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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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Balancing Research And Imagination When Writing Historical Fiction, by MC Scott (guest article)

Writing historical fiction is an act of uncovering, of peeling away layers from our assumptions of the past until we see something of the form hidden beneath. Or to use a different metaphor, it is the act of sliding into another’s clothes until we find what it was to wear them.  This is quite different from much historical research, which seems often to be about bolstering reputations, or fostering ideas based on nothing more than hearsay and supposition.

This is not to suggest that historical research is worthless, quite the reverse: it’s essential and those who spend their lives in it do us great service, but there comes a point in the exploration of the past when it’s necessary to set aside the academic process and instead step into the worlds we explore: which is the realm of fiction.

I first came across this when I was writing the Boudica series: until then, almost everyone who had written of Boudica (or made films/radio plays of her) had mined Tacitus for what little information was there and then spread it thinly over the page/screen/microphone.  In going back to before the Claudian invasion, I had a free hand, so to speak: an era largely untouched by previous fiction writers.   Building the image of who we were was a long, slow process and I spent many hours in the various libraries at Cambridge: Classics, Archaeology, Anthropology, History… and at seminars and conferences wherein were gathered the great and the good of the Roman era.  Two things became apparent; first was that almost everyone was writing a novel of Boudica (and had been for at least two decades and would be for another two decades to come: the thing about writing books is that you have to actually do it, as well as talk about it, for the book to reach publication).  The second was that there were two distinct points of view when it came to the question of where the legions landed at the start of the Claudian invasion.  One camp said they came in the east coast to Kent and up the Medway to assault the indigenous tribes near London, while the other said they must have come in at the south coast, in the shelter of the Isle of Wight, where there was a pro-Roman chieftain who would have held the coast secure so the horses could be landed and fed/watered/rested.

Throughout the last stages of writing the first book in the series, I was receiving emails, or letters, or phone calls from people who had learned what I was writing and wanted to be sure I got the Roman landing ‘right’, which meant either the Medway or Chichester (broadly speaking).  I was politely vague, saying I didn’t know until I got there, which was entirely true. It wasn’t until I was standing on the edge of Gaul, looking out towards Britain that I began to think of how I would get there.  This is the beauty of fiction. We don’t just create ideas, we have to make them work. My characters have to move through every stage of their preparation, they have to board the ships and navigate the tides and winds and currents, they have to disembark and look around them. I don’t necessarily need to put all of that down on the page, but I need to have done it so the thought lines and the memories are there.

This is where the screeds of wallpaper lining roll come into play, spread out on my living room floor, with me in amongst them drawing scale plans of the coasts of France and England, with bits of the Netherlands at the edges. I can draw on the tides and currents and likely wind directions. Then I can cut out scale models of ships, going smaller and smaller as I realise my scales is really quite small, despite it covering the whole of the floor space.  So my ships are the dots that come out of the bottom of a hole-puncher, cut in half.   We have four legions and four wings of cavalry, plus all their attendant gear. A legion is five thousand men (give or take), and  they have their own cavalry, not included in the Ala that are accompanying them. They have their horses, their mules, their tents, their siege engines… We have a maximum of 100 horses to a ship and generally far fewer. Let’s say an average of 50 horses or 100 men per ship.  That’s 50 ships per legion, minimum, plus another 50 per wing of cavalry, so that’s 400 ships *at least*.

That means it doesn’t matter if you think they landed at the Medway or at Chichester, it’s a logistical impossibility for them to land all of them in one tide at one place, unless that ‘place’ is a very, very long stretch of open beach.

That means, I think, that they probably landed in at least 2 places and I’m very happy to accept the arguments for the Medway (a quick transfer over in one tide from the Hook of Holland and a direct route to London where there was a crossing of the Thames) and for Chichester (Cogidubnos was a pro-Roman chieftain and he owned the landing places there, so the horses could come in safely).

I was half way through writing the section that suggested both of these were used, when I read a paper in, I think, Britannia, entitled ‘Septimus Saturninus and the Invasion of Britain’ which was a particularly astute piece of historical research that examined epigraphic data and suggested that the IXth legion may have sailed further up the east coast of England and come in at York – which would explain why the IXth was traditionally associated with York and would have made a lot of sense. I wanted to write it in but it would have been another 20-40,000 words in a book where we’d already cut 80,000 to bring it to a sensible length, so sadly, that part was missed and I stuck with Kent and the south coast.

Still, it was an interesting and useful education in the need to work things out from first principles, even when there’s a wealth of academic opinion to support a thesis.  It’s been the same now that I’m writing about Jeanne d’Arc: the established opinion says she was a peasant girl from Bar who had visions of angels that told her to take the Dauphin to Rheims to be crowned – and this despite the fact that she didn’t mention angels at any point until pressed heavily by the judges at her trial (she spoke of her ‘counsel’ or at times, ‘messier’ which is what a squire called his knight, or a child her father) and that it is a physical impossibility for anyone to go from being a non-rider to riding a destrier in battle, couching her lance as she is described as having done.   This is for another post, but this too has been an education: people will believe the most unbelievable things until or unless they’re given a suitable alternative: fiction can do this.  It’s part of why we’re here.


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Writing Historical Novels

Writing Characters For Historical Novels, by Michael White

I’m often asked how writing differs for me when I’m working on a novel set in the past or one in which the action takes place in the present.

The first real distinction comes at the research stage. In my first piece I offered a few tips about researching historical fiction; but to research modern scenes is often a different beast. In some ways it is actually easier to find out about Newton’s taste in literature or the sort of shoes Cosimo de’ Medici wore than it is to find the colour of the doors into the Rose and Crown pub in Kilburn or the colour of the uniform worn by staff at the Empire State Building. Just as difficult is finding out the price of a peppermint tea at a certain café in Paris or the style of plate used in Devonshire teahouses or the usual fine for illegal parking in the center of Bogota.

Beyond research is the actual process of writing. What are the major differences between writing fiction set in a bygone time and fiction set in 2013?

The first thing to consider is the way people speak. Of course you could do a Baz Luhrmann and put modern speech into the mouths of historical characters. This is fine if that is your style and your readers expect it. But, if you are writing something relatively conventional you have to decide upon the level of old-style speech you will use. This varies enormously from one author to another, but you have to always remember that you are writing for a modern audience. You are never going to duplicate arcane dialogues perfectly, and even if you could say reproduce the language used by 15th century English people, few could follow it today.

The essential thing to remember when you are writing historical fiction or any narrative set in an earlier time is that human beings are human beings.

Certainly language has changed, social mores and the surface level of fashion, technology, scientific understanding, worldliness, etc, have developed, but at their core people today are no different to those living in any age. It is almost certain that the way an Ancient Egyptian slave thought about his family and the dreams he or she may have harboured would, in essence, be not so different to those of a banker in the City of London or a NASA astronaut.

This truth must be portrayed in your work. By all means change the way people speak, dress them in appropriate clothing, arm them with suitable weapons and house them in ancient homes, but you must ensure they will each experience their own lives, loves and wishes in almost identical ways whatever century they live in.


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Writing Historical Novels

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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A Matter of HonorFor Love of Country: A NovelThe Power and the GloryA Call to Arms     BetrayalWhere Lilacs Still BloomThe Winter Palace (a Novel of the Young Catherine the Great)

Writing Historical Novels

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