I do a lot of research for my J.F.Penn thrillers and strive for historical accuracy in all my books, but historical fiction writers definitely have far more of a challenge!
Historical fiction readers are devoted to the genre and may know even more than the author about the period.
So how do you balance accuracy with authenticity of story? In today's article, historical fiction editor, Andrew Noakes, gives some tips.
“This is the worst book I’ve read in my life. It’s full of historical inaccuracies. If you’re looking for an author who knows something about their period, don’t bother.”
This is the review that all historical fiction authors dread. No matter how many hours of research you’ve done, no matter how much effort you’ve put into ensuring every detail is historically accurate, there’s always the niggling fear that you’re going to be blindsided by embarrassing mistakes and oversights.
Historical fiction readers aren’t just looking for a great story. They’re looking for a story that immerses them into a historically authentic world – a world imbued with the conventions, language, and practices of an earlier time.
So how do you make sure you give them that?
Simple, surely? You do your research, stick to the facts, and make sure you depict everything accurately.
In truth, it’s more complicated than that.
- How can you accurately produce historical dialogue when people used to speak in Middle English…or Latin?
- What about when people from the past actually defied the established conventions and stereotypes of their time?
- How will your reader know what to believe?
The trick is to understand the distinction between authenticity and accuracy. Yes – historical fiction readers want to be immersed into an authentic world. In other words, a world that feels accurate.
Very often, this means creating a historically accurate depiction. But, when accuracy becomes alienating or confusing – or when it counterintuitively detracts from the feeling of authenticity – you’ll have no choice but to fictionalise the past.
Figuring out how to do this and where the boundaries lie can be challenging, so I’ve put together five top tips for helping you achieve authenticity when it conflicts with accuracy.
1. Don’t write dialogue like you’re Chaucer
“Sir,” quod this Somnour, “hayl! and wel a-take!”
“Wel-come,” quod this yeoman, “and every good felawe!
Wher rydestow under this grene shawe?”
Seyde this yeoman, “wiltow fer to day?”
If you’re striving for true historical accuracy in your 14th-century novel, your dialogue should look something like this (although probably without the poetic meter and rhyme!). These lines from the Canterbury Tales are written in Middle English.
If you opt to write your dialogue like this, your readers will find it impressive for all of about 10 seconds before moving onto something more comprehensible.
Never write your dialogue in Middle English. Or Old English. Or Latin.
But don’t write it in entirely modern English either.
Here’s a modern translation of Chaucer’s lines above:
“Alright fella,” said the bailiff. “Pleasure.”
“Pleasure’s mine mate,” replied the yeoman. “Where you off to, then? Going far?”
This doesn’t really strike the right tone. While it would work fine in contemporary fiction, the modern colloquialisms will grate in a historical novel.
Here’s an alternative:
“Good morning,” said the bailiff, “Well met.”
“Well met,” replied the yeoman. “To where do you ride? Is it far?”
This works a lot better. We’ve taken out the modern colloquialisms and replaced them with formulations that were either genuinely used in some form in the late 14th century (“Good morning”) or that sound archaic or neutral enough (“Well met”) to be inoffensive to the historically conscious reader.
We’ve also used some phrasing that sounds slightly archaic but is perfectly intelligible (“To where do you ride?”). At the same time, all of the unintelligible or jarring words and phrases from Chaucer’s version are gone. No “quods”, no “seydes”, no “wiltow fer to days”.
If you can learn to navigate these compromises and strive for authenticity rather than pure accuracy in your dialogue, you’ll have one important element of writing immersive historical fiction nailed down.
2. Stay away from anachronistic words…even when they’re not anachronistic
Here’s a little test: which one of these terms of endearment was not used prior to 1600?
What? Surely none of them were, right? Wrong.
Only “baby” was not used as a term of endearment prior to 1600 (it was first used in this way in the 19th century). The others go way back – “sweetheart” to the 13th century, “honey” to the 14th, and “darling” – well that goes back all the way to the 9th century!
The point is this – word origins can be counterintuitive. You could use “honey” in your 14th century novel, but your readers may well refuse to believe it was really used in that context back then.
They may even leave a review accusing you of using historically inaccurate language. How annoying is that?
The reality is that, if the word feels wrong for your time period, your readers are probably going to object.
As perverse as it may sound, you’re better off staying away from words that could be jarring in this way. Something like “my love” is always going to be a safer option than “honey”.
Other words can catch you out in the opposite way.
The word “sadistic” sounds neutral enough that it might go back a few hundred years in one form or another, but, actually, its first recorded use was in 1892. The word “boycott” also goes back to only 1880. “Silhouette” was used in its broad sense only from 1843.
What do these words all have in common? They were named after people.
Whether or not you use them in stories set earlier than their true origins depends on your risk appetite. A word like silhouette, for example, is very unlikely to attract objections or to detract from the sense of authenticity in your novel, but the lesson is to never assume!
3. When the truth is stranger than fiction, make use of perspective
In history, the truth can be stranger than fiction. Often, this makes for great stories. Other times, it’s a recipe for confusion and disbelief.
Did you know, for example, that in the late 1700s it was thought that a man could avoid taking on the debts of a woman he married if she were to be naked (or almost naked) during their wedding ceremony?
Would a general reader really believe this if you included it in your historical fiction novel? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
That doesn’t mean you can’t include things like this, though. If you think a reader might find something strange or unbelievable, then acknowledge it as such and provide an explanation.
How do you do this?
Simple. Make use of perspective.
Going back to the example of naked weddings (or smock weddings, as they were called), if you depict one or refer to one in your novel, then also depict one of your characters finding it strange and hard to believe.
Perhaps you have a character of a sensitive and sheltered disposition who thought such things were a myth and is horrified that they really happen. This then gives you an opportunity to acknowledge your readers’ disbelief while reinforcing the truthfulness of the depiction – for example, by having another character explain that they’re real and have been going on for years.
4. Acknowledge stereotypes even if you want to defy them
Historical facts can go the other way, too. Take the following stereotypes:
- Upper-class men never used to attend childbirth. Wrong! Though certainly uncommon, there are examples of it happening.
- Women didn’t fight. Wrong! There are hundreds of examples of women leading armies into battle or fighting alongside men, sometimes in disguise.
- Women didn’t inherit property. Wrong! It could happen, even under the system of primogeniture (right of succession of the first-born child). Unless an ‘entail’ specifically forbade it, daughters could inherit land and property if there were no sons.
The problem is that these stereotypes are so well entrenched that a reader might not believe you if you depict one of your characters defying them.
As above, if you want to defy them, you’re going to have to at least acknowledge them.
Want to portray your Regency hero rushing to his wife’s side during childbirth? Fine, but have another character acknowledge that he’s deviating from a custom.
Want to depict your medieval heroine going into battle? Alright, but be prepared to show what tricks, political power, or unusual circumstances allowed her to do so.
5. Not everyone used to play by the rules
It’s worth considering that historical conventions were observed in the same way that modern conventions are observed – imperfectly. People used to ignore the rules. People used to misunderstand them. People weren’t aware of them.
Before you make every single character in your novel a devout rule-follower, consider that this might make for a less interesting story.
Sure, it was a social faux pas during the Regency era for a gentleman to initiate a conversation with a lady he did not know, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, and it certainly doesn’t mean you can’t put it in your novel.
Just make sure you don’t portray everyone doing it, and use the other characters’ reactions to show that it was considered a breach of etiquette.
Likewise, you can portray a Regency-era woman breaking through gender conventions. Just make sure you make it clear what obstacles she faces, what the limitations are, and how much conflict it causes.
Don’t live in fear of a bad review
Bonus tip – don’t live in fear of a bad review. It might happen to you even if you follow all the rules. It might not. Do your research. Check your facts. Use these tips to mitigate the risks. And then move forward.
Historical fiction authors can become buried in the search for accuracy, so much so that they’re too afraid to publish. So much so that the story takes second place to the history. This doesn’t need to be you.
Make sure your novel feels authentic, but don’t lose sight of writing the story you want to write.
Do you write historical fiction? What aspects of accuracy vs. authenticity do you wrestle with? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Andrew Noakes is a specialist historical fiction editor. You can get a free copy of his complete guide to accuracy and authenticity in historical fiction here, including a 3 step plan for ensuring historical authenticity in your novel, advice on how to balance historical accuracy with creative license, and useful research tips to help you avoid historical howlers. You can also visit his website and blog at TheHistoryQuill.com.
[Costumed woman photo courtesy Nick Karvounis and Unsplash.]
Steve Turnbull says
The Tiffany Effect is a very real thing: Theophania is “Tiffany” and is an Ancient Greek name. Here’s an article about it:
Google Ngrams is your friend (at least as far back as 1800) – along with an etymology dictionary because even if a word was in use, it may not have meant the same thing.
I write mostly late Victorian/Edwardian crime thrillers and action adventure, and I check every risky word (knowing which words are risky is an important trick). Sometimes I will plump for a modern word that was just coming into use over an archaic word that would be far more likely to be used at the time. Ultimately it’s about communicating the story to the user.
My wife writes Regency mysteries, her historical knowledge is far better than mine. She reads a lot of them but many get binned because of stupid inaccuracies.
Andrew Noakes says
Thanks Steve. That’s a good point about Google Ngrams – it’s a great tool, but, yes you need to be careful. Words also took different forms the further back you go, including a lot of hyphenation, so you definitely need to know what you’re looking for.
April Munday says
I often find that book reviews go the opposite way to the example in the first paragraph. I can’t count the number of reviews I’ve read that say, “The author has obviously done his research”, only to discover when I read the book that the author has very obviously done nothing of the sort. Nonetheless, I will still go to great lengths to make sure that I don’t get a review like the first one quoted.
Hannah Ross says
I write historical fiction and loved this post. It gets more challenging when you write about time periods with less literature/records/sources to draw upon. With Regency it’s pretty straightforward – I take up a Jane Austen novel to freshen up my immersion in the world. But in my last historical novel, I had a character sold into slavery at the Babylonian city of Sura in the 9th century. I spent probably a few days trying to dig up how much a slave would have cost in that time and place. I ended up despairing and just winging it.
Andrew Noakes says
It definitely gets harder the further back you go. I recently edited a novel set around 400BC, and, at that point, trying to reproduce accurate language in English, for example, becomes pretty meaningless. The sources on clothing, currency, customs, etc. are also a lot more limited. I think readers understand that the author can only do their best in that situation; as long as you’ve done a good job of re-creating the sense of the place, you’re probably fine. Well done for making the effort on the cost – I once spent several days trying to work out how much a Prussian farmer would have bet on a card game in 1807; I ended up with an approximation that I’m still not 100% happy with, despite the far greater selection of sources!
Great post! I am a newbie writer and I have 3 questions.
1) My book takes place in 1814 England… is it Regency or something else? 2)Do I have the right to call it historical fiction?
3)At the end of my book I’ve included a section,Interesting Historical Facts, which names and describes some of the characters , places, and events which are in the book and true to the time period— will readers find fault with this?
Thanks so much! Lurene
Hannah Ross says
1814 is Regency, which means you’re in luck – you have plenty of original novels you can read to get a feel of the era.
I assume many readers will gloss over the historical facts, but I can’t imagine anyone finding fault with that.
1814 is definitely the Regency era, Lurene. But you also have the right to call your book historical fiction. The Historical Novel Society defines historical fiction as anything written at least 50 years after the events described, which certainly includes your period.
From a marketing point of view, be careful before you specifically decide to call your novel a ‘Regency novel’, as this is often synonymous with ‘Regency romance’, a sub-genre all of its own. So it depends what your sub-genre is.
I don’t think readers should find fault with a historical note as long as you’re accurate!
I once got a review saying they liked the novel, but had to discount two stars, because “in Regency times women could not inherit anything”. Exactly the example from the text above. People assume things about certain time periods. Next time I will explain things, that may be perceived as extraordinary .
Andrew Noakes says
So frustrating! Sorry that happened to you, Felicity.
Sharon E. Cathcart says
I write historical fiction and cannot endorse this post highly enough. Not only do I strive to be authentic, and to do my homework as an author, but because I also love to read the genre I can tell when the author has not done the same.
Well met, and gramercy.
Vivienne Sang says
I have only recently branched out into historical fiction. I have one book published and a second one on its first rewrite.
I have a problem with speech. The first book is set in Britain in the 1st century . Many people spoke Latin, but others spoke the native Celtic languages. The second book is set during the time of the Danelaw. At the beginning, the people would be speaking ancient Danish, but later, when my protagonist goes into the Anglo Saxon lands, they speak Anglo Saxon.
I’m not at all sure how to portray this in English. I try not to use words and phrases that are too modern, but it’s difficult to decide how to translate Latin into a comprehensible, and authentic sounding English.
James Grant Goldin says
Vivienne – I think you should just do a version of Tip 1. The question is, if character A from area A goes to Area B, can s/he communicate with the locals? If so, then maybe just say that they’re talking in the native language . I remember in the old Doc Savage pulp stories, set in 1930’s New York, Doc and his men would talk in Mayan (because lost city) so the crooks couldn’t understand them. So it would just be something like, ” ‘Toss me the gun,’ Long Tom told Johnny in Mayan.” Worked fine! You do of course want to avoid any words that are too modern or too associated with a language you’re not dealing with — bedroom (or even bedchamber) might work in Latin, Anglo-Saxon or Danish, but “boudoir” wouldn’t. You can sometimes get away with identifying someone with a native expression — if you were writing a contemporary story–in say Spain, England and Denmark — you could probably get away with the occasional “Dio mio!” or “Himmel!” You could look at the way Mary Stewart did her Roman and British characters in her Merlin books. Good luck!
Andrew Noakes says
Hi Vivienne, I think James is spot on. Don’t over-think it, and don’t try and translate different languages into different forms of English. It’ll be very difficult to pull off, and your readers won’t expect you to do it. As James advised, just avoid anything too modern or associated with another language.
Frank Parker says
My novel set in 12th Century Ireland and the border between England and Wales is written in first person. The hardest part was to give some authenticity to the voice without alienating the reader with ‘Chawcerisms’. No reviewer has complained yet, although one described it as “formal and a bit stilted” and I guess that’s the price you pay!
Andrew Noakes says
It’s not an easy task, especially when you go back that far. Well done for making the effort!
Rebecca Bryn says
I sometimes think I take research to extremes. I even made sure I got the moon phase and weather right for the day back in 1840. I do try to be very careful about anachronistic words, but I do worry about using expressions that are today considered to be xxxxx the word has escaped me (I suffer from dysphasia) – when a word or expression is overused – but could have been appropriate in the time in which I’m writing. I actually enjoy the challenges accurate research places on me as a writer. At the end of my last series, after my protagonists had been around the world by convict ship and sailing ship a couple of times, I discovered there was no ship sailing to Van Diemen’s Land in time for the marriage permission that existed historically for my forebears; it would arrive two weeks too late. I had to find an alternative route and ended up in Melbourne instead of Hobart only to discover you couldn’t sail west to east at that time of year. It took some radical thinking to reach Hobart on the right day and made for an exciting ending.
Andrew Noakes says
It sounds like you take your research very seriously Rebecca! A lot of authors would probably have cut some corners with the sailing, and I would probably be fine with that as an editor. Sometimes story has to come first, and changing a few little details is usually allowed. But it’s always a risk. If you can avoid it, that’s even better. And it’s great that you enjoy it!
Noelle Granger says
This post is spot on. I struggled with voice and language for two years and think I’ve finally got it. The background must be historically accurate, but I’ve chosen to make merry with my characters because no one knows anything about them except birth, death and marriage for the most part. Especially the women – women, except for the rare exceptions, were just part of the background but they had to have voices and thoughts and emotions.
Andrew Noakes says
Thanks Noelle! I absolutely agree that, when there’s little known about the real-life characters, you should be free to fill in the gaps.
Giulia A. says
I wrote a medieval novel, Italy, 1300. It will be out in 2019 here in Italy. One of the unespected problems I faced is this: we all know so little about Middle Age, that many things real and true may seem mistakes 🙂 :-O
Thanks for the post. For the first episode of my young adult historical action adventure series, critique group readers (all over the age of 40), warned me the dialogue and first person narration felt a touch too modern to them. Conversely, my beta readers (three teen boys) liked the flow better when I had my narrator speaking roughly the same way a teen would express himself today.
To be clear, I don’t use modern slang. But my current thought is that the ribbing and joking style of teen legionary cadets would not have sounded dated to my characters, so it shouldn’t sound dated to my readers. I lean heavily on historical objects, traditions, medicines, beliefs, maturity levels, etc. to give a sense place and time, then keep the dialogue and narration at a cadence my target readers can relate to.
My editor — hired from Reedsy — agreed with this choice. Anyone have thoughts on this?
Andrew Noakes says
It’s hard to make a sound judgement without reading it, but it sounds like a fair choice to me, especially when it’s based on actual feedback from your core readers, and if the focus is more on an informal style (which absolutely would have been used in some form) rather than using modern words or slang. Good to know your editor agreed as well – it sounds like you’re on safe ground.
Mary Ellen Woods says
I struggle with dialect for my slave characters in my American Civil War trilogy. Too much dialect will turn readers off just like too much arcane language, but since most are minor characters I can work around it.
I face multiple problems with this. First, there are multiple slave dialects based on region so choosing the right one is research intensive. Second, I am not African-American and do not want to be accused of cultural insensitivity. Third, I have two educated slaves (the unusual situation discussed above) and want their language to contrast with the other slaves. I have these two speak in dialect to their masters (as not to betray their illegal education) but without the dialect to each other or to certain white characters in order to display the trust in their relationship. So this is an instance where dialogue can be used to further character and plot development.
I face a similar dialect challenge with white characters as the book centers on characters from many southern states. Some people think there is one southern accent when in truth there are many. Add in the fact that many common soldiers were uneducated and that makes their dialogue a challenge between accuracy and intelligibility for the reader.
I try to be conscious that all characters should not use the same language. Not everyone in the modern world speaks with the same formality, word choice, and so on. I give my characters (at least the major ones) some variation of ideolect which also helps reduce dialogue tags.
Then comes the strange but true. My main character is a female physician who works for the Confederate army. There is a historical precedent for her and I spend a good portion of the first book on how and why she becomes a physician to provide the perspective you mentioned.
I, like Lurene above, have chosen to include a section which cites sources since there are so many passionate Civil War buffs that might call me out on things they think they know. I taught a Civil War course for 20 years but I still have to do hours of research (such as bread baking techniques which is clearly something I didn’t teach) to find what I need to make the books accurate.
Yes, we have literary license on some things. But if you must change the facts for the story make it minor because I guarantee there will be a reader out there who will take issue. I am sure I will get something wrong and someone will point it out. Bad reviews are a part of authorship but they can be minimized by careful research and ignored when the reviewer is less informed than the author. I strive to be more informed than the majority of my readers precisely because the historical fiction reader wants to learn something.
Patricia Diaz says
Thank you for your useful tips.
To Giulia from Italy, please read all Umberto Eco’s novels. He was an scholar on the Middle Ages before he tried his luck with The Name of the Rose (a request made by a publisher to him) and discovered his vocation as historical novelist. We all know how successful he became!
Joanna Penn says
I love The Name of the Rose 🙂
Cheryl Potts says
I am in the process of editing my first historical fiction book, and all ready thinking much about the next. I have struggled with accuracy and had added a section at the end of my book explaining that the book is fiction, though I tried to keep to the facts as much as possible. What really bothers me is when I find inaccuracies in books I am using for research, not books of fiction, but non-fiction. Drives me up a wall!!!
I’m here reeling from a reviewer who was very critical of the names of my characters in a book set in 11th century England. I remember struggling between names that were so foreign as to be unrelatable, versus names that could be plausible and still relatable to a modern audience.
At the end I chose names that were not a far stretch of tbr imagination- Biblical names or names derived from Old English, but spelled differently (Heather vs hæddre). As both Anglosaxons and Normans were Christians at the time, I do not see why naming characters from the Bible would be outlandish, even if they were not popular names.
My characters were also primarily orphans, not nobles who had names more readily preserved 1000 yrs later.
What do people think of this naming dilemma I had faced?
Joanna Penn says
Some readers will always find something to criticize! Only you can decide your character names, so if you did your research and made an informed decision, and your other reviews are generally good, then relax and write the next book 🙂
@Joanna Penn- you are so right, some people will always find something negative to say, so a writer better grow a thick skin, quick! The point to glean from crazy reviews is that we can always learn something from them. @Kyrie, when someone gets unreasonably hung up on your choice of character’s names, keep in mind that this is the only person you’re hearing from on this topic. You may have others who loved your character’s names or maybe others who agreed with your critic and didn’t like them. But did the names help your writing sing in your ear when you wrote it? Did it make the characters become real people to you? If so, then those names did more than serve to help identify the characters–they helped the characters become who they are on the page. Sometimes, when you’ve written your story well, you can make the reader dislike certain characters, and the unsophisticated reader will identify this as not liking the character’s name. We all bring different experiences to what we read, so one person could read the name “Genevieve” and have a good memory or reaction while another could have just the opposite. I personally would only be concerned if these negative reviews convinced me that I had been hasty in naming my characters and that if I’d taken more time, maybe I would have connected more closely to my characters and written a better book. This is all just my opinion of course. Good luck!