Friday, 3 October 2014

Historical fact and historical fiction

So how much does historical accuracy matter?

I’m not talking about the big stuff. James Burke really was a spy; he really was in Argentina ahead of the invasion, which really did happen pretty much exactly as described in my book. James Brooke did become ruler of Sarawak; there really was a Chinese rebellion; the pirates really were massacred. I’m worrying about the little details.

Some authors (and my suspicion is that it is authors rather than readers) revel in the tiny details. If you take the trouble, you can establish what the weather was in London on a given day in (say) 1850. So if you write It was a dark and stormy night you can check to see that it was. And I know published authors who will change the line if it wasn’t.

There is no way I would ever do that. If I want the face of my villain illuminated by a flash of lightning, I’ll put it in. In the first chapter of The White Rajah there’s a storm at sea. I put it in to help establish the characters (and to get a bit of excitement into what might otherwise have been a dull part of the narrative). Was there such a storm? I don’t know and I don’t care. Storms were common and led to situations like the one I described. If someone told me I had the details of the rigging wrong, I’d change them (and many a happy day has been spent in the National Maritime Museum trying to get them right). But a particular storm on a particular day? I really don’t care.

So why did I spend a couple of hours last week trying to establish where the Duke of Wellington lived in Brussels in the run-up to Waterloo? And then went on to Google Earth to have a look at the street now? I’m really not sure. It only features in passing in the story, but I wanted to be able to imagine taking a carriage to a party there and, to do that, I needed to know where I was going.

As I lose myself in peculiar little bits of research, I often wonder what difference they make to the finished article. In The White Rajah some of the dialogue includes actual words written by the characters themselves. I haven’t credited each use of letters or diaries and I struggle now to pick them out, but I felt they helped me to keep my own dialogue more in period. Do readers notice? Do they care? Does it matter?

It can be that historical accuracy gets in the way of good story-telling. One Amazon critic considers that details of colonial administration in Sarawak make the book a big yawn. (I think that was his phrase: I can be pardoned for not going back and checking.) But, for me, the details of how Brooke attempted to establish a postal service (all true) were one of the parts I particularly enjoyed. This isn’t a Boy’s Own Paper adventure: it really happened and in between fighting pirates (true) and putting down rebellion (true), they really did try to set up a post office. Details such as the flowers available for the garden and the armaments on the boat are true too – and a lot of time was spent scouring picture books and the internet to get things right. But then there’s the pet orang-utan, which is a complete fiction. It’s a story, after all.

Part of the value of getting details right is that it helps get the made-up bits right too. So I was trying to make the negotiations that led to Brooke becoming ruler a bit less dull than they really were and I decided that someone might try to murder Brooke by poisoning him. Only after the book was published did someone in Kuching write to me to say that just such a plot actually happened. I don’t think this was just a lucky guess. Getting into the heads of the real characters meant that sometimes I could act like them, even when there were no published facts to guide me.

I’m writing this in an attempt to put off writing a scene set in the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball on the eve of Waterloo. It’s one of the most famous balls in history and I know I’m going to get it wrong and it worries me. It probably shouldn’t: I’ve just been watching a scene from a film of the battle which features the ball and it’s just about as wrong as it could be and, as far as I know, no one cares. But I’ve already read a lot about it and I’ll read more and I’m wondering about having a go at reading Vanity Fair, which features it. And then it will be a few paragraphs and it will probably still have a mistake in it.

But in the first edition of The White Rajah I wrote ‘hansom cab’ when I meant ‘hackney cab’ and a well-regarded critic took me to task for putting the cab on the street a few years before it could have been there. So somebody cares, if only to maintain their illusion of superiority. I can’t say I was grateful to that critic, but we need her and people like her, because it’s easy to slip from historical fiction to fantasy. But in the end, I still can’t give a precise answer to my opening question: how much does historical accuracy matter?


  1. I'm STILL sweating the details on The Ax and the Vase, and it's out with agents! Even knowing I researched horseshoes in the period/place, I looked it up again just tonight - and reminded myself, yes, the Franks had horseshoes. They were found in Clovis' father's grave, one of the more famous ones, unearthed in 1685. Maybe this makes us better? :)

    We have to take a deep breath and remember, we're the ones on stage, if there's a guitarist at the back of the bar complaining - we know why ... !

  2. Hopping over from the FB post on the historical fic group!

    Great blog entry. And very thought-provoking. This is something I struggle with myself - not so much the weather, because I don't care about weather accuracy much, but other little details, such as - court was held at town-hall until 1844, then relocated to another place. What I struggle is, for the sake of plot, I need to compromise for the sake of story telling and have court held at town-hall, even though it's 1866, which makes this historically inaccurate. So details like this leaves me a little anxious, but I tell myself that sometimes sacrifices must be made for the sake of storytelling.

  3. I think you're right, missbluestocking. Occasionally details like this can be fun and keep the reader's interest, but too many of them become confusing. One that I was faced with was the fact that the British invaded Buenos Aires twice in rapid succession in the early 19th century. Both invasions had strong similarities. I find the story of both of them really interesting, but I thought that walking through such similar events one after the other would lose readers, so the second one just doesn't happen in my story.

  4. Interesting post and points. I've discovered that, being an absolute tyrant with myself when it comes to historical accuracy (being a reenactor does this to a person), I can't effectively write historical fiction. I can suspend belief and enjoy it even if I notice little quibbly inaccuracies, but I can't put aside my strictness with myself. It must be just so, or not at all. I can't put my name on something that I'll likely disprove myself in a few years with more research ("Damn! That wasn't a Robe a la Polonaise that character ought to have been wearing, it was a Robe a la Levite!") And so I make a terrible historical fiction writer.

    I wrote a post about accuracy and intention quite nearly concurrently to yours--if you're so inclined :

  5. Thank you for your comments, Rowena. I read your blog post and it was interesting. I'm not that interested in clothing and I spend ages trying to find the clothes people would have worn and then describing them badly and probably still getting it wrong. It was a particular problem in 'Burke and the Bedouin' because in Turkish society in the 19th century the clothes that you wore carried important social messages. It was actually illegal to wear the wrong colour shoes, for example.

    I think your points about the balance between historical accuracy and the requirements of entertainment are very valid. As a writer, rather than a visual artist, I don't really have that problem over clothes, but it is *huge* when it comes to social attitudes - for example the use of the N-word. I read a novel set in 1950s Britain in which a black character is frequently abused, but never once referred to as a n*gger. It was a fun read but the dialogue entirely lacked historical authenticity.

    I've just read a historical novel set in 19th century Russia and all the people we are expected to sympathise with are enlightened in their attitudes to women, care about the condition of the recently emancipated serfs, and have no prejudice against Jews. Of course such people probably existed, but to people a novel with several of them makes me uncomfortable, though I can see exactly why the author did it.

  6. These are good thoughts. Research seems to take far more time than writing historical fiction. After all, it is fiction! Details to enlarge a scene is quite OK with me.