Pitfalls for Writers – no.6: Historical Accuracy


‘Dear Mr. Author.

Whilst reading your book ‘Oh what fun and laughter we had during the time the Black Death wiped out our village’ the other day, I was disappointed to notice that you mentioned July 23rd 1449 as having been a sunny day in your fictitious village. From the descriptions you provide, you have clearly located said village a little to the south of present day Norwich, and my extensive researches prove that July 23rd 1449 would have been a rainy day there.

Yours disgruntledly,

A Pedant.’

How accurate do you need to be, as a writer, with historical facts?

If you are writing a non-fiction book, you have to be scrupulously accurate, no matter what subject it is.

End of.

On the other hand, if you are writing fiction, you have a certain amount of leeway. First of all, though, it is worth saying that if you sell enough copies of your book you will eventually attract correspondents like the fellow above. Is that something to worry about? Only if they get to know where you live, perhaps. Otherwise, send them a nice reply, thanking them for their diligence, and assuring them that you will correct your dreadful fault in the next edition. On the other hand:

‘Dear Mr Author.

The Black Death was actually sweeping the country in 1349, not 1449.

Yours smugly,

A Historian.’

This time, you’ve screwed up.

And yes, it matters.

Very minor inaccuracies are bound to slip through, and very few people will notice them. And if they do, they will not think anything of them.

Except for Arthur Pedant, of course.

The big things are another matter. Imagine reading a novel set in the days around the Russian Revolution, and then the author tells you that the Bolsheviks rose up against the state in 1927 instead of 1917. Or that they were led in the beginning by Stalin. Immediately, the author’s credibility has evaporated, as has their story.

Because the reader no longer believes the author, and they no longer accept their story.

The moral here, then, is don’t skimp on the research!

It is possible to radically change the facts of history, but the difference is that to do this the author must present it as the whole point of the story. In steampunk novels, the whole history of Victorian Britain is altered, but the reader accepts this as it is the premise behind the genre. It is seen not as a mistake, but as a narrative invention.

In many science fiction novels, the premise is a future that is the result of a different history than that which actually happened. For example, the Germans won the Second World War, or of different worlds or dimensions in which history diverges from the accepted version. Again, this is accepted by the reader, as it is the premise that the story is set on.

It is possible to break this rule, but to do so the author has to break it in such a way that it is quickly obvious that they have done it deliberately, and not by mistake.

One might, for example, set a novel in Victorian England that is not steampunk – a detective story, perhaps – but in which Queen Victoria is assassinated in 1860. As this is something that no one could possibly put in by accident, it will be seen as part of the invented narrative and accepted.

Well, probably. Where is Arthur Pedant?

43 thoughts on “Pitfalls for Writers – no.6: Historical Accuracy

  1. This reminded me of an interview with Ian McEwan that appeared in The Guardian this week, and which discusses his latest book which is narrated by a foetus:

    . . . he keeps an archive of all the letters readers write, alerting him pedantically to some obscure error or other… “Oh yes, I love that.” He always writes back and thanks them, and corrects the mistake in future editions. When I suggest he won’t be getting any letters like that about Nutshell, he looks doubtful. “Oh yes, I may get a letter from someone saying, ‘Excuse me, those foetuses can’t say a word.’”


    Liked by 2 people

      1. you will know they have been diligently reading your work then…. although you may be disappointed if no one sees the error….????? You would then be riddled with self doubt wondering if anyone really did read it. Cant win… give up now!

        Liked by 2 people

    1. I wrote my reply before I read the comments and I was pleased to see I was right. You did have something to say. I love the way you always have a topical reply. That’s class! What is questionable, though, Dear H, is your admitting that you read the Guardian. That’s almost as embarrassing as “the Mail on Line”. …. 🙂 ( definitely an elliptical moment , me thinks)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The Guardian often drives me nuts, Jackie, but less nuts than the other MSM rags. I loathe the way they’re currently attacking Corbyn, for example, in favour of yet another Neoliberal fake and Mandelsonian stooge. It’s a Liberal paper, and so is tediously earnest on identity politics, amongst other things, but where does someone of The Left go in the MSM – there isn’t anywhere! Am I to take it that you read The Torygraph? 😛 Anyway, you’re a sweetheart for your kind words, and I do always try not to offer platitudes and fawning sycophancy in BTL comments, especially not on a blog like Mick’s.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Nailed it. You are right. The Guardian is frightfully earnest,
          ( zzzzz, yawn) I actually rather like the New Yorker, although Clare may raise her eyebrows and if you want some interesting news reporting you cant beat Al Jazeira although it seems to have gone off my TV since I was away. Toynbee makes her living on being earnest, she should do a guest spot for the Torygraph I do read it occasionally having a very tenuious link to one of the most brilliant and sensitive War Correspondents who wrote for it, ( NO, NOT Max Hastings).

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Yes, I look at Al Jazeera occasionally, and used to like Riz Khan’s video show. The New Yorker, eh? Very stylish, one does appreciate a well-placed diaeresis so, but it’s more a magazine than a newspaper, I suppose? And it’s got a paywall. The only paper with a paywall I’ve ever subscribed to is the FT, and which I think is probably the best of all the newspapers; well, now that The News of the World has met its sorry fate.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. A great post, Mick! Research is so important, but there are always going to be people in the world whose chief joy is to pick holes in others work. As you say, a big mistake is a mistake and should be pointed out, but in fiction we should have a bit of leeway in the small details. That being said, my next book mentions Valhalla, and I’m going to have to put a disclaimer in about how I’ve interpreted the research. Even though (supposedly) it’s not a real place! 😊

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I guess you check the big things first, then work downwards. I suppose, also, that it’s wise to stick to historical periods you at least know a bit about. I would hate to have to research it from scratch – I just know I’d miss something important!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. If writers are not willing to do some research, then I think it is best for them to stick for fiction, and to make absolutely everything up, including the setting. Because as a reader, it is very jarring to be “into” a novel, and then see something that is so obviously wrong that you react to it. I was reading a very interesting mystery set in St. Louis when the main character went into a restaurant and ordered toasted ravioli, which arrived “swimming in butter.” I felt as if I had run over a very large speed bump, because toasted ravioli are NOT served in butter. So then I questioned how much the writer knew about my city at all….

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I’m into sci-fi rather than historical fiction, but even there, the author has to stick to what is at least /possible/ via some weird and wonderful quirk of science or they’ve lost me.

    Events or ‘things’ that contravene the laws of physics [or sometimes just plain commonsense] drive me insane and I’ll stop reading that author forever more. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow! That’s intense. The complicated world of a writer and the importance of thinking like a reader. One of the main things that makes writing hard for me is that I overanalyze and overthink everything. But apparently I’m not alone. Excellent article Mick. I guess I’m going to have to meet myself somewhere in the middle. 😂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like the idea of meeting yourself somewhere in the middle! yes, it’s about finding a balance, isn’t it? Knowing when to stop…
      But the best writing advice I have ever had was to just do it. Write. You can always go back and edit, but the important thing is to just get that stuff down on paper or the laptop!

      Liked by 1 person

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