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?

Pitfalls for Writers – 5) The Hijack

Pitfalls for Writers, an occasional series; 5) – The Hijack

I think that I will frame this in the form of a question.

But before we get to ‘this’ question, which is the one that I really want to ask, I have a preliminary question: Are you a Planner or a Pantser?

Planners, of course, plan their stories in detail; the characters, the plot, the backstories, etcetera. Some may just have a rough map of the journey, but it is a map nonetheless; it shows the route from the very beginning of the first chapter, all the way through to the end.


Others will have minutely detailed plans of the whole story:

They will work out full details of each character, complete with likes and dislikes, quirks, friends, family, hobbies and anything else that you might care to want to know.

They will locate pictures of every location that the story references, with any relevant information that might be needed. Perhaps they will visit these locations (if possible) and take notes and photos, otherwise they might spend ages scanning YouTube videos.

There will be timetables ensuring that the continuity of the story is flawless.

They will research all historical/geographical/economic/etcetera details in advance, and then have them, neatly tabulated, close at hand.

Then there are the Pantsers.

Just like myself, I freely admit. We tend to sit down in front of a blank page and then start with a sort of ‘Ooh, that’s a good opening line. I wonder what will happen next? I did have an idea a few weeks ago that might fit in with that. Now, I wonder where I wrote that down?’ approach.

Personally, I do have, at the very least, a vague idea of where the story is going, and sometimes I even have the ending already written down (somewhere!), although it is subject to change as the story grows. Rarely do I plan in much more detail than that.

And then occasionally, as all writers know, a character might hijack the plot by refusing to do what I had intended them to do, and consequently to alter the whole storyline. But is that just us Pantsers?

So, ‘this’ question, then, is for the Planners:

Do you occasionally find that, as you are writing, you suddenly get the idea for a plot twist, or a really interesting character who fits into the story so well, and this despite your detailed plans, that you feel you have to alter your plan to include it? Even if you have spent three months on said plan and consider it inviolable?

Pitfalls for Writers – 4) Language; a bit of a follow-up

Back somewhere deep in the mists of time, I published ‘Pitfalls for Writers 1’. In this, I discussed some of the potential problems of language in a novel.

If I am to write a story of medieval Persia, for example, I will write it in English. No one who reads it is going to be fooled into thinking that my characters were really speaking in English. But this on its own is not enough. There must be something in the language I use that reminds the reader that the story setting really is medieval Persia.


And so I suggested using a flavour of the speech. I might sprinkle the conversation with words such as ‘dirham’ (a unit of currency), or ‘djinns’ (genies). The characters might smoke a ‘qalyan’, which is how they would have referred to what we generally call a hookah. A greeting might be ‘Salām ʿalaykom’.

In the comment stream that followed, I concluded that I might employ a glossary, but certainly not footnotes.

This has now become most relevant to me.

About a month ago, I finished reading Anuradha Roy’s ‘The Folded Earth’. It is a novel that is set in India, written by an Indian writer, yet it uses a glossary, although she is presumably writing in the first instance for an Indian audience. This glossary explains a few words and phrases that many western readers would be unfamiliar with, although I would expect the majority of Indian readers to know them all.

My own novel is being read now by generous beta readers, and some of the discussion is over the use of the appropriate Hindi / Urdu words in the text.

And so, with ‘The Folded Earth’ as an example, I shall definitely use a glossary.

Next, it is important to employ the correct voice.


Clearly, if the protagonists of a story are sitting down to a meal, they might complain about the amount of fat on the meat, but they would be most unlikely to refer to it as ‘adipose tissue’. Unless one or both were, for example, surgeons.

Very few people would be likely to refer to two items as being ‘in casual juxtaposition’. They would be far more likely to say something along the lines of ‘oh, they look a bit odd next to each other.’ As tempting as it might be for the author to show off their vocabulary, it is something that should be used most carefully.


If the story actually has a narrator, then this becomes even more important. The country bumpkin relating an everyday tale of rustic shenanigans should not be employing sophisticated and subtle wordplay. He or she should only be employing language that they would naturally use.

Author’s voice:

Even if there is no actual narrator, it remains important to use only language that would be natural to the situation. For example, it sounds plain wrong to describe a group of Vikings ‘computing’ an answer to a problem, even if it is only the author describing it that way.

Generally, of course, and I know that some will disagree with this, it is usually better to avoid all flowery and showy language in novels, and use simple language well.

Finally, a jarring note found in a few modern novels set in older times, is that the characters often think like modern folk. Reading these books as against books written, perhaps, 150 years ago, it is not just the style and language of the writing that are different, but also the prejudices. The hero of a novel set in 1840 is going to have casual prejudices against, perhaps, people of another race, women, etc etc. We tend to be reluctant to set these down in print, nowadays, perhaps as if by doing so we are almost admitting to having these prejudices ourselves.

However, if we want to depict our characters realistically, we need to do so ‘warts and all’. And if the writer is going to depict them otherwise, then he or she needs to have a good reason why they do.


Pitfalls for Writers 3

Pitfalls for Writers, an occasional series; part 3) Spellcheck and Distractions



There are particular problems with the English language, when it comes to muddling words up, since we seem to be blessed (or otherwise) with a large number of groups of similar words. Within each group, they’re pronounced the same, although their meaning and spelling are different.

Did you see what I did there?

You might alter something, but then leave it on an altar.

Then there are, for example, groyne and groin; although in the US, groyne is spelled groin. Do you know which language your spellcheck uses? The default on my computer is US English, so I had to manually alter it to UK English, since I live in UK.

(This is referring to groyne / groin as in a breakwater, not an anatomical term)

Of course, if I was writing a piece to be published in the US, I would then need to alter many of the spellings to US usage.

Are you still with me?

Naturally, as writers, we should all understand the difference between ‘they’re, their and there’, but when using spellcheck it is perhaps easy, or perhaps lazy, to get them muddled up.

There. That’s what I did.

There is no substitute for a dictionary and a good knowledge of grammar.



Oh, I’m so easily distracted. When I am spending a day writing, be it on a novel or short story or on a piece for my blog, I turn to the internet to look something up and before I know it, I’m reading something else, which then encourages me to follow a thread somewhere to something I spotted that looks awfully interesting and then…

Obviously, if there is cricket going on, then that is understandable. Everybody needs to keep up with the score, don’t they? But it is just as likely to be an unrelated distraction.

I do understand the importance of a timetable, and I admit that I am hopeless at following my own advice, here. Occasionally I will scrawl down a note in my diary for the day that reads something along the lines of ‘Breakfast, then 9 am writing. 12 noon emails and lunch. 1 pm – 4 pm writing.’

When I do manage to have a working day that is disciplined, I invariably find that I get a lot more done. And one of the most important things, for me, is not to look at emails before lunchtime. As soon as I do, I’m no longer thinking about writing, but answering these various emails, and whatever it is they’re about.

Ooh, hang on, I need to go and check the cricket. No, no, it’s important. I’ll be back in a moment…

The Problem of Historical Truth

In my previous post about the pitfalls of online research, I began by alluding to the unreliability of newspaper reports. If you were to read reports on an important item of news in a number of different newspapers, you frequently might be forgiven for thinking that they were actually talking about completely different events. There will be political bias, of course, and the prejudices and agendas of reporters and editors alike. Are the individuals in an armed insurgency terrorists or freedom fighters? It is a point of view. Are strikers in an industry greedy mischief-making saboteurs, or victimised and mistreated victims of greedy corporations? Again, it is a point of view.

It can be very hard today to see through the fog of opinions and misinformation on any topic. How much more so when we delve back into time?

History is written by the victors. For example, what we know about Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul and Britain were written largely by the Roman conquerors, especially Caesar himself. Most of what we know of the reign of Ashoka, in India, comes from the edicts that he caused to be inscribed upon the remarkable number of rocks and pillars that are still in existence.

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Even tales written by the vanquished are likely to be inaccurate, of course. The cruelty of the victors, their barbarity; all of their actions will be exaggerated.

The historian understands that information comes largely from primary and secondary sources. A primary source might be, for example, an account written at the time (Caesar, above) or Parish registers of births, marriages and deaths. These sources are considered to be most likely to be accurate, being compiled at the time of the events described, but clearly they might all be deliberately or accidently falsified. Secondary sources might be newspapers, which are largely made up of analysis and opinion, and therefore considered to be an interpretation of information that has been derived from another (hopefully primary!) source.

A primary source is also referred to as evidence, yet I wonder whether a better distinction would be made if ‘evidence’ referred only to unwritten sources; archaeological remains, buildings, pottery, jewellery and coins and their like, which, whilst needing interpretation, are unlikely to be prey to the kind of distortions that written sources might be. Caesar, after all, might have claimed to take ten thousand prisoners when he only took five hundred, yet pottery of a particular type that is found at a particular spot, tells a story that needs to be interpreted, yet is unlikely to be a falsehood.

We need to be careful, though, when it is interpreted in light of contemporary writing, to avoid the temptation of unconsciously corroborating those writings.

Having written the above, we do have to take a certain amount on trust, because it is not practical to question everything in the world that we come across.

Yet, just because we discover that Troy really does exist, does not mean that all of the stories of the Iliad are now, somehow, all true. That would be like an author writing an incredibly impossible fantasy tale, in which the city of Vienna still exists and features, yet claiming it must be true because Vienna is a real place.

During the first year of World War One, a fictional short story ‘The Bowmen’ was published in the London Evening News by Arthur Machen. In this tale, he describes a battle between English and German soldiers at Mons, in France, in which the beleaguered British were aided by the sudden appearance of phantom archers who intervened to keep the British safe. Although this was fiction, the story quickly ‘went viral’, as we might put it today, and was readily believed by many in Britain. Of course, there was a feeling then that the British were good and the Germans evil, and so it was natural that God might intervene to help and protect them. A far stronger belief in God, in those days, also contributed to the feeling that it was natural to find that a miracle had occurred.

Although Machen republished the tale in a book with a long introduction explaining that it was fiction, and examining reasons the public thought it was true, not only did the belief persist, but further reports of angels on the battlefield began to appear. As a child in the 1960’s, I remember reading an account of this in a comic, with it presented as the truth. In 2001, the Sunday Times reported that photographic evidence to support the story had been discovered, although this was proved to be a hoax.

The Sunday Times also published exerts from Hitler’s Diaries in 1983, until these, too, were proved to have been forged.

Memories are notoriously unreliable. I was reading just a few days ago of an experiment where a group of people were encouraged to discuss childhood memories, with selected members of the group feeding in deliberately false information. After an initial hesitation, it seemed that all of them accepted these false memories as real, even to the extent of agreeing that they had taken part in a balloon ride, when they had not, and describing what they had seen from the balloon, and their feelings during the ride. The point being that they came to believe these were their own, real, memories.

How reliable are our own memories, then? And what can we trust? Clearly, there must be a lot of historical narrative that has been honestly recorded, that is simply not true, and we are unlikely to ever know what it is.

Pitfalls for Writers – 2) Internet Research

Pitfalls for Writers, an occasional series; part 2) Internet research


I read it in a newspaper, so it must be true.

Ho ho ho.

We are all aware that newspapers have their own agendas, and that they interpret events to fit their own world views, ignoring inconvenient facts and sometimes even misrepresenting them. Occasionally, they have been known to make them up.

On the internet, then, which is infinitely more difficult to police, we should expect to treat a large amount of presented data with, at the very least, extreme suspicion.

For the purposes of this post, I am assuming that the Work in Process is a work of fiction, be it a novel or a shorter work.

Wikipedia; good old Wikipedia. Everyone uses it as an infallible fact checker, don’t they? No? Very wise. An illustration of the downside of Wikipedia that I particularly like comes from the time of the Ashes series in England last summer. On the first day in the fourth test, England Bowler Stuart Broad took eight wickets for fifteen runs and effectively won the match for England. At some point that day, his Wikipedia entry was altered, by persons unknown, to begin, simply, ‘Stuart Broad is God.’

Now, at the time, as an avid English cricket follower, I might almost have accepted that as the truth, in a tongue in cheek sort of way, but it does illustrate that one of Wikipedia’s strengths is also a weakness. It is updated continuously by a huge number of people, some of whom doubtless have ‘agendas’, and that it is impossible to check that all of the information is accurate, and so it must not be used as a final arbiter of true or false.

I might use Wikipedia as a first stop, but then I would go and double check the information on a site that I trust. How do you know that you can trust a particular website? That rather depends on the information, and requires some common sense. If I were looking up an accurate description of, say, a particular disease, I might opt to check the website of a well-known medical facility. If I wanted details of a particular cricket match, at any time in history, I would go to the ‘Cricinfo’ site, which is trusted by the majority of cricket followers. History? Well, I just searched ‘history of Wales’ and amongst other sites, found Wales.com, the ‘official’ site of the Welsh Government. I guess I’d trust that.

I still like to use books for research, and, of course, I can do that on the internet. There are a huge number of books available to read online for free; many are there because the copyright has expired, although the legal length of copyright does vary in different countries and can be quite complex (in the US for example, where certain categories of work can have differing terms in different states), and many are there because the owners of the copyright have allowed it. So, if you trust the book…

And many can be consulted for a fee, of course.

Google (and other) translators. Although this is not research, strictly speaking, I have included it because it may be a part of the process. If you need a demonstration of why they are not to be trusted, then type in a simple phrase and translate it to your chosen language. Then translate it back again. To enliven a dull afternoon, repeat this a couple of times, and see if any words in the final version match the originals.

Now, having said that, it will do a pretty good job of translating from, for example, English to French – presumably both because they share the same alphabet, and also because there is much in common in the roots of these languages and their grammar. And, probably for the same reason, I have found it hopeless translating between English and Hindi, where there is far less in common, and no common alphabet.

For a factual article, the author’s level of accuracy must be higher; they dare not get their facts wrong, for even one incorrect fact will invalidate their entire article. Fiction writers are not under quite that same level of pressure, although the scrutiny may still be there.

Pitfalls for writers – 1) language

Pitfalls for Writers, an occasional series; part 1) Language

Language, or, more specifically, its usage, changes so rapidly nowadays that the writer who wishes to sound up to the minute is on a hiding to nothing.

Even if I were to successfully write a blog post using the latest idioms of the street, I suspect it would be out of date by the time it had been up on my site for twenty four hours.

What sounds edgy and street one day is laughed at the next.

Of course, older readers will laugh at it anyway, so whatever I do I end up getting jeered at.



Let’s go back a little. The language of the Victorian Poor or the upper classes in 1920’s England, say, is easy enough to research and imitate, and also easy enough to understand when read today, which makes it much easier to work with. The only real pitfall might be to use a word at a period of history before said word was in use. A writer could not refer to his seventeenth century English gentleman ‘shampooing his hair’, for example, since the word did not enter the English language until 1762 and even then meant ‘massage’, as was its original meaning in Hindi, and only acquired the meaning of ‘to wash the hair’ in 1860.

The language of medieval England is also fairly easy to research, but the novelist uses it accurately at his or her peril, for precisely the same reason that no one would use Latin to write a novel set in ancient Rome – they would immediately be losing 99.9% of their potential readers.

The first three lines of ‘Beowulf’, in the original Old English:

‘hwæt, we gar-dena in geardagum,

þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon,

hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!’

Anyone understand that? Nope, me neither. Seamus Heaney translates it thus:

So, the Spear-Danes in days gone by,

And the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.

We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.

An alternative translation I came across:

Lo, praise of the prowess of people-kings,

Of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,

We have heard, and what honour the athelings won.

Now, I like the Seamus Heaney translation, but I prefer the second one, since I feel that it gives me more of a flavour of the time. So, the original is fun to read for a scholar of Old English, but if it’s just the story that you want, it needs to be written in a language that the reader understands, perhaps with the voice of the time (or flavour). What do I mean by voice? Let me give an example in an imaginary sixteenth century setting:

‘By my troth!’ he exclaimed.  Or…

‘By my troth!’ he exclaimeth.

In the first case, ‘By my troth!’, true to the time, conveys the voice of the time satisfactorily. In the second, the change from ‘exclaimed’ to ‘exclaimeth’ sounds awkward and cumbersome to modern ears, even if it be yet more true to the time.

Perhaps, then, the author does not need to write authentic language, but just to sound a bit authentic; to use extracts. Give a taste.

So, back to the streets. If I was to persist in my ambition to write a post in the genuine voice of an urban teenager, I am almost certain to fail.

Even if I were to pick up the words accurately, I would probably use them incorrectly, and the majority of my readers would not understand them in any case.

And so my answer would be to attempt merely a flavour of the speech.

What of a story set in a different culture to that of the writer? The novel that I am working on at the moment is set in India, and so I use several words and terms that will be familiar to Indian readers, but perhaps not to western ones.

Do I need to explain them? Or put in a glossary?

My feeling is not. An Indian writer would not feel the need to explain them, and they obviously help to give a more authentic voice or flavour to the narrative. Their use does not affect the flow of the story, either, since the reader can choose to look up the word if they wish, or simply infer the meaning and carry on. We all occasionally meet words we don’t recognise, in any case.

Does anyone think otherwise? How do you feel when you encounter dialect or unknown words in books?