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historical novels – how accurate are they?

I was talking to an elderly lady yesterday who complemented me on the accuracy of my wartime novels. ‘It must have been especially hard for you to get them right,’ she said. ‘As you weren’t there at the time.’ And that made me start thinking about how ‘right’ historical novels ever really are.

Clearly all historical fiction is fabricated in some way. Hilary Mantel was not present in the Tudor court (as far as we know), nor did Steven Saylor ever don a toga and wander the streets of ancient Rome. Mary Renault was never pally with Alexander the Great, and I wasn’t even a twinkle in my mother’s eye during the Second World War.

So would it have made any marked difference to my novels if I could remember cowering under a Morrison shelter as a child?morison shelter

Personal memories are clearly useful, but we also all know that memory can be faulty. People often ‘remember’ things that other people have told them, or that they have read about. Our recollections are always in some way overlaid by our own ‘world view’. My sister’s memories of our childhood often don’t correspond with my own (I’m quite sure I never pretended to be a puppy living in the wardrobe!) I have equally found in my own research that people’s retrospective view often varies wildly from letters and diaries written at the time. For example, the post war mantra of ‘We all pulled together’ sits oddly with numerous diary gripes about petty theft, looting and prejudice.

Received wisdom and the wisdom of hindsight is often a problem for historical novelists. I believe that a crucial part of the writer’s job is to re-explore the era and to re-examine what people really were feeling, thinking and doing at the time the novel is set. The most effective way to do this is to study the history, investigate different reports of specific events, read diaries, letters, magazines, newspapers, listen to old radio shows (I still giggle at the idea of the indefatigable Sandy Macpherson and his everlasting organ!), and yes, if possible, to talk to people who were there.

When you pull all this information together you get a real feel for the specific era you are writing about, but of course, even then, it is still only background material. The key skill of any successful novelist is the ability to create three dimensional, empathetic characters and to weave them into a plot which will not only transport readers to the time and place of the story but will also give them a compelling reading experience.

So, yes, when writing any type of fiction it’s clearly vital to get it as ‘right’ as is humanly possible, but I don’t believe it’s necessary to have ‘been there at the time’ in order to create a sense of authenticity. If that was the case the number of historical novels on our shelves would be very limited – and science fiction novels nonexistent!

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18 thoughts on “historical novels – how accurate are they?

  1. Inge Van Loco on said:

    Nice post! It is indeed very important to be careful when using primary or oral sources. Even diaries can be ‘coloured’. People are often careful in what they write down because they keep in mind that someone else might read it. Some facts might be left out or the truth twisted. The same is true for chronicles or biographies. We must be aware of certain political goals that might affect the truth … Quite frustrating sometimes 😉

    • Yes, indeed, I have found quite a difference between ‘private’ dairies and diaries written with an eye to possible publication. Probably we’ll never know the ‘real’ truth about the past – ‘truth’ only really exists in our minds anyway!

  2. Memories and memoirs are a useful resource but I agree you need to be wary. I think it was Gillian Tindal in her local history book The Fields Beneath (about Kentish Town in North London) said that there was always a golden age when summers were long and everyone was happy and its always about 60 years ago – whenever the person was born.
    Last year I worked on an Heritage funded oral history project – turning thousands of hours of recordings into a 200 page book – and there are some subjects that certain people were gurenteed to be unreliable about. One 90 year old talked of his mother cooking roast dinners every day when he was a school boy “marvelous they were.” I think he was really remembering a much loved mother, a happy home, and an awareness that some of his neighbours went to bed hungry. As a child I don’t imagine he knew much about food shopping, cooking, budgeting, meal planning and as a boy he wasn’t expected to take an interest. I did think though he had a good memory for street games and street life in general and had vivid recall about being a teenager in WWII.

    • Thanks, very interesting. Yes it seems the ‘golden age’ syndrome is often present. Woody Allan’s film Midnight in Paris is based on the premise that the era before ours is always the one we hanker for!

  3. Thank-you for this. So happy to have found your blog. P.

  4. Than-you for this. So happy to have found your blog.

  5. Britha Parekh on said:

    Clearly the script writers of The White Queen have been using Now and OK magazine for research.

  6. Very much enjoyed this. 🙂 Thank you, Helen. Sentimental memory has a lot to answer for in perverting the ‘truth’ of period, in people who DID experience it.

  7. Trish on said:

    Hi Helen,

    Love your Lavender Road series. When will see number 4?



    • Thanks for your message. I’m so pleased you have enjoyed the Lavender Road books. I am working on number 4 now. The working title is LONDON CALLING. I’m afraid it won’t be out for quite a while, probably early next year. But I hope it will be worth the wait!

  8. Interesting post Helen – I am currently working on my second historical fiction novel and spend at least as much time studying the period as actually writing. I find it’s the small details that really make the difference – often things we were never taught at school!

    • Thanks you, glad you liked it. Absolutely right, it is little details, the ones other people don’t always know, which imbue the writing with a sense of authority. That gives the reader confidence and helps create the ‘authenticity’.

  9. Kerry on said:

    A thought provoking post, Helen. In my novel I included 4 chapters set in the US although I’ve never been there. I relied heavily on a US based friend to help me add the life and ‘color’ needed to create a sense of authenticity. I’ve had no negative feedback yet from any US readers – it’s all been very positive.

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