Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘writing stories with historical settings’

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


A Visit To A 19th Century Dentist In Paris, by Eva Stachniak

I’d like to invite you to a dentist’s office. Not a modern one, though, but one a character in your next novel set in the 19th century might have endured. I have based its description on a few drawings and some research into the history of dentistry.

We are in Paris. The year is 1838.

The office is decorated with a pair of elephant tusks, the gaping skull of a crocodile, dried lizards, turtles, and the skeletons of snakes. An Egyptian mummy stands in a corner of the room, right beside a small cabinet with a variety of dentures and teeth on display.

The doctor’s business card might say (third person on business cards is the norm): Perfection will be the first consideration in all his dental operations; to make his prices reasonable and to be ready with promptness to attend to the calls of those who require his advice or professional services is his second.

It promises everything you hope for.

“Please open your mouth wider, Madame,” the doctor says. As you fear, the tooth that is giving you so much pain has begun to rot. The doctor will be able to save it, but he has to clean the cavity and then fill it with gold leaf. This is a lengthy procedure requiring much patience, and a good few hours. Other dentists, he warns you, practise quick methods, promising to do it in a few minutes. What they fail to mention is that the compound they pour into a cavity is unpredictable. It will either shrink and fall out or expand and shatter the tooth. What is more, the deterioration will not stop, if the rot is not patiently extracted first.

“In short, Madame, it has to hurt,” the doctor assures you, “if it is going to help.”

On a previous visit, the doctor might have given you instructions to rub your gums with your fingers until they bleed, to rinse your teeth in cold water, to brush them with Poudre de Ceylan and then restrain from rinsing your mouth for at least one hour. It probably did not help that much.

You nod – silently, because your mouth is wide open. The muscular young man behind your armchair, an assistant who has so far stood motionless as a carving, shifts his weight, making the floor boards squeak. If necessary, he will hold your head, especially during an extraction, which would have been much faster than cleaning a cavity and filling it with gold leaf, a process in which each layer demands careful and precise placement.

If you have lost too many teeth, the doctor might recommend a bridge and false  teeth. Here you have a choice. There are Waterloo teeth, the harvest of a battle, collected from corpses at the battlefield. There are also porcelain teeth. Fonzi’s “incorruptibles” might be your dentist’s personal recommendation. Before firing, a platinum pin is embedded in the back of each tooth and this can be soldered on to a base. The newest ones are much improved. “Baked of different clays to avoid that unnatural and somewhat,” the doctor might say, “ghostly white. They are called incorruptibles because, unlike Waterloo teeth, they will not stain.”

As you are having your cavity filled, the dentist might discuss the possibility of making dental procedures painless. Not very likely, in his opinion. He might debunk the lures of his competitors, unscrupulous promises of benumbing gasses which promise painless extractions. He has not seen much of use in this area, even the laughing gas proved in an observed hospital trial proved to be far less efficient than claimed.

“Like anything in life,” your wise 19th century dentist might say. “I believe that what promises to be pleasant and quick, is of no value whatsoever and may likely be harmful.”

The bill?? Oh, yes, of course. It will arrive a few days later. The cost will most likely be 300 francs.

Recommended reading:

James Wynbrandt. The Excruciating History of Dentistry: Toothsome Tales & Oral Oddities from Babylon to Braces.  St. Martin’s Griffin: 2000.

Loretta Frances Ichord. Toothworms & Spider Juice : An Illustrated History of Dentistry. Millbrook Press: 2000.


Eva Stachniak’s author website:

Eva Stachniak’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)Necessary LiesGarden of Venus     Sektion 20A Secret AlchemyThe Girl on the Beach

Writing Historical Novels

%d bloggers like this: