Historical Fiction: Write What You Know, or Know What You Write

Historical novelist David Gilman tackles the age-old question—how can genre writers best bring their subjects to life?
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The prospect of writing a novel can be daunting. How many times have I been asked by aspiring writers how to start? My answer is that it’s not rocket science, but a vital requirement, to state the obvious, is an overwhelming desire to tell a story and also the willingness to sit at a desk for regular hours. Writing a book is a long-haul and demanding exercise.

(16 Things All Historical Fiction Writers Need to Know)

Historical fiction offers a broad canvas for writers and their readers to immerse themselves, and what a glorious playground it is. So the first step is not to be fearful of the task ahead. Begin where? Begin how? For a start, you might have a particular interest or connection with a certain time in history. A family member who left a journal of their amazing exploits as they travelled by camel across the Sahara in the 19th century; an ancestor who led an Anglo-Saxon army. Few of us have the good fortune to have such a gift bequeathed to us.

Historical Fiction Research

The second most asked question is, how accurate must the research be? The answer is as accurate as possible, but for me, there’s a point where such accuracy will conflict with authenticity. Historical fiction is about research. When I began writing many years ago, I met a very successful television writer. Write nothing that requires research, he told me. Takes far too long. Write what you know, were his parting words.

My life experience had been rich, but it had not prepared me for finding a way of writing about it or making any link to historical fiction. I ignored his advice. Research for me is that first exciting leap into the unknown, because I am not a historian and need to know about what I write. And letting the creative imagination loose into that world is the joy of “filling in the gaps.” The bits that history misses.

Shadow of the Hawk (Master of War Book 7) by David Gilman

Shadow of the Hawk (Master of War Book 7) by David Gilman

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Historical Facts vs. Historical Fiction

Creating a historical fiction novel can be a lot of fun to write, especially if, say, you decide that it would be a great idea to have Queen Victoria having an affair with U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. Your readers can suspend disbelief only so far given that she died in January 1901 and he assumed the presidency in September 1901. Of course, you can always stretch the truth and give historical accuracy a nudge. Nothing is stopping you from doing anything you please. Will readers enjoy it? Some will. Others will begrudge you being so flagrantly disrespectful of the facts.

And facts are the essential element in writing engaging historical novels. I want to know what my characters eat, how they dress, how often do they wash? I am constantly surprised by my research. For instance, I never knew that it was against the law to carry a sword in medieval London after sunset. That’s a good point to weave into a story. And I always imagined cathedrals in France were stark, bare-walled places, but many were painted in warm pastel colors. French restoration teams are now repainting Chartres Cathedral in its medieval colors.

Is there a case for “stretching the truth beyond historical evidence?” Well, the truth can be fluid in history. And not all historians agree about events. Then there’s the matter of who actually recorded those moments in history. Whose side were they on? Whose patronage did they enjoy? A battle can be described with various degrees of success in a history book, but the intimacy of battle is experienced by the individual and those close by. Authenticity, gritty or otherwise, is in the novelist’s domain.

Historical Fiction: Write What You Know, or Know What You Write

Historical Dates vs. Historical Lives

Dates are set in stone for moments such as the beginning and end of the American Civil War. Often what cannot be determined are the events that occurred during such volatile times. A small story set in a specific period of history has as much leeway within that time frame as the author determines. That’s a simple case of filling in the gaps with your characters’ lives. I am not here to teach history, but I always say it can be a spur for the reader to delve more deeply into the time I write about. And I confess to stretching the facts.

I mess about with history wherever it is important for the story, but hopefully without raising eyebrows. As an example in my latest novel, Shadow of the Hawk, part of the Master of War series set in the 14th C, there is a point in the story when Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales & Aquitaine must decide whether to send his Master of War, Thomas Blackstone into Spain to rescue the King of Castile & Leon, Don Pedro The Cruel. It is a strategic decision, given that the French are planning a coup. Historically, the Prince sent his chamberlain, Sir Nigel Loring, from Bordeaux to England to seek advice from the prince’s father, King Edward 111. That’s a fact, but if I were to follow accurately the timeline of the decision making which took several months for the consultation and resolution to be formalised, then I had a problem.

I couldn’t have my hero kicking his heels for that length of time, so I ignored recorded history and compressed time and had Blackstone begin his journey. I usually have authorial notes at the back of my books informing my readers of various elements of the story, and it is here that I mention if I have made alterations to historical events for the sake of my story. That’s what is important. If you deliberately change something, admit it.

(10 Steps to the Past: How to Do World Building Right in Historical Fiction)

The Fear of Getting It Wrong

You can research to the point of exhaustion. The fear of getting it wrong strangling the creative surge to get going. That can happen to even experienced writers. The facts overwhelm and that wondrous creative moment to write is suffocated. My advice is always to research until you have had enough. Then get writing.

The books, the experts in their field, the websites, they will still be there. If you get stuck and you need to know how a medieval saddle was made, or what underclothes a woman of the house wore, or if you are uncertain whether house servants were male or female—go back and check. There will always be sticking points. And believe it or not, most of it is probably unimportant. Too many facts can make a story feel like wading through mud.

The temptation to show the reader how brilliant you are by laying down so much information will soon have them tossing your book aside. Readers want emotion, characters they care about. Drama is not relating facts, so don’t be scared to make a false start, or get some things wrong. The writer’s responsibility is to create a convincing and riveting story, and if you abandon history for the sake of the story do it from a knowledgeable position of having done your research.

More than anything else let’s engage the reader and have them feel as if they are experiencing the period, the events that transpired, and our characters' emotions. A well-researched novel is essential but more important than slavishly following facts is to create a strong sense of atmosphere and authenticity.

Creative Writing 101

Are you one of those people who have thought, “I’d like to write a book someday, but I don’t know where to start”? If yes, then this is the course for you. All you need is to open yourself up and allow your ideas to flow, plus a writing implement to capture those ideas.

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