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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


Location Research To Write Historical Novels, by Paul Dowswell

I’ve met historical novelists who are proud of the fact that they don’t go to visit the places they write about. If you can write successful books without having to do that, then good for you. Personally, I love to go to the places I’m researching. Walking the same streets as my characters helps me bring my stories alive.

A good ten years ago, when publishing advances were a lot more generous, I spent a wonderful two weeks in Australia, researching my book Prison Ship, about a boy sailor who is transported to New South Wales in 1801. I went in the middle of the Australian winter, when flights were at their cheapest. I stayed with a lovely lady who usually rented a spare room to academics. (A friend recommended the University of Sydney accommodation office, who were happy to put me on their books.) Staying with a local is much more sociable and a lot cheaper than a hotel. You have company and you can cook, which saves having to eat out on your own.

My landlady, Bobbie, also introduced me to friends who took me to see places I would never have thought to visit. Best of all, when I went to explore the bush outside Sydney, I spent a very anxious three or four hours completely lost and got a good four chapters out of that. I loved standing at the Rocks in Sydney at sunset trying to imagine what it would have been like two centuries before. A chat with a friendly lady in a bookshop led to an introduction to one of the curators at the New South Wales State Library who kindly volunteered to check my book for historical accuracy. 

For Powder Monkey and Battle Fleet, the first and third book of that same series (and for considerably smaller outlay), I visited HMS Trincomalee in Hartlepool and HMS Victory in Portsmouth. Just being aboard these surviving ships from 1800 was the best thing I could have done to get my imagination going. My trip to Trincomalee probably inspired a good quarter of the book, which is not bad for an afternoon’s nosing around.

I went to Moscow this time last year to research my latest book (due next year) and was surprised how cheap it was to go. It’s not a big tourist destination and going in October meant a modest outlay of around £250 for a return flight from the UK (if you’re from Britain you need to spend another £150 on a visa, too). Through friends of friends I also managed to find a family who were happy to have me to stay and that saved a fortune on Moscow’s infamously expensive and ramshackle hotels. Museums were fascinating but, not being a Russian speaker, I was unable to make use of libraries and archives. Still, being able to walk around the Kremlin, where my story is set, and the streets of central Moscow, was absolutely invaluable. A lovely woman I met there told me a fascinating story about her family that ended up providing a major plot twist in my novel.

Berlin is also somewhere I’ve visited to write about for my novels Auslander and Sektion 20, both set in the 20th Century. It wasn’t as expensive as I feared. I managed to stay with people who volunteered to rent an apartment or share theirs for one or two weeks. This was much cheaper than a hotel and, again, I saved a lot of money by cooking rather than eating out. When I shared an apartment on a second visit, my landlady introduced me to a friend who became the inspiration for the main character in my novel.

Berlin is also brilliant for libraries and archives. Almost all the librarians spoke English (handy for me as I know about three words in German) and many of the libraries had a very good supply of rare and very useful English language books. 

My own instinct is that any historical novel will be improved immensely and made considerably easier to write by a visit to its location. Being there will fire your imagination and give you leads you would never have had if you’d just stuck to library books.


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Powder Monkey: Adventures of a Young SailorPrison Ship: Adventures of a Young SailorAuslanderSektion 20     The SacrificeThe Tenth GiftThe Barbary Pirates: An Ethan Gage Adventure

Writing Historical Novels

Researching To Write Historical Novels, by Kathleen Benner Duble

Researching to write a historical novel can be a bit overwhelming. Where do you start? How much detail do you need?

For children’s historical fiction, I always begin my research using children’s non-­fictionGood children’s non‐fiction can be a great jumping off point to start figuring out the history of your times. Unlike adult history books that are chock full of period detail, non‐fiction for kids can give you a succinct overview of the period. These books provide just enough information to glean what details you want to expand upon and research further.

For instance, you wouldn’t want to spend a lot of time covering Napoleon’s battle strategy. Kids won’t care. They want to know how the fifteen‐year‐old bugler who, accompanied Napoleon, survived the fight and whether he ever saw his brother again. So unless you yourself are interested, spending copious amounts of time understanding battle strategy would be a waste of energy. On the other hand, knowing what a bugler did during battle would be important. What did he wear? How were his days organized? Where did he stand when the battle began? This gives a specific direction in which to head when you turn to more sophisticated forms of research such as letters, journals or adult non‐fiction.

While writing my book, Quest, the story of Henry Hudson’s last ill‐fated journey, I began researching by reading Beyond the Sea of Ice by Joan Elizabeth Goodman.

This book was a godsend because, in an uncomplicated format, it gave me the facts about the voyage: the daily problems the explorers faced, the routes they took, and the issues they had to deal with when their boat got lodged in the ice. It also contained excerpts from one of the mutineer’s logbooks, enabling me to see what had occurred on the Discovery each day and why the emotions had changed from placid to mutinous. I understood quickly the events that led up to the mutiny and was able to take those events and convey the emotions of the crew to readers through my own characters.

However, research is also where fun can become folly. With the wealth of information out there, the Internet seems a logical place to turn. Yet, as with all things on the web, you will need to confirm it to verify its accuracy. You wouldn’t want to spend all that time researching only to find that a site you’d relied on was inaccurate.

That said, the internet can provide some amazing pictures of period details that you might have trouble bringing to mind yourself: fashion, table decorations, housing and so on. Photos or drawings of these from the internet can help you convincingly convey how something looked.

Researching the past can be fun and exciting. I often find myself immersed in details I had either forgotten from my own history lessons or never even knew in the first place. I love digging through letters, journals, books and sites to find just the right details to make my story immediate and palpable for my young readers. I am also always aware of checking my facts and ensuring the accuracy of my information.


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The SacrificeQuest     The Kennedy ConspiracyOne Glorious Ambition: The Compassionate Crusade of Dorothea Dix, a Novel

Writing Historical Novels

Details Of Daily Life In Historical Novels, by William Dietrich

Frontier Americans watered whiskey for breakfast because sanitation was so poor. Traveling males frequently shared a bed with strangers in overcrowded inns. Warships used a ragged rope end towed in the ocean as toilet paper. French apartments had no hallways.

These everyday details help history come alive and are an important part of my Ethan Gage series of Napoleonic novels. As interesting as what happened is how it happened, meaning how people of another time lived, loved, dressed, ate and slept (half-sitting-up, in Napoleonic times).

Accordingly, my bookshelf has books on clothes, uniforms, naval life, soldier life and everyday life. I glean details from general histories and memoirs. I pick up books on canoe building, the history of gambling, and Kentucky long rifles. I never, ever, have enough.

A good historical novel is a time machine, but to be truly transported we need details of what life was like. Modern readers lead radically different lives.

In Napoleon’s day, the basics of transportation, heating, and cooking were not greatly different than Roman times. Life moved at a few miles an hour. Refrigeration was unknown. The Battle of New Orleans was fought because participants didn’t know the War of 1812 had already been ended by treaty.

Today, it takes a power outage to give us some inkling of what life was like a relatively short time ago.

So the historical novelist has to make an effort to realize how things have changed. With life spans averaging half of what they are today, the greeting “How are you?” was much more meaningful in times past. One is struck by how often even the rich and famous were frequently incapacitated by illnesses we’d brush off with antibiotics today.

Child bearing was constant (mothers frequently giving birth to a dozen children, half of whom might survive) and dangerous. Historians have calculated that more Roman women died of childbirth than Roman men died in war.

Poverty was usually inescapable, social security non-existent, superstition rampant, and social order was preserved by beatings, torture and public execution.

All those paintings, stained glass windows, and statues were created in part because illiteracy was so high and pictures were the way stories were told, the movies and TV of that time.

America’s PBS did a series on modern people trying to adapt to life in a 1900s house, a frontier house, and a colonial house. Many were left in tears.

It wasn’t all bad. There was sumptuous elegance in ages past we lack today. We dress comfortably but drably compared to our ancestors. Costume museums can give a sense of the difference.

Museums in general are excellent for everyday details, including the Napoleonic equivalent of the modern shaving kit that officers took on campaign.

Recreated towns and villages, historical re-enactors, rebuilt sailing ships, and quality historical films have all been useful to me.

Pick your period. Then mentally live in it.


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Napoleon's Pyramids (Ethan Gage Adventure)The Dakota Cipher: An Ethan Gage AdventureThe Barbary Pirates: An Ethan Gage AdventureBlood of the Reich     The Twisted Root: A William Monk NovelAn Absence So Great (Portraits of the Heart)Sektion 20

Writing Historical Novels

Using Historical Research To Support A Good Story, by Adrian Goldsworthy

I like historical novels to be accurate.  A really good historical novel can often give you a far better flavour of the period than reading quite a few non fiction histories.  Other people are less worried by the accuracy and that is fair enough.  Every reader will want a good story, and during the whole writing process you need to keep focused on the story you want to tell.  The essential narrative – who are characters are, what happens to them, and how they cope with it all – is the single most important thing you have to create.

During your research you will have gathered a lot of material, and in probability will have far more than you can ever use.  It can sometimes be hard to let go of all these little nuggets.  If you have spent weeks, months, or even years reading up and learning all about an era, then you are bound to have become entranced by it all.  However, just because you know something, does not mean that you have to tell the reader about it.  Instead it is something that you have at your disposal, and can be deployed to make the background to a scene more vivid, or to provide things for your characters to do or talk about.  In each case it needs to add something to the story or atmosphere and not simply be there for its own sake.  So if you learn a lot about something, for instance how to make a sword or how a machine spins cotton or whatever it might be, only go into detail if it helps to flesh out a character and his or her story.  This could be a description to tell you about their life, or reveal a lot about their character by the way they do something.  Alternatively, it may provide a setting for a conversation or other plot element.

So some detail is very good and useful.  The tradition of naval adventure stories often include a lot about how to sail a ship, usually with quite a few technical terms.  Quite a few readers find this interesting for its own sake, but it also served the useful purpose of showing the competence and skill – or lack of these – of the main characters and supporting cast.  Probably in early chapters they will be sailing in peaceful waters, but this helps the reader to learn about the situation, and so makes it easier to follow when they are doing such things in the dramatic moments of storm or battle.  It is well worth drip feeding the information a reader needs to follow the plot.  Ideally it happens gradually, as the story progresses and they get to know and become involved with the characters.  I tried to do something similar in my first novel, making the characters train and drill so that when the battalion went to war the reader would understand how it manoeuvred.  On the whole, writers of land based military adventures tend to skim over this sort of thing, but it is a fine line between having too much and too little technical detail of this sort.  On the other hand, some readers clearly find this a bit slow.

The biggest mistake is to inject a few pages of straightforward description of historical events, politics, or strategy that reads like non fiction.  In Steven Saylor’s Roman Blood, his first novel about Gordianus the Finder, the narrative pauses to describe the rise of Sulla and his dictatorship in a passage resembling a textbook.  It is quite strange that his editor let this through, and it jars because the rest of the book flows very well.  The lesson is that even very fine writers like this can stumble now and again, especially in their early work.  Saylor’s later books all flow very well.  The principles of writing are really very simple.  The practice is not.  As an example of a good way of getting such information across, look at some of MacDonald Fraser’s explanations of recent history and context, delivered by his Harry Flashman with plenty of cynical wit, which at the same time helps to convey his character.  It is perfectly possible to convey a lot of information quite quickly and still blend it in to the story, perhaps through a mixture of conversation, explanation and action.

Having said all that, you will still find that you do not end up including some wonderful material.  As an example, I stumbled across some terrific stories about Joseph Napoleon, the older brother of Napoleon who was given the Spanish throne.  He is mentioned now and again, and appears as a character in a couple of chapters of All in Scarlet Uniform, although he only says a few lines.  For a while I tried to devise ways to fit in stories about his interests, and especially some of his colourful love affairs.  In the end I had to face up to the fact that I was simply trying to work them in because they were good stories, even though they were not really relevant and did not add anything.  You need to be ruthless with yourself and cut anything that is unnecessary.

Such detail is never really wasted.  On the one hand you may find it useful if you write again about the same period.  Less obviously it will help to add depth to your fictional take on the period and help you to write more convincingly about the real people of those times.  You want to create an impression that the world of your novel is more than just a film set, designed to look fine from one angle, but really just a facade.  It is always good if the reader is left with the feeling that they could turn in a different direction to the main story and yet still find something there.


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True Soldier GentlemenBeat the Drums SlowlySend Me Safely Back Again     The Sultan's WifeThe Mathematics of Love (P.S. (Paperback))An Absence So Great (Portraits of the Heart)Spartacus: The Gladiator

Writing Historical Novels

How I Write My Historical Novels, by Eva Stachniak

As soon as I knew that I wanted to write a novel about Catherine the Great, I gave myself three months to do extensive research on the historical Catherine and the period in which she lived. I started with Catherine’s biographies, both recent and older ones, downloading 18th and 19th century books into my e-reader, taking advantage of the fact that old rare books are being extensively digitized and made available through major library portals. I read scholarly articles on various aspects of Catherine’s reign, her political conquests, her art collection, her gardening. I also read her own writing: memoirs and numerous letters which have preserved her voice from different stages of her life.

What general research produces is a great wealth of material which can yield many possible themes and approaches. I could try to tell the story of Catherine the Great’s whole life, or focus on one particular aspect of it. I could go sideways, focusing on Catherine’s many fascinating relationships. There is a whole novel in her complex relationship with Prince Potemkin. There is a novel in her troubled and ultimately tragic relationship with Count Poniatowski, the man whom she made the king of Poland only to take his kingdom away and make him her prisoner.  There are friendships that have gone wrong: with Princess Dashkova who believed herself to be the most important participant in Catherine’s palace coup; with Countess Bruce who betrayed Catherine with one of the imperial favourites. And there are friendships that have been sorely tested: with Denis Diderot, or with Voltaire, whose philosophy Catherine found attractive in theory and impossible to use in practice .

My initial reaction to such a wealth of material used to verge on panic, but now, it has become one of detachment. In this initial stage, I acknowledge the shapes of the many novels this rich historical material could yield. I take notes on their possible trajectories. Sometimes – if a particular theme attracts me more than others – I write a few pages and watch where the narrative gets me. I try different points of view, different voices, making sure I don’t go too far into any of these projects, for I don’t wish to lock myself too early to any particular path. At this stage, I want to create options, not to plunge into them.

In the early going, I’m a great fan of Scrivener, a word-processing program which allows for the creation of many folders and subfolders for each character, idea, scene. With it, I find it easier to keep track of all my possible routes, see them at a glance, move them around, complete them, or break them apart. I also place all my research notes into a Scrivener project, and spend quite a bit of time creating short summaries of what I’ve learnt, coming up with key words and tags that will – in time – offer a possibility of patterns I might have overlooked otherwise.

By this time, the novel is slowly beginning to take shape. In my case it’s not a conscious process, but rather a patient reflection on all I have gathered in my head, in search of a clue, a hint that would provide a focus I need. I’m waiting for something, an image, a sentence, a piece of dialogue which will stand out from these amassed treasures, becoming so irresistible that I know the novel must grow from it.

In the case of The Winter Palace, that trigger was a sentence from Catherine’s letter to Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, British ambassador to Russia and her great supporter when she was still a mere Grand Duchess: “Three people who never leave her room, and who do not know about one another, inform me of what is going on, and will not fail to acquaint me when the crucial moment arrives.”

Catherine is referring here to Elizabeth Petrovna, the empress who brought her to Russia from Zerbst at fourteen. “The crucial moment” is to be Elizabeth’s much-anticipated death, which Catherine sees as her big chance to gain power. But who are the three spies who will not fail to inform her? And if one of them were to tell Catherine’s story what would she say?

This was when I began to hear the voice of a palace spy, and this is where The Winter Palace truly began.


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The Winter Palace (a Novel of the Young Catherine the Great)Necessary LiesDancing with KingsGarden of Venus    The Katyn OrderSpartacus: RebellionAuslander

Writing Historical Novels

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