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Researching Historical Novels– My Opinion and a Little Discussion

Since I am, of course, writing a(n?) historical novel, I thought I would write a post about it.

Historical novels are quite different from other genres because, unlike for example sci-fi, where you can pretty much make stuff up, you need the details to be exact. Novels set in the present day are quite easy to write, because everything you need is all around you. But historical novels have got to be accurate or the nit-pickers will be all over it, pointing out tiny mistakes like the fact that the specific model of gun you mention was invented a year AFTER your novel is set, like it’s a big deal. So this post is going to be answering a few questions. How much research do you need to do? Are the details important? How much artistic license can you take? Does it matter if you make errors?

So, how much research do you need to do? I’ve heard different views about this point, and basically they are: a) spend loads of your time researching and make sure it’s completely accurate, and b) do just enough research so you’re not making too many historical errors, then pretty much guess or make up the bits that don’t matter.

Well, which one is right? I think it should be somewhere in the middle. Spending loads of time on research is dull and tedious. You want to get into the action and write about some interesting stuff, not sit around looking at books on your chosen era. Does it really matter that much if Victorian undergarments were white and not red, like you want it to be? Of course, people will probably correct you and it will really annoy you, but if it adds to the story then it needs to be there. What if the main point of your Victorian thriller is the invention of a primitive machine gun? A nit-picker will probably go “NOOOOOOO, they didn’t have them until 1885 and your novel is set in 1821!!!!!!!!!!! And because of this your entire book is a shambles and I HATE IT!”

About the date the machine gun was invented: according to Wikipedia, the first machine gun was invented by Sir Henry Maxim in 1885, and it was called the Maxim gun. I read something about it in Horrible Histories and I seem to remember this rhyme…

“Whatever happens, we have got

A Maxim gun and they have not.”

Referring to conquering and killing the natives of a country, I assume.

Anyway, I’m not going to pursue that tangent any further. Instead I’ll continue with my point. I don’t think it matters that much if that part of the novel is inaccurate. I like to think that a novel is a novel, ie fiction. It doesn’t have to be completely correct and if you want a book that is, then read a textbook.

On the other hand, research is essential. If you’re new to writing about a certain era, then you’ve got to get your head down and do some serious research. Because if you don’t, you might make the mistake Lauryn made when writing a piece for an end-of-year exam, set in the 1920s…

“What’s my mum going to bring me? A TV? A computer?”

And that is a pretty massive error. The nit-pickers will be all over you for that. So you do need to do research for things like that. Things that will actually make a difference to the whole background world. If it is a main part of the story (going back to the Victorian thriller, the inciting incident for the whole book could be an evil genius inventing a machine gun and going on a killing spree) then it should be excused. But if it is a slightly smaller thing that you will mention a lot, like having your characters zipping up their coats in Tudor London, then that should be fixed.

But these are pretty big things. What about the details? Like the metal Roman earrings were made of? Like the type of bum-wiping implement Medieval people used? Does that matter? Can you get that wrong? The answer, for me, is a yes. If it doesn’t impact on the story, then you can make it up. Especially if that fact is not known by us now– no scholar can tell you what actually happened instead of the thing you made up, so you might as well exploit that fact and run free. If we didn’t know how Julius Caesar died then writers would be having loads of fun making up brutal and grisly deaths for him.

But back to the details! I don’t think the little details are that important at all. The main point of the research is to make the general world convincing and transport you to another time. Yes, a little interesting detail here and there is good and even more authentic, but the story shouldn’t be weighed down with so many that the action is lost. It’s especially true for historical action/adventure, like Tacita. (Yep, I keep referencing it, sorry) I want to get down to the proper fighting stuff, not go through the exact moves and ceremony of the whole procession bit at the beginning. I don’t want to go through boring paragraphs explaining the equipment of the gladiators. For novels like this, you need to be light on the detail so the actual story can be more powerful. Here’s an example of how too much detail can be rubbish:

“I stabbed him with my iron, eighteen-inch long sword and watched him fall to the ground. I had to readjust my wide leather belt that all gladiators wore, as it was slipping down– and if it were any lower it wouldn’t be helpful and fail its purpose of blocking any attacks to my stomach which would spill my intestines everywhere.”


This actually brings me to something else. Doing all this research, it’s tempting to put all of it down into your novel, like I did up there. It’s important to see the difference between an enhancing fact and an unnecessary embellishment. The writer should know that gladiator swords were eighteen inches long, but does the reader need to know that, and especially in the heat of the action? For example, I did some research on how the gladiator school worked, like all the staff that worked there and stuff, but I haven’t included it in Tacita yet, because it’s not important for the story. I need to know that, but Tacita doesn’t, and she probably wouldn’t know either. That’s another point: if you’re writing in first person, you need to be mindful of how much the character actually knows. The writer might need to know about goings-on in 18th century Sweden but the rowdy pirate whose point of view you’re writing from won’t know. Tacita won’t know about the process of betting on gladiators, but for you it is all good research. It’s better to do too much and not include it all than do a bit and chuck it all in pointlessly.

Finally, artistic license. We know that historical movies are riddled with artistic license and errors, but that does nothing to make the movie worse. I think as long as you know the facts of what you’re changing, it’s OK. Well… as long as it is relevant and makes some sort of sense. If you want a story that will have a sequel set in World War II and you kill Hitler in your first book, then you’ve got a problem. If it is interesting and important, for example in a conspiracy-theory type of book, then go right ahead. As long as it improves it and makes for a more exciting tale.

I think that’s it, and sorry if I rambled or made no sense. It was hard to get all my thoughts down!

Your researching blogger, Jaz



One comment on “Researching Historical Novels– My Opinion and a Little Discussion

  1. Good that you’ve thought about this and taken the trouble to record your thought processes. If you’re going to include detail and you want to appeal to an intelligent readership, then you must ensure that the detail is right. If you’re content merely to have quantity of readers rather than quality, clearly it doesn’t matter too much whether you include lots of detail or whether it’s accurate. I don’t think that Mills & Boon novels are going to win a Nobel, Pulitzer or Man Booker prize, but they certainly sell in huge quantities.

    However, for lasting success just consider Ian Fleming or Frederick Forsyth. When they didn’t actually know precise detail, they researched it.

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