Historical Fiction: How Accurate Should It Be?

16 Apr

I’ve had this post in my draft folders for ages! As I’m seeing a small drought in reviews and other such things to post about, I thought this would be a good time to brush the dust off and write this article response.

I love historical fiction. I read it a lot and I’m writing a 1920s novel. I love the research and learning that come along with writing this book. I know a lot more about 1920s cars and mixed drinks than most people do and it makes me really happy whenever there’s a 20s reference I can recognize. So reading this article from The Guardian piqued my interest.

How true should historical fiction be? by Stephanie Merritt

I believe there’s a slight license to change the past when writing historical fiction: slight. In my novel, I’ve removed some of the notorious mobsters of the era to replace them with my own characters. I think that’s perfectly fine. Maybe you disagree and want to fight me in the comments. Go for it. There is a line with this that I will not cross, however. I’m not going to introduce space travel or repeal prohibition or anything else that would alter the culture of the time. I’m going to do my research about electricity availability and what a high school boy would take for lunch. The details matter and I know that if I were my own reader, I would appreciate this.

I’ve read novels that took things a bit too far. When I read The Tilted World, I knew some of the 20s facts were a bit too stretched. It wouldn’t have bothered me so much if there had been an author’s note. I think these make all the difference because it’s a writer’s way to saying, “Yes, I know this is wrong but for the sake of story, I changed it.” Then  you know the author did his or her research even though those who are historically savvy can point out holes in the setting.

So, a bit of a short post for you all today, but I’m curious to see what you think. Does inaccurate historical fiction bother you? Does an author’s note make it all better? Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!


7 Responses to “Historical Fiction: How Accurate Should It Be?”

  1. cantstopwontstopbooks April 16, 2015 at 6:44 PM #

    Hmmmm.. I think of it this way: if you’re going to change something, run with it. I think it should be either pretty darn accurate or just an entirely re-imagined world, if you get what I’m saying. 🙂


    • Sam April 16, 2015 at 8:54 PM #

      I do! And if there’s one thing you change (like Abraham Lincoln is a vampire hunter), that’s fine, but don’t take liberties with clothing or transportation. Change your thing and go, but leave the rest as it should be! Am I rephrasing correctly? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. hmills96 April 16, 2015 at 8:42 PM #

    For me, I prefer reading historical fiction that is as close to fact as possible. The “fiction” is the author’s rendition of the character’s telling, often in memoir format. The minor characters are usually made up but the major historical people places and events are there, and well researched. I also appreciate it when the author leaves an authors note saying what liberties were taken and maybe gives a bibliography.

    But that’s just my personal preferance. HF can range so much, from period romance to the middle ground, which it sounds like you’re working on (good for you!), to the hardcore stuff I’m obsessed with.


    • Sam April 16, 2015 at 8:57 PM #

      I like when a lot of the history is unchanged as well. In the case of my story, I wanted to write about a major historical figure, but then decided I wanted to take liberties that wouldn’t be possible if I used his name. So I crated a pseudo-historical figure that has a lot of the same personality traits and role in history, but it allows me to play around with him. I plan to write an author’s note. I, like you, think it’s good to see what an author says is fiction instead of fact. I’d hate to read a historical novel and think I learned something cool and never be told it was fictional! Happy reading!


  3. siderealday April 17, 2015 at 7:04 PM #

    I like the major events unchanged unless you have an author’s note saying why something would be changed in your fiction (for example, steampunk can effect some technological changes or Abraham Lincoln being a vampire hunter might mean that there were vampires on the battlefields that caused some deaths that otherwise happened differently) and, most importantly, the changes have to be consistent with the internal logic of your story. If you’re changing something just to change something then that tends to be a red flag for me.

    Normally what I like seeing changed is people’s motivation (or in what was assumed to be their motivations).


    • Sam April 18, 2015 at 9:34 AM #

      Great explanation! Sometimes one small change will affect a long line of other ones. I think we’ve agreed the authors note is key to pleasing readers. Thanks for commenting!


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