Library Pumpkin

Library pumpkin (noun): a person that flourishes best between bookshelves.

How historically accurate should a book be?


I am watching Reign on Netflix. It is pretending to be about the life of Mary Queen of Scots and her life at the French court, but this is a lie. It is historical fanfiction filled with beautiful people, beautiful dresses, and beautifully over the top storylines. This post began as a really long rant about it actually, but it’s kind of boring and over done, so (luckily for you) I deleted that and am going to talk more about historical accuracy.

I am a history nerd. I studied history at university and still try and read historical books where I can, and believe me when I say I know how boring history can be. It can be dry. It can be full of confusing dates and have a cast of fifty people where at least ten are called Henry and fifteen are called Mary. I know. I’m not some kind of historical purist who thinks that everything must be AS IT SAID IN THE HISTORY ESSAY.

Tweaking makes sense

I fully support an author’s right to play or tweak with history when writing their story – they are writing a novel after all, not a thesis. You shouldn’t cram your story with true but boring facts, if it is dull, or irrelevant, or going to slow your story down. If you have four historical figures called Richard, and one of them isn’t so relevant to your story; I see nothing wrong with removing them, or merging two together (sorry, Richard). As a novelist, or short story writer or whatever, your priority is to tell an entertaining story, not bog the reader down with confusing overlapping courtiers. For instance. To simplify your plot makes you a considerate writer in many cases.

One of the best and also most frustrating things about history is that it is incomplete. We don’t have Cleopatra’s private diary, explaining why she has done everything. Thomas Cromwell wrote a lot, but sadly, a detailed blog about if/how he set up Anne Boleyn to fall does not exist. We don’t know what peasants in the 13th century thought about their King, or what most ladies in the 1700’s felt about their husbands and children, because often they couldn’t write. And even those who we consider pretty well covered when it comes to sources – let’s take Queen Victoria, for instance, who kept a pretty detailed journal and wrote thousands of words in letters each week – we still can’t know everything that she thought, and felt and every conversation that she had.

This is where both historian and novelist begin to fill in the gaps. We know that Elizabeth Woodville married Edward VI, but we don’t know what she said, or did to make him fall in love; or commit to marriage; or how she spoke to him privately and persuaded him to promote her family – if she did at all. This is what I look for in a story. And by filling the gaps, a writer creates vivid characters, a real world; something that brings history to life.

Plus, history isn’t static. When new sources are discovered, new opinions are created. As we make progress, we look back with new, enlightened ideas – so just as there has been the emergence of historians looking specifically at women who have been invisible for so long, there will be more groups of people who look back on periods of time with different eyes. Revision is endemic, and I fully believe novels have their place in opening our minds to new historical conclusions.

History provides an authoritative frame for your story

Historical details are so important to any story. You have to build a world as much as any fantasy writer. It is the same for any type of writer – whether you write dystopian fiction or something set in New York in the 90’s – a reader needs a consistent world to sit in and watch your story unfold. Details about clothes, food, decor – they all build this world, as well as your credibility as an author. If you don’t know about your world, how can you expect a reader to?

Historical context is also vital. While details might tell me that the tankard is made of pewter; the bread contains arsenic to make it white; the condom is made from lamb intestines; descriptions to make me see the world, context helps me understand it. For both writers and readers, the context can help you understand character choices, motivations and feelings. A modern reader might not understand why a young pregnant woman might choose to be burned alive rather than recant her religion, but if you can place her within the historical context, we might feel more sympathy (and perhaps more understanding about events happening in our own world – but that’s a discussion for another day).

(The flip side of this is that often writers – in books, film, and TV – can push modern sentiments on historical characters. I won’t go into too much detail here, but this can include a lot of proto-feminism, say, in the middle ages, where women probably wouldn’t have on the whole thought like this. Not to say they weren’t out there, but I doubt they would have been so loud about it).

Respect the past

There should be some respect for the history that you are writing about. If you are writing a story that explores the darker side of a popular historical figure – let’s go back to Queen Victoria – then it is fair enough to show incidents regarding her temper; perhaps you find hints of a deep jealousy, or sexual feelings for another man, and you build a story around them: this is artistic license. Writing that she then has a secret baby drowned is unfair.

I always enjoy author’s notes at the end – I think it is good practice for a writer to explain where they have made changes and why. But this isn’t always suitable. I’d also just like to point out that this post doesn’t concern ‘speculative history’ (I have no idea if that is a real term, but it seems like it should be); i.e. books that imagine that Hitler won World War II and follow the story to it’s logical conclusion. These are concerns that I have with specifically historical fiction.

There will always be an element of glossing over the dull details, exaggerating faults and qualities to make characters fit a particular role and making creative leaps to explain how someone gets from Point A to Point B: this is storytelling, and in historical fiction the story should always be more important than the history. I just ask that when filling in the gaps, you don’t fill them with rubbish.

What do you think? Do you like your historical novels accurate or am I making a fuss over nothing? What is your favourite historical book? Let me know in the comments or tweet me @LibraryPumpin!

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This entry was posted on March 29, 2016 by in Discussion, Fiction and tagged , , , , .
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