by Dana Chamblee Carpenter
I was recently on a panel with Anne Perry talking about writing historical fiction. An audience member asked a typical question about the research we did to “get things right” in our books. Anne seemed eager to answer. My fellow panelists and I were happy to defer. It’s what you do when you’re sharing the stage with a legendary author of more than 60 historical novels.
Usually, historical fiction writers answer such questions with tales about exhaustive, meticulous research. It’s not bragging—it’s armor. We’ve all felt the stings from angry readers calling us out on the historical errors they find in a book. Even Eudora Welty was not beyond such criticism—hers came from a male literary critic who complained that she had the moon in the wrong place in one of her stories. Most of us live (and write) in fear of making such mistakes.
But in her answer that day, Anne tossed aside the idea that the historical fiction writer had a responsibility to get everything “right.” We’re storytellers, after all, not historians, she said. What difference would it make to the story if an author got the name of a street wrong or miscalculated the distance between towns? How would it damage a character’s journey or a reader’s experience if the moon was in the wrong place of a particular night sky?
Anne essentially told the aspiring historical fiction writer to “not sweat the small stuff.” After an initial moment of squirming against the unconventional answer, I sensed a collective sigh and relaxation among my fellow panelists, and the conversation turned away from “getting it right” to the power of stories and how the past can serve as a clarion mirror to our present. I was excited that we were giving such a liberating message to the hopeful writers in the room.
Luckily, when I was in their place and working on my first book, Bohemian Gospel, I didn’t know enough about the expectations of those sometimes-angry readers to be afraid. I blindly let my character, Mouse, guide me into her world of 13th-century Bohemia. My curiosity drove my research. Who would Mouse have been hanging out with, what would they have done, what kinds of things might they have worried about or dreamed of doing? A picture of thirteenth century life and, more particularly, of the incredible, inspiring, and rich culture of Bohemia was revealed as I asked questions and sought answers. In my naiveté, I didn’t “sweat the small stuff”—I reveled in it. When I needed a song for a scene at a feast, I could have kept it generic or made something up, but what kinds of songs were actually performed in the late 1200s, I wondered. Could I find them? And what kinds of trees would have grown in the Bohemian woods back then? What would they have smelled like as Mouse wandered through them, I wondered.
The fear came later. On my first panel, just a few months before my book would be born into the world and with only a last pass left before it was completely out of my control, I heard a different set of panelists answer a similar question about “getting it right” in historical fiction. Their answers were filled with the horror stories of when they got it “wrong” and how they ever after toiled through the tedium to be sure everything was “right.” It reminded me a little of when I was in the last months of pregnancy with my first child and older women would stop me in the halls at school or at the grocery store and tell me some awful tale about deliveries gone wrong.
And that’s why Anne Perry’s unconventional and brave answer was so refreshing. She wasn’t abdicating a responsibility to historical accuracy. She was freeing the writer from the fear of getting something wrong.
Stephen King tells us that the source of most bad writing is fear, and he’s right. Historical fiction writers who research and write from a fear of getting something wrong often drown the story with facts and details. Characters end up wooden, pinned down by too much precision and minutiae. As Anne suggested, we are storytellers, not historians. Our first allegiance is to our characters and the story they need for us to tell. The world in which we play is first and foremost one of imagination and possibility, not hard and unmovable fact.
Approaching research from a place of curiosity and wonder shapes the author’s relationship with that information. What we learn comes to us as a living thing, like magic, and we handle it with care, folding it into the story like one might tenderly fold egg whites into a batter. (I’ve maybe watched a little too much of The Great British Baking Show.) This way, the rich details lift the story up rather than weigh it down.
Fear also often drives writers away from the unfamiliar. I was more than a little terrified adventuring in a culture about which my Westernized education had taught me very little. But where Mouse would lead, I had to follow, and I am so glad I did. Too often, we convince ourselves to stay within our comfort zones and “write what we know.” (Overwhelmingly, historical novels center in the 18th–20th centuries and almost exclusively focus on Western Europe.) But writers are explorers, and discovery is the heart of story. The world is so much larger than “what we know.” We do ourselves, and our readers, a disservice when we let fear tether us to the familiar.
One last hurdle of fear I’ve had to leap as a writer of historical fiction is the idealized how of research. When I launched my debut novel, I dreaded the question that came up at every event: “Did you go to Prague to research?” I’d heard other writers talk about spending weeks researching in some little village in Scotland or Italy. I’m a teacher. And a mom. I don’t have the time or the money to research like that. At first weighed down by the fear that I hadn’t done it “right,” I would answer with a quiet and shameful “No.” But then I realized that 13th Century Prague didn’t exist anymore. If I had been able to go to Prague, my head would have been filled with the castle as it is now, not as it had been. My curiosity and wonder sent me exploring books and digital archives and websites and virtual tours so I could discover a past Bohemia in all its glory.
As you adventure into this complicated, beautiful swirl of art that weaves time and cultures into your stories, go forth with wonder, not fear. That’s how you can be sure to “get it right.”
Dana Chamblee Carpenter is the author of Book of the Just, the third novel in The Bohemian Trilogy. Carpenter’s award winning short fiction has also appeared in The Arkansas Review, Jersey Devil Press, Maypop, and, most recently in the anthologies, Dead Ends: Stories from the Gothic South, and Killer Nashville Noir: Cold Blooded. She teaches at a university in Nashville, TN where she lives with her husband and two children. Visit her at danachambleecarpenter.com.
Online Course: Writing Historical Fiction
Whether history is a backdrop to your story or the focus of the story itself, this workshop will provide you with the tools to find the facts you need, organize the data in a functional manner, and merge that data seamlessly into your novel. Discover the level of historical data to include as a function of a particular writing goal. Learn more and register.