Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘setting a novel in the past’

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.


Tim Willocks’s author website:

Tim Willocks’s bio page


United States (and beyond)


United Kingdom (and beyond)


Australia (and beyond)

     The Winter Palace (a Novel of the Young Catherine the Great)

Writing Historical Novels


Month In Review (December 2013)

Writing Historical Novels has reached the end of its final month of articles from the multi-national line-up of novelists for 2013.

You can connect with Writing Historical Novels on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Tumblr, or via Novel Writing Quotes on Facebook or Google+.

Articles for December 2013

On Form And Medium For Creative Works by Emma Darwin

Traveling To Research For My Historical Novels by William Dietrich

Random Thoughts About Writing Historical Novels by Stephanie Cowell

Using Language Specific To The Setting Of Your Novel by Anne Perry

Developing A Writing Routine by Adrian Goldsworthy

Writing My Historical Novel ‘The Kirilov Star’ by Mary Nichols

How I Became A Bestselling Historical Novelist by Ben Kane

Being A Disciplined Author by Julian Stockwin

Tips For Writing Historical Novels by Paul Dowswell

Writing Profiles For Your Historical Novel Characters by Michael White

Using Catherine The Great’s Memoirs When Researching My Novel ‘The Winter Palace’ by Eva Stachniak

Historical Novels You Shouldn’t Miss by Gary Worthington

On Book Trailers by Kathleen Benner Duble


‘Month In Review’ Updates

For more articles on writing novels you can check out Writing Teen Novels and Writing Novels in Australia.


Writing Historical Novels

Using Language Specific To The Setting Of Your Novel, by Anne Perry

I agree with Alice from Alice in Wonderland: I don’t like a story that has no conversation.  But in what sort of language will your characters speak?  Will it be correct to the time and place of your story?  Well we can completely forget those set in ancient Egypt for a start, and countries where people speak a language other than our own.

The question really is, how about those who spoke our language (in my case only English, I’m afraid) but in a different period of time?  Vocabulary, references, even grammar change over a few years, never mind centuries.  And dialect changes from one area to another, over a very short distance in older countries.  And what do you do if your characters travel?

The choice is between being accurate and being understandable.  My belief is that if the reader doesn’t understand, if not exactly then at least approximately, then you will lose them.  Writing is, above all, an art of communication.  Some meanings can be guessed at.  In other places meaning doesn’t matter, it only adds colour, and if not understood will not spoil the story.  This might be the case with dialect words, and they can add a great deal of individuality to a setting or a character.  The same can be true of accent.  I suggest just a few altered sounds as enough to indicate difference.  You don’t want a reader stopping every few lines to try to work out what the word is.  Never break the spell, if you can help it.

Actually that just about sums it up.  If you confuse the reader or make them leave the story to look up a word, then it isn’t going to work.  You are trying to involve them, make them think and make them care.  You are not trying to confuse them and impress them with your scholarship.  If you want to do that, write a text book.

You need variation in vocabulary from one character to another.  Sometimes it takes a few re-writes to secure that – at least it does for me.  Some people use few words, some many.  People have favourite expressions, and so on.  (For heaven’s sake, don’t pepper it with ‘Gadzooks!’  or such phrases.  Did anybody ever say that?  With a straight face?)

The difficulty is to avoid neologisms, i.e. modern phrases we now use naturally, reference to events that have not yet happened, and the language that will come from them, inventions and discoveries not yet made, dishes not yet invented, music not yet written, countries not discovered (or re-named) fabrics and materials not invented – you get the drift.

I remember having someone’s heels click on linoleum – then wondering if it was even invented at the time, or, if it was, that it would be too new and expensive to be in the income level of the house I was referring to.  I looked it up and it was fine – but it might not have been.

My agent draws a little skull and crossbones sign on my manuscript where I have used a modern turn of phrase.  It happens now and then.  They are in my thoughts.  There is also the issue of modern grammar.  (There is no such word in English English (as opposed to American English and other forms of English) as ‘gotten’.  (Well-bred Victorians would say ‘I have’ rather than ‘I’ve got’.)

They are small things, a word here and there, but then an extra teaspoon of salt in your food is a small thing – but it ruins the flavour.  It is the sort of error you take care of when you re-write.  Polishing, tidying up can be fun.  Make it the best it can be.


Anne Perry’s author website:

Anne Perry’s bio page


United States (and beyond)


United Kingdom (and beyond)


Australia (and beyond)

A Christmas HomecomingAcceptable LossSlaves of ObsessionThe William Monk Mysteries: The First Three Novels     Wounds of Honour: v. 1 (Empire)Quest

Writing Historical Novels

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.


Stephanie Cowell’s author website:

Stephanie Cowell’s bio page


United States (and beyond)


United Kingdom (and beyond)


Australia (and beyond)

Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet     Fortress of Spears (Empire)Hannibal: Enemy of Rome

Writing Historical Novels

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.


Paul Dowswell’s author website:

Paul Dowswel’s bio page


United States (and beyond)


United Kingdom (and beyond)


Australia (and beyond)

AuslanderSektion 20Powder Monkey: Adventures of a Young SailorPrison Ship: Adventures of a Young Sailor     Blood of the ReichA Secret AlchemyAcceptable Loss

Writing Historical Novels

On Methods Of Travel In History (And Historical Fiction), by Anne Perry

One of the biggest differences over time is methods of travel. That includes the travel of words and ideas as well as of people and goods.  Today we can watch events on the other side of the world as they occur.  When studying to write my Byzantine story I was a bit shaken to learn that a letter sent from Constantinople (Istanbul today) could take six weeks to reach Rome.  If it were replied to immediately, it would still be another six weeks before it got back.  That is if the weather were reasonably favourable and no one met with bandits on the way overland, or storms on the sea part of the journey, or worse: pirates!  Then you could forget the whole thing!  This was one good reason for wanting to appeal to local church authorities and not to the Pope.

Conversely, in late Victorian London you could write a letter to someone else in London at breakfast time and expect to receive an answer before dinner that same day.  You certainly can’t do that by regular mail now.  It would take a couple of days if you’re very lucky.  Unless you want to spring for a messenger, of course.

For news, ask yourself: Were people dependent on a man on horseback, or in a wind or oar-propelled boat?

For letters, ask yourself: Who had paper? Who could read and write?  When and where were there envelopes?  When and where were there sealing wax and signet rings?  These might be minor details in your story, but they matter.  It isn’t getting it right so much as not getting it wrong.

When did telegraphs come in? What about semaphore flags?  What about smoke signals or drums?  What about telephones?  Who would have one?  What did it look like and how did it work?  i.e. direct dialling or through an exchange?  What about mobile phones, text messages or e-mails?  If you make a mistake, there will be someone who knows and will no doubt tell you.

There have been pamphlets for centuries.  When were there newspapers?

As for personal travel: slow, dangerous and uncomfortable covers a lot of it, but we need to be far more precise.  We need to be accurate in description, and vividly realistic in what it felt like.

What about ships: from canoes to ocean liner, wind powered (very dependent on weather), steam powered, oil/petroleum powered or nuclear powered? What sizes were the relevant kind of ships?  Some of them that circumnavigated the world were tiny, only a few paces from one side to the other.  Present day luxury liners are floating cities.  They are all like islands surrounded by perhaps thousands of miles of water, alone in a unique way.

What about planes: from tiger moths to jumbo-jets, and all points between?  Again, they are like islands, but in the sky.

On the ground, there is an almost endless variety of travel methods. There is underground railway, which thrived in London in later Victorian times.  There is surface railway, all over the place, some very pedestrian and some marvellously exotic like the Orient Express or the railroads across India.  Get times, stations and prices right.  That still leaves the whole world of horse drawn vehicles, from pony carts to omnibuses, not to mention other animals – dogs, oxen, camels and so on.  Last of all, people have their own legs as a method of travel.

Travel can be uncomfortable.  There are not necessarily any conveniences available.  There may be no privacy.  There was very little heating in most forms of early travel.  You would carry your own means of warmth or heating, if you could.  There may have been inns of one sort or another, but not always with room available.  Lodgers may have been required to share a bed. There may have been dangers of weather and, equally unpleasant, of pirates, brigands or highwaymen.  Not to mention simply getting lost.

Even with our present occasional delays and discomfort, we have more to be grateful for than many realise.


Anne Perry’s author website:

Anne Perry’s bio page


United States (and beyond)


United Kingdom (and beyond)


Australia (and beyond)

Treason at Lisson Grove: A Charlotte and Thomas Pitt NovelSlaves of ObsessionA Christmas HomecomingThe William Monk Mysteries: The First Three Novels     The Mathematics of Love (P.S. (Paperback))True Soldier GentlemenEscape by Moonlight

Writing Historical Novels

Month In Review (August 2013)

Writing Historical Novels has reached the end of its eighth month of articles from this year’s diverse line-up of historical novelists from the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Canada, India and Morocco.

Writing Historical Novels contributors Ben Kane, Emma Darwin, Anthony Riches and Paul Dowswell are each attached to two novel writing retreats in 2014 with Novel Writing Retreats Australia.

You can connect with Writing Historical Novels on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Tumblr, or via Novel Writing Quotes on Facebook or Google+.

Articles for August 2013

Embodying The Past And The Present In Historical Novels by Emma Darwin

Writing Characters In Historical Novels by Adrian Goldsworthy

Connecting With The Past When Writing A Historical Novel by Stephanie Cowell

Developing An Idea For A Novel by Mary Nichols

Forming A Historical Mind-Set For Writing A Historical Novel by Julian Stockwin

Science And Technology In Historical Novels by Anne Perry

Writing My Novel ‘Spartacus: Rebellion’ by Ben Kane

Why Write Historical Novels? by William Dietrich

On My Love Of Fountain Pens by Anthony Riches

Using Memoirs And Letters When Researching For A Historical Novel by Eva Stachniak

The Second World War In Historical Novels by Paul Dowswell

Blending History And Fiction In Historical Novels by DE Johnson

Discovering While Researching To Write Historical Novels by Jane Kirkpatrick

Developing Original Plots From Historical Events by Gary Worthington

Writing The First Chapter Of A Historical Novel by Michael White

Titles For Aristocratic Characters In Novels by Judith Cutler

On My Relation To Indian History by Timeri Murari

Location Research In Morocco To Write A Novel by Jane Johnson

Researching To Write Historical Novels by Kathleen Benner Duble


‘Month In Review’ Updates

For more articles on writing novels you can check out Writing Teen Novels and Writing Novels in Australia.


Writing Historical Novels

%d bloggers like this: