Research and historical fiction - blending the facts

How do you blend the history with your story? There are no hard and fast rules, but asking yourself a few questions might help you tackle the challenge of seamlessly merging story and history.

You’ve done the research, now it’s time to write the novel. But how do you blend the history with your story? There are no hard and fast rules, but asking yourself a few questions might help you tackle the challenge of seamlessly merging story and history.

Historical novelist Lucienne Boyce offers some excellent advice...

Can I change the facts to fit the story?

All historical novels change the facts to some extent. That’s because you’re writing a story, not history - BUT you can’t ignore the history. It might help you decide how your research fits into your novel if you think about what kind of story you are writing.

  • A story about a fictitious person - by inventing a person (or place) who never existed and pretending they did, you have already changed the facts! (Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe wasn’t at the Battle of Trafalgar because Sharpe is a fiction.) BUT your readers will only believe in a fictitious character if their historical setting is fully realised.
  • A story about a real person - when you attribute unrecorded actions, words and thoughts to someone, you have changed the facts. BUT the things you make up about that person have to fit with what is known of them, their circumstances, and the age they lived in or else the story might as well be about someone else.
  • A fresh perspective on a famous person or event - if you want to look in a different way at a famous person or event you might stick pretty closely to the known facts, but you will interpret them in a different way (Hilary Mantel on Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies; Richard III is another character writers often want to portray as something other than the villain history - and Shakespeare - have painted him to be.) BUT to be plausible your interpretation will have to fit time, person and place.
  • A what if/alternative history - if your story is about what might have happened if things hadn’t turned out the way history says they did (Robert Harris’s Fatherland imagines a world in which the Nazis won the Second World War) you know straightaway you are going to change the facts. BUT what if/alternative history must be grounded in the real history - the real Second War - otherwise it’s fantasy, not historical fiction.
  • A famous person in an original setting - you want to imagine a famous person doing something they never did, or in a place they never visited. (There are novels featuring Edgar Allan Poe, Jane Austen, Shakespeare and many others as detectives; Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties brings together Lenin, James Joyce and Tristan Tzara.) BUT there are things you will have to stay true to - if your Shakespeare isn’t an actor and if he doesn’t write plays then he’s not Shakespeare.

NB: if you do change something and think it’s important for people to know you could include a historical note at the end of your story.

How much research should I include?

The reader needs to be given enough information to enable them to follow the story - but don’t let the history get in the way.

One thing that’s almost certain about your research is that you won’t use a tenth of it. And that can feel like a shame when you’ve got all the information and it’s really exciting stuff too. So you stop half way through a scene to write about the way gloves were manufactured in the nineteenth century because you read all about it and it really is fascinating. Now, this might work if the story’s about a relationship between the wealthy owner of the gloves and the poor sweated seamstress who made them. But if it’s just that your character is wearing a pair of gloves, then all it does is stop the action and bore any readers who aren’t interested in how gloves are made.

Of course, there is a place for the telling detail, the one that tells the reader something about character, time or place. If you tell me that someone is wearing brand new, handmade, white, kid gloves I can guess quite a lot about that character. (He’s rich, and he doesn’t have to get his hands dirty...)

But don’t include something just because you don’t want to waste all that hard work or you think it makes an interesting aside.

NB: If you want to write about an interesting detail (how gloves were made) you could do an article or a blog about it.

How do I fit the research in?

Be very careful of the information dump! We all know what it is. We get pages of clumsy back story or exposition, often in dialogue that begins with three little words likely to send a shiver down any reader’s spine: "As you know..." "As you know, King Charles I raised his standard at Nottingham in 1643..."

Why would someone be telling someone something if they already know it?

On the other hand, there’s no reason why you can’t have one character explain something to another. People do it all the time. But be careful to avoid long lectures. If you do give out large chunks of information in dialogue, try breaking it up with action - have your characters interrupted, or put a limit to how long they’ve got to do the talking.

And make the information relevant to the characters and to the story. "When the King raised his standard at Nottingham last year I joined the Parliamentarians and I’m sorry I did now." No long history lecture - and what’s more, we sense a story coming: why does he regret it? What happened to change his mind?

So when you are thinking about how to include your research, think about doing it in a way that doesn’t overshadow the story. Instead, let it tell us something about the characters, the setting, and the plot.

How historical should the dialogue be?

Remember that you are writing for a modern audience. They might be baffled by people who are forever giving one another the sele of the day. Yes, it might be historically correct, but you’re trying to give an impression of real people having real conversations and archaisms can be a barrier to that.

By all means use contemporary words and phrases, but be careful about it. Don’t overdo it, and don’t use words people are very unlikely to understand, especially if the only place they can find their meaning is in some obscure historical dictionary. If a word is obscure but you’re sure it’s the most appropriate word to use then make its meaning clear from the context.

NB: you could include a glossary at the end of your book.

At the same time, you may want to consider being careful about not using over-modern words that may jar on the reader. A Regency lady is not going to say, "OK" and a Roman general will not call in his men to give them the "heads up".

How do I check the research in my novel?

Of course, it’s important to check that you’ve got anything you are relying on as a fact correct (so far as it is possible to be sure of historical facts!). Remember, though, in the end you’re writing a story, not history.

Bernard Cornwell confessed to the dreadful sin of writing about snowdrops in Arthurian Britain. But how many of us would have known that was a mistake? And even if we did would it really make any difference to the story?

So don’t get too hung up if you do get something wrong. Just focus on writing the best story you can and bringing in your historical research in the best way for that story.

Lucienne Boyce is a member of the Historical Novel Society and author of The Bristol Suffragettes and To the Fair Land.

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