The genre of Historical Fiction has gained popularity in recent years with the success of works such as The Outlander Series, by Diana Gabaldon, The Wolf Hall Trilogy, by Hilary Mantel, and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. As readers look more frequently for stories set in the past, the debate of where author responsibility for historical accuracy lies becomes more prevalent.
Some writers claim historical accuracy is secondary to story, while others believe in responsibility to the reader to show historical accuracy in the writing. Because of the rise of this genre, considering the importance of historical accuracy becomes relevant for writers who want to write historical fiction.
Importance of Accuracy
Most readers of historical fiction will dive into a story without checking whether the writing is historically accurate.
If the story is well written and the experience of reading entertaining, one might argue the historical accuracy for the reader is irrelevant.
However, the writer has an unspoken contract with the reader, exchanging the time required to read the work of historical fiction in return for a compelling story. For the reader, they are not only giving their time, but their trust in the writer.
And while a writer might want to create imaginative worlds and characters within a certain historical time-period, they have an obligation to the reader to deliver a story with proper research.
Furthermore, the readers today have unlimited and immediate access to historical information from the internet.
Readers may lose faith in writers when discrepancies in the historical facts of the writing are found without a clear reason why.
But a writer of fiction is not necessarily a historian. Their primary job is to tell engaging stories. So how does a writer marry, or in some cases balance, the idea of accuracy in research with imagining a story of fiction?
How Accurate Historical Details Strengthen a Story
Once a writer chooses a historical time-period or figure for a story, they must make decisions of where to use historical fact versus fiction.
Consider the historical setting.
If a writer creates a story set in Colonial America in 1750, they might want to research details of clothing, furniture, language used, foods eaten, etc. These details, when shown with historical accuracy, set a foundation for the story to evolve.
The characters might be completely imaginative but what they wear and how their mannerisms are portrayed, when historically accurate, will allow the reader to enter the dream of the story during a time-period unlike their own with confidence.
Diana Gabaldon has revealed in more than one interview the voice of Claire in Outlander, came to her in a contemporary language.
While she set the story in 18th century Scotland, the voice of Claire felt fully formed and modern. This character inspired her to add the time travel element to her 18th century Scottish story.
Within this series, Gabaldon conducted much historical research and offers her readers an imaginative story of fictional characters acting next to real historical figures and events. The result is a compelling and highly successful series.
When considering historical figures, the writer might choose a real person from history, as Hilary Mantel does with Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall.
While the writer might have access to historical records, documents, personal journals, etc. the writer cannot possibly know what the private conversations of these figures entailed or even what some of their most regular habits in life might have been.
However, when fictionalizing these moments, a writer can give authenticity to these characters by researching what might have been expected practices in their daily life.
How Inaccurate Details Can Weaken a Story
Just as accurate details can strengthen a story and give writers a framework in which to create, inaccurate historical details due to poor research has potential to weaken a story and, to a greater degree, perpetuate limited thinking.
Limited thinking can happen if details are made up concerning people and cultures that are historically underrepresented or oppressed.
Honoring the history of people who have lived before us with fair and proper research allows for authentic writing and rich stories.
For the writers who find they must bend the facts of history for the sake of their story and are choosing to do this with a clear purpose for the betterment of the writing, an author’s note or disclaimer shows the reader what to believe, and what to suspend in their belief of the facts.
Places to Begin Research
Writing historical fiction does not mean relaying the facts of history in a way that dulls or detracts from the imagination of the writer.
For writers who are ready to delve into historical fiction, but still do not know where to begin their research, consider how the following might work for a writer as structural foundations for a work of fiction. Begin by choosing the time-period or historical figure for your story.
- Clothing styles
- Food and drink
- Colloquial phrases
- Terms of endearment and phrases of insult
Find more information on the definition and examples of historical fiction here https://fictionary.co/journal/historical-fiction-definition-and-examples/
Historical fiction allows readers to experience the past in a unique way.
Writers of historical fiction can deepen that reader experience through stories that reveal both the imagination of the author and the reality of the past through careful and responsible research.
Article Written by Heather Wood
By combining my experience of teaching writing at the secondary level with a Fictionary StoryCoach Edit, I will help you strengthen your story while honoring the care and effort you have dedicated to your art.
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