No items found.
Special Offer
-
Get 10% off with our newsletter
-
Ends in
--
days
--
hours
--
mins
--
secs
Sign up
June 30, 2024 12:00
When writing historical fiction, it’s important to stick to historical accuracy as much as possible, with a few exceptions such as dialogue and world descriptions.
historical fiction

Fact vs Fiction in Historical Literature

Heather Webb is the USA Today bestselling and award-winning author and The Novelry Team Member
Heather Webb
March 17, 2024
March 17, 2024

When writing historical fiction, where do the facts end and where does the fiction begin? The answer varies for each and every author, and varies from book to book.

When it comes to historical fiction, there’s a huge range of sub-genres—from biographies and books that feature real events with fictional characters, historical mysteries or romance, to slice-of-life stories where the only fact-based thing is the world-building. There’s also historical fantasy that tends to be rooted in a recognizable era or location, while the rest of the story is the author’s invention with the potential for magic, alternate worlds, and more. The possibilities are endless.

So how do you know when you must stick to the facts or when you can stray from the research? The Novelry writing coach and historical fiction author Heather Webb has her own practices and theories for her award-winning novels. In this article, Heather shares a few general principles that historical writers can follow to balance fact and fiction successfully. 

Fact or fiction? The non-negotiable 

There are certain aspects of the fact versus fiction debate that are non-negotiable, regardless of your sub-genre or the percentage of research with which you imbue your narrative. Let’s take a look. 

Major events

This probably goes without saying, but you can’t move wars, battles, natural or man-made disasters, political snafus, and other such set-in-stone dates. These sorts of events are immovable and frankly make you look like an amateur if you do move them. The only exception to this rule is with historical fantasy à la George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones.  

Lesser-known but important dates

If it’s a much lesser-known event that’s not significant to the historical record, you might be able to wiggle your story around it, but I’d mostly advise against it. If someone can look up the date and pinpoint it, and there are enough ripple effects in terms of societal mores and movements from said event, it’s better to stick to the original date.  

Personalities

If you’re writing about a true-to-life person, it’s important to portray their character traits as they were. It’s certainly acceptable to emphasize certain aspects of a person’s character that haven’t yet been emphasized, particularly if new research comes to light. But in general, it’s important to be true to who this character was in real life, even if they’re less than likeable (which is the real challenge in writing biographies).  

Societal norms, fashions, and inventions

Unless you’re writing steam-punk or historical fantasy, these aspects of world-building must be true-to-life, or you’ll be dinged by readers. I hate to say it, but there’s a contingent out there that enjoys emailing authors to tell them what they got wrong.

{{blog-banner-10="/blog-banners"}}

Fact or fiction? The negotiable

The good news is there are also negotiable components of writing a historical novel. These facets of historical fiction are where the writer can truly play, have fun, and spread their wings. 

Dialogue

Go to town! Dialogue is where a lot of the fun comes in as long as, again, you stay as close to the true-to-life person’s character, manner of speaking, and other mannerisms as possible. 

Descriptions

This is one of my favorite parts of writing historical fiction. You can really build out the world, making it as vibrant and sensory-filled as possible. Just remember to ensure the descriptions are colored by the emotional lens of the main character(s). Gothic novels do this extremely well. They combine a sense of mystery, rich and beautiful aspects of darkness, and a haunted quality to the descriptions.

For another example, consider a fine banquet set in a gilded château. The character is an aristocrat, and when they arrive, they use their cunning to network to secure some favor or other. They hardly notice the silver trays of champagne and amuse-bouches or the table laden with sweet treats. They are plotting, and all they can see is a chessboard of people before them. Enter a pauper, and suddenly the view of this same room is completely different. It’s temptation in the extreme. The rich smells make their stomach ache; the champagne is liquid gold on their tongue, and the sweets are bursts of heaven in their mouth. They hardly notice the people. All they see is abundance, and they are thrilled to eat their fill. Now, this isn’t particularly beautiful wording since it’s a quick example, but you can see how the descriptions of the very same room change. Use them to not only build a world but to reveal something about your characters.

You can really build out the world, making it as vibrant and sensory-filled as possible. Just remember to ensure the descriptions are colored by the emotional lens of the main characters.

Tone and mood

This will depend on the sub-genre of historical fiction that you’re writing as well as the setting—wartime novels, natural disasters, glamorous city scenes, royal novels, etc. But it also depends on the author’s natural voice and style so, again, it’s playtime! 

Fictional secondary characters

Secondary characters are such a great tool to help portray more nuanced aspects of a main character by acting as a mirror or a foil for the protagonist. In particular, they’re helpful in biographical fiction when the protagonist isn’t the most likeable human being and has some fairly abhorrent traits or habits. 

Take the Sherlock Holmes novels. Though Sherlock Holmes is a fictional example and not biographical fiction, the results are the same: a secondary character is mighty useful and can be used to help buffer some of the more unlikeable traits a protagonist exhibits. Holmes is an analytical machine, a compulsive-obsessive. He isn’t particularly likeable or even sympathetic. Watson, on the other hand, is an ‘everyman’, wounded in the war and discharged. He has a sense of humor and an open nature, and is dedicated to helping Holmes be successful. He is also Holmes’ only friend, likely because most find him insufferable and difficult to talk to. By bringing in Watson, Conan Doyle makes the reader believe that Holmes is someone worth knowing.

Story scope

Story scope is one of the most important elements of what makes your novel unique and stand out from others, especially when there are other books that center the same or similar topics as yours. For example:

  • How many POVs are you incorporating?
  • What’s the story you’re aiming to tell?
  • What themes are you hoping to underscore?
  • What’s the date range for the story? Three months? Thirty years? Three days? 

Take my new novel, Queens of London. Imagine my surprise (and worry) when I discovered not one but two other novels about my topic (the first all-female crime syndicate in London, the Forty Elephants, and their leader, Diamond Annie) were publishing within the same 18-month period. The good news is that one of the books covers Diamond Annie’s early years when she’s trying to make it to the top, and the other covers her later years post-WWII as a trilogy. Both are interesting reads about her struggle for power from two points of view. 

My book, however, centers on six weeks in the fall of 1925, in London, when Diamond Annie is at the height of her power and goes head-to-head with the first female chief inspector of police at Scotland Yard, Lilian Wyles. It’s told from both of their perspectives as well as two others: a 10-year-old, half-Indian orphan on the run with her little sidekick dog; and a beautiful but underestimated shop clerk. All four females collide during a heist. My book is a bit gritty like the other two, but it also has a lot of heart and a very different scope.

In other words, use these negotiable elements to make your story unique. 

Tweaking the record

Very occasionally, you may find that you need to tweak a fact to make your story or a particular scene work. In general, it’s best to avoid this and rework your story so that it aligns with the research. That said, if it’s a fairly insignificant detail, you can get away with it on a small scale but be sure to mention it in the author’s note at the end of the book. And to that end...

Fact or fiction? The author’s note

All hail the author’s note! This section of the novel is the historical fiction writer’s best friend. Should you need to tweak any facts, document them here for those eagle-eyed readers who may potentially be experts on your topic.

No matter how many times you comb your manuscript, deciding which research details should stay in the book and which should be cut, no matter how many critique partners and editors have read your book, the fact remains: you will make mistakes. You will also occasionally have readers email you about said mistakes. But remember, you’re not perfect, and you’re not writing non-fiction. You also probably aren’t a historian. So when a mistake is spotted, let your publisher know so you can update it for the next print run, take a deep breath, and forgive yourself. You’re only human.

In the end, remember it’s your novel. You can take poetic license where you choose to. Just be sure to cover your bases and document any changes or fabrications so the reader will never feel duped.

For more insights into literary techniques, coaching and a supportive writing community, join us on a creative writing course at The Novelry—the world’s top-rated writing school.

Someone writing in a notebook
Heather Webb is the USA Today bestselling and award-winning author and The Novelry Team Member
Heather Webb

Heather Webb is the USA Today bestselling, award-winning author of ten novels with 23 years of coaching experience.

Members of The Novelry team