Historical versus Fictional [Guest Post]

Last month, Joy emailed to ask if, since she was planning on taking a hiatus from the internet during November, I would be willing to help keep Fullness of Joy running by contributing a guest post.  I haven't done many of them (although I have had the honor of appearing here once before!), but I eagerly said yes - and then fell to wondering what on earth I would blog about.  Ideas always seem furthest from one's mind when they're most needed.

Fortunately, however, Joy suggested a discussion on not only researching and writing historical fiction, but the necessity - if it is a necessity - of accuracy in historical details.  The idea had been tossed around like a hot potato in my head before, and I was glad to have the chance to organize my thoughts on the subject.

The necessity of historical accuracy is a pretty well accepted concept in today's literature.  In past centuries it was typical for "historians" to twist and embellish history according to their own bias, or whoever was funding their literary efforts; nowadays there is at least an ideal of presenting a true, unbiased picture of the past (ironic, rather, since the importance of history has reached such a low in the minds of our generation).  Although we still come across novels where events or characters are blatantly misrepresented, there is a tendency to scorn the author when the mistakes are recognized.  This much is agreed upon by most writers: extensive research is indispensable.

All the same, I think just about every writer who has any scruples has wondered, just how accurate do we have to be?   How many dates do we have to incorporate?  How many events can we get away with leaving out altogether?  How much care should we take in handling a historical figure?  Why can't Abraham Lincoln be a vampire slayer?  Do we really have to specify the exact type of food banqueters in 1317 would be eating?  Is it necessary to record every single skirmish of the Civil War our particular regiment went through?  Is the whole world going to end if we get our hero's weapon wrong?  Are we actually creating a tear in the space-time continuum with our inaccuracy?

I've never gone that far in my agonies, but I confess that I have reached a place in each of the historical fictions I've written thus far where I just want to sit down, clutch my skull, and wail over the sheer amount of information bombarding me.  In The Soldier's Cross it was bad enough, trying to remember the dates of battles and who was regent while Henry V was fighting in France and what names were in use and the geography and a dozen other things.  The problem was compounded in my "sea yarns"; I'm really not sure there is anything more difficult than trying to sort out the names and uses of every rope on a sailing ship.  It's no wonder Hornblower didn't know the difference between a head and a halyard.

When we buckle down to our research, things get overwhelming.  The breadth and depth of history is so immense, how could it not be?  But it is important to know how much of the information we're gleaning is necessary, and how much is needless agonies; what amount of accuracy is critical, and what amount leads to sheer monotony.

historical data

Dates, events, language, culture - everything that doesn't relate to a personage, I lump under this heading of "data."  You might call these the threads of the historical tapestry.  They have to be in place or the whole image is distorted, but if we focus too narrowly on them, we lose sight of the whole pattern of our story and of history.  By all means, make sure that events are in their correct order; that the culture is true; that language is delivered with an eye to the period and not with this century's slang.  The story would not be historical fiction if these details were disregarded.

At the same time, we have to look at the bigger picture and recognize what data is critical, which is just there for spice, and which is totally unnecessary.  Flaunting our knowledge is not the same as delivering a well-rounded image of the period; it's just showing off, and it's irritating.  But even when we aren't flaunting, we have to realize that there are times when it is all right not to tell everything.  We do not have to show, or even mention, every skirmish our Civil War hero fought; we can cut some out altogether for the sake of cohesion and the reader.  We can throw in a few fictional skirmishes where needed.  We can even (gasp!) speed up time a little where necessary.  We are writing historical fiction, and undue emphasis should not be given to either word.  A rip in the space-time continuum is not created whenever a thoughtful author makes an alteration for the sake of the story's cohesion and power.

historical figures

In writing historical fiction, nine times out of ten we end up dealing with at least one or two real historical people; this, even more than its setting, is what makes a story historical in the first place.  It is important to get as good a handle as possible on who they were as individuals, as well as when they were born and died and what important things they did.  If you pick up on some interesting tidbit (for instance, that Henry V was called King Harry; or that Stephen Decatur was a terrible letter-writer), see if you can't work it in.  It lends spice to the character, depth to the story, and helps your own research to ring true.

The farther back you go in history, the more difficult this method is.  Especially in the Middle Ages, it can be hard to find so much as a birthdate for even the most important persons (no one knew at the time that they would end up being important).  This makes it hard to put together a decent image of, say, Henry V, but it also allows scope for the imagination for those gaps we can't fill in.  As far as we are able, though, we should try to get a feel for our historical characters.  Keep in the forefront of your mind the fact that these men and women truly lived, and respect that.  A little bit of fear about "getting it wrong" never did anyone any harm.

Abigail Hartman is the author of The Soldier's Cross, a historical novel set during the Hundred Years' War. Her debut work, it was published in 2010 by Ambassador Intl. and is newly available in Dutch through De Banier Publishing. Abigail writes both historical fiction and fantasy and also keeps a blog, Scribbles and Ink Stains, where she posts on the topics of writing, reading, and matters in between.


  1. A good, cohesive post on how to go about "doing" historical-fiction. I know researching can get tedious and even suffocating, but these are some "first-rate qualities" and with these in mind, researching can easily be made entertaining.

    I think learning is always entertaining.

    Thanks, Abigail!

  2. I agree with Jenny! A great post, Abigail, thank you for writing this :).


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