in the time and money they devote to individual authors. However much or little they do, you need to promote yourself and your work at every opportunity.


A website is vital. You can do this yourself or pay to have one set up.  My website is

Once you have a website make sure it is up to date. There is nothing worse than looking someone up to find their website hasn’t been touched in some time and the information is not current.

Websites vary from showing just basic information on work published to quite detailed sites with loads of material designed to enhance readers’ enjoyment of an author’s work. It’s really a matter of time and budget but I would say invest as much of both in your website as you can.

Social networks

I have a presence on Facebook and on Twitter. There are also a number of other sites available, such as Pinterest.

It does take time to participate but a social network presence is expected these days. However, it is important not to have too much focus on the hard sell in these. If people are attracted to your ideas and comments on the world at large or little snippets of personal gossip, then hopefully they will want to take a look at your work. A good rule of thumb is 80% personal stuff, 20% information about your books. Social networks really are quite fun to be involved with.

Blogs and newsletters

Consider a blog. It can be part of your website or a stand alone. My blog is BigJules.

I used to publish a monthly newsletter. Why not write your own newsletter focusing on your particular period of interest? You need to think of how you will distribute the newsletter. I used and for a small annual fee they would send it out each month.

Bookmarks and postcards 

These are a fairly inexpensive way of spreading the word out and you can hand them out at signings and give to friends and family to pass on.


Cultivate local bookstores. Whenever I am in a new town I pop into the bookstore and offer to leave some bookmarks and postcard. Usually the store will ask me to sign copies of any of my books that they have in stock.


Libraries are also great ambassadors of your work and are usually on the lookout for speakers. I have a special Library Pack available on request.


I personally answer every email from readers. This does take time but I feel that if someone has gone to the trouble to read my book and then contact me they deserve a personal reply. You can also add a “signature” at the end of your emails with special announcements about your next book or upcoming events.


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Writing Historical Novels

Historical Settings And Novel Writing, by Emma Darwin

One March morning a few years ago, while I was writing A Secret Alchemy, I got up earlier than I consider altogether decent for a Saturday, in order to drive to Hampton Court to do some research. It was cold and grey, with dull light and a nasty east wind, and there was scarcely anyone about except for security people with their coats buttoned up to their chins and an air of bracing themselves for the day as much as the weather.

I found my way through arches and past gates as instructed, collected my pass and trudged past the backs of low buildings – storehouses, offices, goods yards – and through the gardens. Seemingly miles away, the roof of the Tudor hall, and the chimneys and pinnacles of the great gateways, were elaborate and remote: an untidy accumulation of Wolsey’s blood-coloured grandeur. I could smell the woodsmoke where they were lighting the fires in Henry VIII’s kitchens. It began to rain.

Through a door in a wall, and round a corner and a couple of centuries, the long William & Mary front stretched away. The cream-coloured pillars, windows and even the clipped bay trees are as regular as a regiment, eyes fixed on the prospect across the formal garden. It must often have been cold and grey for them too on ordinary days: not rich or sunlit or exciting, just working days. I turned under a portico beyond which, in a courtyard, fountain-water was being thrown about by the wind, so that the noise echoed around among the pillars while I looked for the right door.

Hampton Court has two faces, their backs joined but their gaze in opposite directions. I love the place, but on that day this doubleness of aspect and character was confusing. The glamour and violence of Elysabeth and Antony’s world in A Secret Alchemy is not distant in time or nature from Henry’s, and that’s where I should have been: that’s the setting I had lived in for so long. The clean, clear rhythm of Wren’s palace spoke to me of the setting I wanted to enter: the ordering of science, the balance and elegance of form, and the confidence of reason.

It’s not as simple as that, of course. The late fifteenth century saw the beginnings of humanism, scientific enquiry, classical scholarship and modern economics. The late seventeenth century was a land of witch-hunts, starvation, heresy and violence. Each setting for me has its own particular texture of smell,colour and sound.

Treading along the thick, shifting gravel of the paths I felt unsteady, as you do on a long journey, suspended between two places which hold two separate meanings. I can’t work if I have to gaze in two opposite directions. William and Mary will have to wait.


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The Mathematics of Love (P.S. (Paperback))A Secret Alchemy     Send Me Safely Back AgainThe Leopard Sword (Empire)The Winter Palace (a Novel of the Young Catherine the Great)The Salt RoadPowder Monkey: Adventures of a Young Sailor

Writing Historical Novels

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