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Monday 21 November 2011

Past Perfet?

Writing historical fiction – how much of it should be historical, how much of it fiction?

by Helen

I have a confession to make; well a couple actually. One of the reasons why I so enjoy writing my Sea Witch Voyages is that because they are more adventure fantasy than historical adventure, it doesn’t matter if I get the “facts” wrong. The books are stories - sailors’ yarns. Woodes Rogers and William Dampier were in Cape Town in 1711 not 1715, as I have written. The books have an element of fantasy running through them. Sorry folks, there isn’t a real goddess of the sea, a woman cannot conjure up a wind. If two men who were real people appear in my story several years later than historical fact records, does this inaccuracy matter? I do try to get the sailing detail correct because I think by making one thread in a fantasy story as realistic as possible all the rest becomes believable – and using incorrect sailing terms will ruin the story. Facts help suspend the unbelievable. A good book makes the unbelievable believable. But how much should be "real", how much "made up"?
How far does a historical fiction author have to go to provide a good read? Are facts now becoming essential, or is the story the prime importance?

One of the reasons why I have not embarked on a follow-up to Harold The King (to be called I Am The Chosen King in the US) is because I did not have the confidence to attempt it. I suddenly felt that other superb writers – Elizabeth Chadwick, Sharon Penman, Phillipa Gregory, Susan Higginbotham etc all knew so much and knew what they were writing about. How could I possibly compete with their standard of intellect? I have no idea of Latin, I have no history degrees or specialities. I merely have a love of the periods I am interested in, and an enormous empathy with my very real to me characters.

Is that enough, now, for a modern historical novel?

Jean Plaidy, Georgette Heyer, Norah Lofts et al wrote some brilliant books, but they were far from accurate; I think one I read had Elizabeth I as a married queen (I think it was a Plaidy – can’t remember, I was only a teenager when I read it, eons ago now!) Rosemary Sutcliffe my all time author heroine, made factual errors in her stories. “A sky as blue as a Robin’s egg” is a phrase I remember from her. The American robin has a bright blue egg, the English robin’s egg is much paler. But so what? Her stories bring the past alive!

There is an error I have come across in several historical fiction books; a nautical term, mostly used as an expression but sometimes mentioned when aboard a boat. Gunwale. “Up to the Gunnels”
The Gunwales (or Gunnels) are the upper edges of the side (or bulwark) of a vessel, the uppermost planking which cover the timber-heads and reach from the quarterdeck to the forecastle; i.e. from the back to the front. The term “up to the gunnels” means full up, filled to overflowing, coming from when a vessel heels over and her gunnels are almost under water. Now, the original gunne walle circa 1500 was a platform on the deck of a ship to support the mounted guns. The word ‘gun’ somewhat gives it away! Authors writing novels set pre 1500 really should not use this term as it is so out of place. I confess I used it in my first novel The Kingmaking but I changed it as soon as I realised there would not be a Gun Wall on a post Roman boat!

Others out of place phrases I have come across: “He stood still like a rabbit caught in the headlights” ... in a novel set in Tudor England. "Let off steam", "Ok".
I know I am being picky, but Elizabeth – Good Queen Bess – referred to as ‘Elizabeth I’ in a novel about Mary Queen of Scots? Until 1953 she was the only Queen Elizabeth so people in the Tudor age would not have called her 'Elizabeth the First'. Swear words. The “F” word is of Dutch origin (Fok: meaning to penetrate) and first came into use with the spread of the Dutch East India company and the merchant shipping empires, circa 1600’s. On the other hand, any author using “Gadzooks” or similar unless writing comedy, would be laughed out of a bookstore!
In a way, does it matter what words are used though? Romans would have been talking in Latin, Saxons in "Olde English"; we are writing in modern English - a translation if you like, o mmaybe it is OK to use OK? Or is it? Out of place words do not create the right atmosphere - do not add to the illusion of believability.
We all make slips - authors are only human - but I suppose there are slips, and there are slips... Romans eating rabbit and potato stew ruined a novel I was reading. A little thing, but it made me feel I couldn’t believe the rest of the story. Surely everyone knows that potatoes came to England during the Tudor period? Maybe not so widely realised, the rabbit was introduced by the Normans.

In Harold the King I mentioned snowdrops. I searched high and low to discover whether we had snowdrops in the English countryside circa 1066, couldn’t find a single reference so went with it. A few months later I discovered the little white flower came to England much later, and is not a native plant. Oh well. I have to add here, the slip of "double headed axe"! in Harold the King was a publisher's typing error that never got corrected. I had written double-handed.
I have had a few American readers contact me about being incorrect to use “corn fed horses”. Ah, now this is a difference between American English and English English. To an American “corn” is corn on the cob – yellow sweetcorn. In England the term “corn fed” means a horse well fed on oats and barley, as opposed to grass or hay. In other words a horse belonging to someone with wealth and land, able to harvest enough to feed people and horses. A “corn fed” horse is fitter, more able, as corn will “hot” a horse up. Racehorses are corn fed. A children’s riding pony… not a good idea! And technically all horses were horses, not ponies. The word 'pony' is quite a modern invention, but how many of us authors are going to write "little horse" - especially when considering prior to the 1100's most horses were little, what we now call ponies, anyway!

So how far do we go with accuracy? I read with interest a note Sharon Penman recently put on Facebook. She has used accurate moon phases for the novel she is writing about Richard I and the Crusades. While writing Bring It Close, I became aware, during editing, that I had a full moon half way through October and it was still a full moon two weeks later. These sort of inaccuracies are most important to check, I think, because otherwise the author is not bothering with the detail of continuity. And if the author can’t be bothered with his or her story, why should the reader? I once mentioned a similar sort of inaccuracy to an author I know – how could her characters see that a valley was beautiful in the pitch black of night? Her answer “No one will notice” appalled me. I noticed, and you can bet your life other readers would.
For Sharon’s novel the moon phases are the icing on the cake: when the Muslim fasting for Ramadan starts at the sighting of the new moon in her novel– it really was the start. Thanks to Google and NASA technology these dates can now be checked. But in an ordinary scene where a character is looking at a new moon on the day before the Battle of Hastings, for instance? Does it matter if the moon phase is precise? Maybe if there is a documented mention “the moon was new on the night before battle” then yes, include it, otherwise will it really spoil the story if we make this sort of thing up?

Just how much accuracy are we, as authors, now expected to include?

All historical fiction amounts to imagination and interpretation Are we, as authors, taking “facts” a little too far in our writing? Are you, as readers, expecting the “facts” to be factual?
I had a “discussion” with a Facebook friend about historical fiction. We were debating the atrocities (committed on both sides) of the Crusades. I mentioned that I knew little of the period and that most of my knowledge came from watching BBC documentaries and from good historical fiction. He poo-poohed that statement saying he never touched historical fiction as it was all romantic rubbish. I begged to differ and offered him a challenge. “Read a Sharon Penmen, then tell me historical fiction is romantic rubbish.”

I have learnt so much from Sharon's writing about the history of Wales. I was totally unaware Wales even had a prince called Llewelyn ap Fawr and was astounded to discover his wife was an illegitimate daughter of King John. “Here Be Dragons” taught me one heck of a lot of history. I was interested enough in the story to go away and look up what was fact and what wasn’t – and remembered the “facts” because they were written as enthralling, exciting – or gut wrenching sad – scenes in a novel. I was disappointed to learn from Sharon that Joanna did not burn Llewellyn’s bed, she made that scene up. The thing with such a powerful scene like that though, as the reader you feel that it should have happened!
With Elizabeth Chadwick I hang on every word about clothing and cooking and sewing; those household details that you know she has researched down to each minute stitch.

Whuch brings me back to making the past perfect. I’m not sure I have the confidence or know enough “stuff” to be able to write another epic tome of a historical fiction novel that borders on historical faction. I intend to write a follow-on to Harold the King/I Am The Chosen King. At the moment it is called The Lost Kingdom and centre around Hereward and rebellion against Duke William, but can I face the depth of research that I will have to do? The prospect is daunting.
I enjoy research, I enjoy using logic, instinct – and a heavy dose of make believe - when blending what happened and where it happened with why and how it happened. I’m not sure I want to have to be so precise with every little detail, though. I want to concentrate on the characters, their emotions what made them “tick”, in so doing, without the depth of "fact" will I be letting myself and my readers down?

Does the past have to be perfect in a novel - or not?

Blogger bren said...


Great blog! I for one enjoy a good author's note that distinguishs between fact and fiction in a reliable manner. I loved the scene where Joanna burned Llewelyn's bed, even though it was completely fiction. I trust the author to decide what fits and what doesn't. I am not particular about the minute details-clothes, food, etc, but I am particular about someone marrying a certain character, or accusing someone of witchcraft when there was never proof of such a thing. I have never read a Jean Plaidy novel because of her innaccuracy. To be fair, she didn't have the resources we all have now and I'm not sure her novels were meant to be historical fiction as much as it was meant to be romantic fiction.

Blogger Daphne said...

I absolutely adored your Harold and think Harold the King is one of the best books I have read on the conquest. I enjoyed The Hollow Crown as well and hope you decide to go forward with your project. I don't think it has to be perfect - a great story can forgive a lot. And author's notes are a great way to "fess up".

Blogger Kelly said...

Great blog and very insightful to your readers! Just remember, the genre is called historical "fiction". I think an author has a responsibility to be accurate but I don't think that includes everything down to the minute details. If that were the case, the wonderful storiies you, Sharon Penman and Elizabeth Chadwick write would read like dry scholarly textbooks! And there are times when the truth is stranger than any fiction writer's imagination. Take, for example, the scene in Sharon Penman's 'When Christ and His Saints Slept' when Maude escaped a seige by lowering herself from a castle window wrapped in a white sheet to blend in with the winter storm around her; then calmly walked right through Stephen's army lines to safety. I remember reading Sharon's Author's Note and being reassured that the event actually did happen! Absolutely amazing! You did touch on one thing that absolutely irks me and that is the language used. I think Sharon is a master of capturing the flavor of the times but still making it flow smoothly and understandable to all of her 21st century readers. I also love the way you make Jesemiah seem to have two completely different accents - when I read your dialog I can just 'hear' him in my head! I think that since your recent novels are centered around pirates, the accuracy of the sailing detail is crucial; as you said, that level of detail makes the unbelievable believable and if that is believable then the fantasy element of the stories becomes believable. And that's the bottom line, isn't it? To make readers beleive and love the characters as much as you do! I know I'm hopelessly enamoured with Jesemiah and can't wait to go on his next adventure with him!

Oh, and by the way, don't ever feel intimidate by Sharon Penman, Elizabeth Chadwick or any other author - you are the best at what you do and that's good enough for all your readers!

Blogger Judith Arnopp said...

You are, as I think you know, one of my favourite authors and I am now in a fervour of excitement for The Lost Kingdom. So you have to write it now!
I have a masters in medieval history and have never noticed any failing in your work. To be honest I think a historical novel can be too detailed, often the author becomes so engrossed in getting the details right that the passion is missing. Your characters are real, your settings splendid and i am looking forward to seeing what you can do with Hereward.
I am considering doing a follow up to Peaceweaver, tracing the Godwinson brothers in Ireland and Eadgyth's sons attempts to regain power in wales. the research is daunting but hey, Helen, that is what we live to do, isnt it?

Anonymous Linda Proud said...

This was a wonderful posting, thank you Helen. I've put in a link to it from my blog, where I had a few other observations to make. See

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that books should not be obviously wrong to the majority of the readership, and that's it.

I wrote a story set in an alternate 1860, I decided not to bother with getting language right though I advoid modernisms.However, I spent ages getting the railway lines, journey times and hotels correct. Go figure? :-)

John Booth

Blogger maiden said...

You make excellent points and I have to agree. I have read Arthurian books where I was immediately put off simply because the writer used numerous examples of modern day terminology. I've participated in fanfiction role plays based in Dark Age Britain for almost 7 years now and would grit my teeth at people who used words that were out of place. So I do believe writers of historical fiction should take the time to research their history. And after having read six of your novels, I can say with confidence that you are one of those talented writers who have obviously done their research. I never picked up on any of the mistakes you've mentioned about your own novels. I usually look up the root of a word if it trips me up when I read it in the context of a sentence. But funny you should mention the root of 'Fuck' as I've never looked that one up, but I am guilty of using it in dialogs within the Dark Ages. Oops. *laughs* I want to believe that what I am reading 'is' historically accurate - as much as it can be. But I do not think you have to be a scholar to write about any given period in history. As I already said, your novels are outstanding and I feel as if I'm living the past when I read your works. So write the next Harold book! Don't let anything hold you back from something you are passionate about! You will know what feels much research you should do and so on.
And thank you for the explanation on the corn-fed horses! I've often wondered about that term when reading Arthurian books!

It is impossible to research every little detail when writing even the shortest pieces of historical fiction, simply because the resources are endless and at times can be contradictory too. But I do believe that an author has a responsibility to give their readers an overall feeling of authenticity. And that is the bottom line for me as a reader - whether or not I believe what I'm reading.

Great blog entry!!

Cat (your nutty graphic designer)

Blogger Mari said...


I'm learning so much from reading your blog (and Linda's). I appreciate your generosity. As most readers are not degreed in history or historical research (thank God) I believe a good story, well told, wins the day. Unless there's a glaring error that takes us out of the story, we blithely sail through and have a wonderful time!

Anonymous Elizabeth said...

I think different people turn to Historical Fiction for different things. Some love the HISTORICAL aspect almost above the fiction, others the FICTION above the history. I lean towards the former because, whilst I love being swept away by a narrative, if something is written that I know is simply wrong - the author is ruined along with the book. By this, I mean I'll be incredibly unlikely to read any more of their work.
I have no problem with judgements based on evidence, where no "truth" is known and logical assumptions are made, or if an Author's Note explains any small changes.
I agree, though, that overselling research in a book is just as bad as a glaring mistake - if I want to read everything about a subject, I'll find a non-fiction book or consult primary sources (if available).
It's difficult to find the balance between research and story, but I think you handle it brilliantly! Keep up the good work!

Blogger Celia Hayes said...

I'm a bit torn also, between getting small details absolutely positively right and also to tell a ripping good story. It does ruin a darned good read to trip and fall flat over a historical anomaly. I reviewed a very interesting novel about the life of Sarah Royce, who traveled west in a wagon train about the time of the Gold Rush, but there were numerous small things that raised my eyebrow, starting with high-mountain trees growing around a spring in the desert. The book was by a professor of history,and published by a university press - so I was really taken back by that, and some other mistakes.
OTO - I am working on a story now, involving Sam Houston's retreat across Texas after the fall of the Alamo ... and I have a fourteen year-old boy (who was a historic person and the son of an Alamo defender) enlisting in Houston's army, much over his mother's objections, and then running off to fight in the San Jacinto battle. The real person did no such thing, although he did accompany his widowed mother in the retreat to the east, and might very likely have been tempted to do so. But - it makes such a good story!
(I'll cover myself by putting in historical notes at the end, of course!)

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