Writing historical fiction 3 – using fact in fiction

In her third and final post on Writing Historical Fiction, RS Downie tells us why using fact in fiction is like wearing underwear. Ruth is the author of Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls (’Medicus’ in the USA) and Ruso and the Demented Doctor (’Terra Incognita’ in the USA), the first in a series of historical crime novels set in Roman Britain.

Research is Like Underwear…

In 1541, if you came from London, you considered Yorkshire to be a barbarian land. Once you turned off the Great North Road, the journey to York was a ‘wretched track’. The woods contained boar and wildcat and the locals still shared thatched hovels with their cattle.

This is what we learn from the first few pages of CJ Sansom’s Sovereign. Interesting, but not gripping.

Now let me add that our hero, Matthew Shardlake, is exhausted. He’s just buried his father and discovered the family farm is in massive debt. He’s risking travelling at night because he’s afraid he will miss his deadline for a ‘strange mission’ he has been given by the Archbishop. Meanwhile, the man who’s supposed to protect him is complaining that they’re lost and in danger of being kidnapped.

Now would you want to read on? Sansom has woven the research into a background that reinforces the plight of his characters. Already, we’re in suspense. That’s one of the reasons the Shardlake books are bestsellers. That’s also why research is like underwear. It’s crucial to help form what appears on the surface, but…

…we don’t want to see it hanging out on display

Readers have to be given enough background knowledge to make sense of your story, and a certain amount of scene-setting is unavoidable. The tricky part is finding a way to do it without overwhelming readers who didn’t know before, or boring those who did.

Maps can be useful. Long explanations are rarely welcome. Having one character tell another what they should both already know isn’t credible. There are better ways.

Bernard Cornwell tackles this brilliantly at the start of Gallows Thief. Sir Henry Forrest, a respectable gentleman, is being given a tour of Newgate Prison by one of the turnkeys. As the turnkey takes pride in showing off the horrors of the place, we feel Sir Henry’s shock and disgust. We feel pity for the prisoners – and incidentally, we and Sir Henry learn a great deal of the history and layout of Newgate.

Finding your way into the world of the story

How do you get past the facts and into the imagination?

Surrounding yourself with photos is a great way to get ‘in the mood’. For years I didn’t have a room to write in, but a couple of cork boards covered in pictures came out from under the bed whenever there was a quiet moment.

Some people have a coin, a piece of old silk, or anything else tangible from the period they’re writing about.
Dressing up is fun. Wearing the sort of clothes your character might have worn may offer a whole new perspective, although you may want to warn your loved ones first.

Manda Scott ‘dreamed’ her bestselling ‘Boudica’ series. It’s not a shortcut, though – she also did plenty of solid research.

Finding your way into the scene

Sometimes it helps to think of a modern parallel to bring a situation alive. I found it hard to visualise my two bachelor medics sharing their lodgings until I realised that they weren’t living in a museum, they were living in the ancient equivalent of a student flat. (If you think this is unlikely, an acquaintance who helps to excavate a famous Roman fort assures me, “They were so messy! They just threw their rubbish everywhere!”)

So now you’re busily writing your novel. Here are a few of the questions and compromises you may come across:

Oh look! I’ve found out something interesting!

Sooner or later you may stumble across a fact so fascinating that it simply has to appear in your novel.
This is the time to take a deep breath and think carefully. If it really belongs there – great, in it goes. But does it? Does it move the story along, or are you having to fiddle with the plot to fit it in? Once you’ve spent time ramming it in, will you then have to waste more time editing it out again? Maybe it’s worth keeping for a more suitable occasion.

Then there’s the question of what everybody else believes is true about the past, even if it isn’t. I’m in a small minority of people who suspect that our ancestors weren’t much shorter than we are, and somewhere I have an article by a respectable bone specialist who thinks the same thing. However, one of the copy editor’s suggestions on the first book was that I shorten some of characters because they seemed inordinately huge.

He was right. A first novel probably wasn’t the place to show off that I’d read something interesting. Once you’re well established, however, that rule may change. Lindsey Davis has made something of a game of it – check out ‘historical errors’ and ‘deliberate insertions’ in the entertaining rants on her website.

Watch your language

No matter how you may love the middle ages, any urge to write your fourteenth-century dialogue in perfect Chaucerian English needs to be suppressed – at least if you ever hope to snare a mainstream publisher. You may know that a wang-tooth is a molar, but most readers won’t. Nor will they want to bother looking it up like I just have.

The challenge, if your characters would have spoken a fore-runner of English, is to make the dialogue sound authentic whilst making it comprehensible. It’s worth taking a look at your favourite authors and analysing how they do it.

Inappropriate similes may have to be kept under control, too. Ancient characters couldn’t ‘pocket’ money. Neither could they button their lips, or zip down to the Forum for the shopping.

Oh dear, that’s not very nice

Another balance to be struck is that between authenticity and modern sensitivities. An ancient Roman is not going to suggest abolishing the slave trade any more than a Victorian patriarch would tell his tired servants to put their feet up while he and the mistress do the laundry.

On the other hand, if your Roman hero regularly beats his slaves and your patriarch makes money out of sending small boys up chimneys, modern readers may not want to spend long in their company. Whatever you think of the less palatable views of our ancestors, it’s worth thinking about how you are going to present them.

Writers make things up

We’re writing fiction. We are allowed to invent.

Nobody knows the details of how a Roman Army hospital was run. (If you do, where were you when I needed you?) When it became obvious that some background was needed in my first book, I took what we already know about Roman army administration – i.e. there was lots of it, and they were very fond of lists – and invented something that suited the story.

Again, it’s a matter of personal judgement. Or perhaps something else is going on? Many writers have the bizarre experience of inventing something and then finding out afterwards that it’s true.

Almost the Last Word

Historical novelists frequently add an Author’s Note. This is a chance to point interested readers to places where they can find out more. It’s sometimes used to help separate fact from fiction, to explain the writer’s choices between competing theories of history, or to acknowledge where they’ve deliberately changed something. It’s also frequently the place where an anxious author says something along the lines of: Dear reader, I’ve done my best with the research, but please be gentle with me….

And mostly, thank goodness, they are.

Why we came here in the first place

We don’t read novels to learn facts, although we may pick up some in passing. We read novels for a chance to live in other people’s lives. I’ll finish with the mention of Rosemary Sutcliff, who was one of the great storytellers of her generation. When asked about the rare occasions when she had to decide between historical accuracy and a good story, she said she chose the story. Her The Eagle of the Ninth series is still in print, and there are people who grew up to be historians or archaeologists today because they fell in love with the past through her books. That’s the best legacy any historical novelist can hope for.


The Historical Novel Society – to find like-minded souls and read reviews of all the latest historical fiction.

Here’s the full interview with Rosemary Sutcliff.

Excellent advice from Bernard Cornwell on his website.

This post is copyright RS Downie, 2009. No reproduction of this material is permissible without the author’s permission.

Related posts:

  1. Writing historical fiction 1 – creating your historical world
  2. Writing historical fiction 2 – doing the research
  3. Writing historical crime novels – interview with R.S. Downie
  4. Writing Fantasy Fiction
  5. Writing historical fiction – reviews and links

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11 comments on “Writing historical fiction 3 – using fact in fiction

  1. Rod Duncan on said:

    Love the idea that reserch is like underwear. Wonderful 🙂 I’ll remember that one.

    Many thanks.

  2. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    But does it have to be clean?

  3. Zainab Radhi on said:

    This is what I am trying to establish. I too have no such person to give me clean details of how a roman army hospital was run (in my case the first Gulf War), and my child’s memory is failing me as an adult in search of details of her memories of war.

    Thanks for the advice Fiona

  4. Fiona on said:

    Hi Zainab. Is this for your novel? How’s that coming on? Ruth is on safer ground than you with her research in that the Romans are long gone, but you have to worry about people who are still alive telling you ‘you got it wrong!’ Good luck with it.


  5. Jennifer on said:

    Hello Fiona:
    Thanks so much for the link to this discussion. I’m in the middle of writing a historical novel, that has tied together some of my obsessions, and the discussions and links here have been most helpful and illuminating. I’m going immediately to take some of that underwear down from the line!

  6. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    You’re welcome, Jennifer.

  7. Ruth on said:

    Glad it’s been useful, Jennifer – I think writing to tie together your obsessions is definitely a Good Thing. Best of luck with the novel, and with the concealment of the underwear!

  8. Ruth on said:

    Zainab, you’ve hit on an interesting point: even if we’re writing about our own experiences, how far can any of us trust our own memories? I guess how much that matters depends on what sort of story you’re telling.

  9. Pingback: Writing historical fiction – reviews and links at The Crafty Writer

  10. Diane Cowan on said:

    I found this article very helpful. As this is the first time I have tried to write historical fiction. Although I usually write fiction for children, I am hoping to write a historical fiction novel for ages 9-12

  11. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    You’re welcome, Diane. Good luck with your novel.

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