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« A Welfare to Arms | Main | Your Book is Out, Now What? »
Sunday
Nov112012

Getting It Right: Details in Historical Fiction

Guest Post by Irene Watson

Historical fiction may be read for entertainment, but it also has to be accurate; authors gain the reader’s suspension of disbelief only if they recreate a realistic time period. Understanding the line between history and fiction, the need for accuracy, and the degree of detail required will make the difference in creating convincing and engaging historical fiction.

Writing historical fiction can be both a difficult and rewarding experience for an author. It can require a fair if not a great amount of research and attention to detail, but it also leads to fascinating new information and it can be the gateway to educating readers in both an informative and highly entertaining format. Many a reader has become a student of history as the result of a historical novel. But the writer must get the details right in order for the historical experience to work.

Creating a realistic historical atmosphere requires doing research into the time period and the historical characters involved. At the same time, the author must be careful not to let the details get in the way of telling a good story. Research and historical details should not be the novel’s focus; instead, a convincing plot and realistic characters are the primary requirement. The historical details then can serve to create a believable atmosphere, and historical events can be used to motivate the main character toward decisions such as to fight in the war or to elope with her lover. History then serves as both an impetus to the characters’ growth and a stimulus to the plot.

Paying Attention to Detail

While the characters and story should be the focus over the details when writing historical fiction, nevertheless, authors must pay attention to the details to make the story realistic and not to introduce any anachronisms. The writer must question everything for its historical detail before mentioning it in the novel. Following is a short list of some details that demand focus:

  • ·         Flora and Fauna:
  • ·         Food & Drink:
  • ·         Inventions:
  • ·         Dates and Time:

Remember this is a short list, and the author should question everything for its historical accuracy before including it.

How Detailed Must You Be?

You don’t need to understand everything about the time period to write a historical novel. After all, how much do we really know and understand even about our own time period? If researching and reading about some historic event, fact, or detail bores you, you’ll be bored writing about it, and if you’re bored, chances are your readers will be bored also. So focus on what interests you and use broad brush strokes so the details don’t bore. While the characters need to feel real and time-appropriate, you don’t have to prove to the reader how much you know. People do not read historical fiction so much for information as for entertainment. People care less about details like what kind of alcohol Alexander the Great might have consumed or how his armor was made than why he was so passionate and motivated in his determination to conquer the world.

Giving Yourself Room for Error

Sometimes even the best historical novelist can’t pinpoint a date or detail and has to make a decision to be historically inaccurate or settle for what seems likely but can’t be completely verified. Those decisions are difficult, but they are made easier if you let readers know your difficulties and why you decided to represent things as you did. Readers will usually forgive a little poetic license in the interests of making an engaging story, but they won’t as easily forgive historical inaccuracies that result from an author not doing his or her research.

A good rule of thumb is to provide at the back of the book a list of important sources you used for those readers who are interested. An even better idea is to add an afterword in which you discuss the time period and some of the research you did. You can assume the majority of your readers are less knowledgeable about the historical period than you are, and they will want to know how much is really true, in which case, you can answer them in this section by telling them the known facts and explaining where and why you deviated from the facts for the sake of creating a good story. Recently, mini-author interviews have become popular in the back of books where authors answer a series of questions about writing the novel and the history and facts behind its creation. Such interviews give the reader an additional feeling of engagement with a book and its author.

Writing historical fiction requires a fine line between balancing historical detail and creating entertaining characters and an engaging plot. Attention to detail with a little poetic license can create balance and provide suspended disbelief for the reader who wishes to enjoy a journey back in time.

Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find  reviews  of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity  and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.

Reader Comments (2)

Hi Irene,
Thanks for the post. As an author of an historical fiction novel, I know how hard it is to get "it" right. It took me ten years to write Silk Legacy because I was working at the time and had to keep going back to Paterson, NJ to do more research.

As to my process in writing Silk Legacy, first I decided what dates where I wanted to set my novel. then I focused my research on that period. Then I placed my characters among the well known characters of the era as if they were walking and talking and acting as one of them.

Richard Brawer
www.silklegacy.com

November 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRichard Brawer

How about the obsession to know when there was a full moon in June in 1846. Not that it was important, but I wanted to say they traveled under a full moon on the Santa Fe trail. Have you tried to find out what the weather was like on a particular day in a specific spot in the country? And all my writing is set in the 1800s where there are more records kept. I can't imagine trying to do it for centuries ago.

What baffles me is I will spend endless hours online trying to find out some tiny, insignificant piece of knowledge, and it will never appear in the book. But I need to know.

November 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPat Brown

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