By Helen Hollick
B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree
Don’t we all? Well, I assume most visitors glancing through this article are keen to write, hence reading this in the first place. (Although, of course, I might be jumping to conclusions – some of you are also readers.)
There’s a saying ‘write what you know about’. It is, sort of, useful guide but if you want to write historical fiction – well I don’t know many people who were actually there in Roman, Medieval, Tudor or the American Civil War eras. Not in person, so it isn’t easy to know how people lived, loved, fought and died in these centuries.
Which is where research comes in. From academic books, from history magazines, from quality documentaries on T, and from the Internet. (Good old Wikipedia and Google Search!) All are useful sources for information, but beware. Not all internet sources are accurate.
I once queried some ‘facts’ used in a historical novel, tactfully implying that they were not correct. The author emailed me back, most indignant, claiming she had looked at several sources on the ‘Net. It was a fairly obscure subject so I took a look. Indeed, there were several articles, but on looking closer they all came from the same original source. Which was factually very wrong.
There are two schools of thought for writing historical novels:
- Historical fiction should be accurate to the smallest detail
- Historical fiction is fiction, it doesn’t need to be accurate; it is a story
I’m somewhere on the fence between the two. I think authors have a ‘duty of care’ to get the facts right – especially for the important stuff, but for some of the smaller details? Well, this is fiction, it is made-up interpretation isn’t it? As an example, only if you were writing alternative history would you place the Battle of Hastings in 1067 not the accurate 1066, but does it really matter if you give Eleanor of Aquitaine blonde or brunette hair? After all, there is no known factual description of her except that she was ‘fair’. Which could equally mean she was a blonde or beautiful (or both!).
There is no reason why you cannot stray from the facts – I do in my Sea Witch Voyages – but say so in an author’s note at the end; that way you are showing you do know your stuff, but as you are writing a story, the facts as they happened did not fit with your plot. (It isn’t always easy to put fictional characters where factual things happened. An issue which is most inconvenient for the novelist!)
BUT. And this is a Big Fat But: your story must feel accurate. It must be believable.
Unless it is fantasy (or all the sub-genres: time travel, alternate etc) in which case the sky’s the limit. If you were reading about Romans eating their dinner up on Hadrian’s Wall the believability of the story would be knocked for six if they were cooking rabbit and potato stew. OK, maybe not everyone knows that rabbits were not introduced to England until the eleventh century (along with the Normans,) but surely most people interested in history know that potatoes came over from the Americas during the Tudor age, some many, many centuries after the Romans had marched back to Rome?
Having said that, if you do find a possible blooper in a novel – think before slamming a 1 star rating comment on Amazon or Goodreads about it. Sometimes it is better to be quietly tactful, not loud and scathing. Word your comment carefully. No one minds constructive criticism, but nastiness can be hurtful.
“Calls herself a historian?’ [Actually I don’t, but that isn’t the point in this instance]. “Supposed to know about post-Roman Britain? Don’t make me laugh!”
So why the derision?
I refer to ‘corn fed horses’ in my historical novels: the Arthurian Trilogy and the Saxon series.
“Doesn’t she [meaning me] know where corn comes from? America – which wasn’t discovered until the fifteenth century!”
Well I could argue that in fact the Americas were discovered – and settled – in the Viking age, but leaving that aside… ‘Corn’ in America refers to corn-on-the-cob, you know, Oklahoma…. ‘The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye’, and all that.
In Britain ‘corn’ means oats and barley… edible grain. A ‘corn-fed’ horse indicates a horse owned by a wealthy person and a horse fed cereal grain not just grass and hay. It means wealth, and a fit, fast, healthy horse.
Modern-day racehorses, for instance, are ‘corn fed.’
Anachronisms are also huge spoilers. No, you do not refer to Elizabeth I as Elizabeth the First until there is an Elizabeth II until after 1953 in other words. Until then she is Elizabeth Tudor, or Queen Bess – or just plain Lizzie! Neither can you use phrases like ‘he was puffing like a train’ –not until trains were invented that is. Or ‘froze like a rabbit in the headlights’ in Stuart England? Don’t think so!
Little things can so spoil a book – would any writer refer to kangaroos wild in the English countryside pre 1700’s? We don’t have hummingbirds or blue jays in England. Robins are slightly different – n grey squirrels over here in Tudor times. Little errors can make big splashes!
Fact checking doesn’t uniquely apply to historical novels. Would a Sci-Fi novel be believable if it mentioned the planets of the Solar System were Mercury, Venus, Earth, Jupiter, Mars… Would a novel set in 2016 be believable if not one character at some point in the story used his or her cell phone?
Maybe that saying I mentioned above should be turned around a little: ‘Don’t write what you don’t know.’
Write your novel, and don’t worry too much that you don’t know how to light a fire by rubbing two sticks together, or you don’t know how to ride a horse or….
If you don’t know, do your research, check your facts.
Doing so will make all the difference to the end result.