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How to Write Historical Fiction: 7 Tips on Accuracy and Authenticity

Categories: Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents Blog, Guest Columns, What's New.

There’s a funny sort of tension that occurs when writing historical fiction: Is it possible to achieve total historical accuracy while still telling a great story? Can’t one do both? Well, as much as I hate to admit it, I’m not so sure.

Full disclosure. I have a PhD in early modern English history, the period in which I set my historical mysteries, A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate and From the Charred Remains. So as a historian-turned-novelist, I’ve thought a lot about how to craft a work of historical fiction. I’ve certainly made some mistakes along the way, and made some surprising discoveries as well.

When I was first dreaming about my story, even before I had worked out the plot or characters, I knew one thing for sure: By gum, this novel would be accurate. Every detail, every word, would be accurate. Historians everywhere would use my book in their classes and would revel in my accurate tale.

That idea lasted about two seconds.

(How much money can you expect from selling your first book?)

 

 

susanna-calkins-writer-author        murder-at-rosamunds-gate-novel-cover

Column by Susanna Calkins, who has had a morbid curiosity about murder
in seventeenth-century England ever since grad school, in those days before
she earned her Ph.D. in history. The ephemera from the archives–tantalizing
true accounts of the fantastic and the strange—inspired her historical mysteries.
Her first novel, A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate (Minotaur/ St.Martin’s Press,)
featuring a seventeenth-century chambermaid, was published in 2013. The
second in the series,
From the Charred Remains, will be released April 2014.
Connect with Susanna at susannacalkins.com or find her on Twitter.

 

 

 

Not only would using accurate language make my story unnecessarily pendantic and cumbersome, but many seventeenth-century words and phrases don’t translate readily today. Certainly I could say “The footpad bit the Roger, tipped the cole to Adam Tyler, and then took it to a stauling ken.” But I have a feeling modern readers might not understand that I was saying that a thief has stolen a bag, passed it to a fence, who in turn sold it to a house that receives stolen goods. Unless my editor let me write a companion volume with glossary and explanatory footnotes, this isn’t too feasible.

Moreover, and maybe more importantly, I realized that if I were strictly true to the time period, my characters might be a little—well—dull. My protagonist is a servant, and if I made her typical of her gender and station, she might have felt too inhibited to save her brother from being wrongfully hanged for murder—the entire premise of Rosamund’s Gate.

These are some lessons I’ve learned, in that balance of authenticity and accuracy.

1. Have fun with the research, but do your homework. This should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. Borrow some good reference books. Become comfortable with the time period. Try to understand both the larger scope of the period, while examining aspects of daily life. This will help create an authentic backdrop for your novel.

2. Let the characters engage with the historical details. This goes along with that “show don’t tell” truism writers are told all the time. Rather than just dumping a bunch of facts on the poor reader, let your characters interact with these details with all these senses. Let them smell the offal dumped onto the cobblestone streets. Let them squint in the fading light of the tallow candles. Let them feel the tingling sensation as the physician places a leech on their bare skin.

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3. Allow your characters to question and explore their place in society. This will help reveal the larger political, social, cultural context of the time. What were the expectations for women? For sailors? For criminals? How did people from different parts of society interact with one another?

4. Use the internet wisely, to inspire and inform. The internet can be a researcher’s best friend, especially for arm-chair time travelers. Need to know how long it would take to walk from the Louvre to the Eiffel tower? Use the walking feature on mapquest. Need to see the inside of the Hagia Sophia? Check the dozens of tourist videos on YouTube. Sometimes I’m amazed by what the internet can’t answer. Certainly, the internet is a treasure trove of interactive maps, images, videos, and historical documents, which can be both informative and inspiring.

5. The internet can be bad, bad, bad for historical research. Unfortunately, the internet is also full of flawed information, lies, plagiarized material and half truths. (I’m looking at you, Wikipedia! Which I do use, but cautiously). Check all “facts” against at least two sources when possible. If a story or definition is repeated nearly verbatim in more than one source, there’s a good chance someone simply copied the information without verifying the accuracy. This is how a lot of bad information gets passed along and taken as “true.”

6. Don’t fret the details; let the story be told. Strive for accuracy, but when necessary, make your best informed guess and move on. And if you have to fudge something, well, that’s what the ‘historical note’ at the end of your novel is for!

7. Love the process, because readers will still find errors. And they’ll let you know about them. It doesn’t matter if those errors happened in editing process (as several of mine did. I collapsed some scenes together, and voila! A perfect recipe for timeline and geography mistakes). You can triple-check facts, hire copy editors and proofreaders, scrutinize every word for inconsistencies and mistakes, and I guarantee something will still slip by. At that point, you just have to laugh, thank your reader and move on.

But what do you think? How do you balance historical authenticity and historical accuracy as you tell your story?

(Learn how to start your novel strong.)

 

Need help crafting an awesome plot for your
story? Check out the new acclaimed resource
by Ronald Tobias, 20 Master Plots.

 

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

 

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6 Responses to How to Write Historical Fiction: 7 Tips on Accuracy and Authenticity

  1. Lina says:

    Thank you very much for creating this article. I appreciate all the fantastic information. Writing historical fiction, and making sure all the content is historically correct can be very time consuming, yet I think very rewarding in the end. I’m an aspiring author, looking to learn as much as possible before I continue on in my writing journey. I’m a current journalist student looking to find the best information possible to help build my career. I appreciate your step by step format to help a writer on his/her way.

    Again, thank you so much,
    Lina

  2. Voltigeur says:

    I love the comment about being totally accurate concept lasting about 2 seconds! The comments on the internet are so true. Glad I was already doing that before I read this article. Although Wikipedia is getting better, Go to the bottom of the articles and hit the source web sites.

    I am amazed at the things I spend an evening researching that are just my knowledge and are not actually written in the book.

  3. Martin Lake says:

    Great article. I think that plausibility is perhaps more important than accuracy which, as you suggest, is difficult to attain and probably not much fun for the reader. I’d add to this list going to the place you’re writing about if at all possible. And when you’re in a town look up high. Things above eye-level often have a more historical feel than things on the street.

  4. Tam Francis says:

    This is just what I needed to hear. Today I’ve been struggling with how many real people I should use and how many real location. I’ve done loads of research, but don’t want to get mired in petty details! Hurray! Now back to writing…

  5. enddetour says:

    Loved this, great sanity checks and advice for those of us working on that first historical fiction. I lucked out on the internet by finding printed versions of memoirs from the real people that inspired or informed my characters. Granted, they can’t be considered factually accurate, but they’ve given me leads in addition to wonderful POV!

  6. Danielle says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I’m primarily interested in writing historical fiction and have been working on research for my first book for over a year and a half. I have a Bachelor’s degree in History so it’s easy for me to get caught up in wanting everything to be historical accurate. I have to keep reminding myself it’s about the story first and foremost but I can’t help but fretting about getting the details just right. It’s reassuring to read about a novelist with a Ph.D in history saying no matter how hard you look over your manuscript, something will be wrong.

    Also, I agree about the Internet being a great but potentially a bad resource. I use Wikipedia more as a jumping off point for information. I refer more to the sources cited in a Wikipedia article as well as doing a search for books on my local library’s website, Amazon, etc.

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