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

Balancing Authenticity with 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.

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 Certainly, the internet is a treasure trove of interactive maps, images, videos, and historical documents, which can be both informative and inspiring.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?

I Came Across this useful article today on writers digest, by author Susanna Calkins (author of A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate). I did click the share button but apparently it doesn’t translate to wordpress very well so I have extracted the tips to here. But please visit the full article using the link below.

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

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