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A Secret to Historical Fiction that Won’t Make Historians Cry

oyan-blog-historian-pinterestWriting Historical Fiction miniseries

by Rachel Garner, Staff Writer

I moderate the One Year Adventure Novel Student Forum, and there are three things that get my immediate attention: rumblings of drama, anything to do with Robin Hood, and history. As it is a writing forum, the history topics are almost always Pleas for Help. These tend to come in two kinds:

One: I’m writing historical fiction. How do I research??

Two: I’m writing a book set in [really broad span of time, no specified locale] and I need to know about [really specific thing]. Explain please??

A third problem becomes evident from reading early chapters of some historical fiction, where opening scenes can go something like this: There are carriages. And a market. Some people have fancy clothes, but I am a lowly thief. We are living in approximately the year 1000–1850.

This is a Plea for Help as well, although the writer may not be aware of it yet.

In this first post, I want to stick to the second two Pleas for Help, as they illustrate similar problems. Before suggesting historian-approved ways of actually finding the information you need (next blog post) and exploring philosophies of writing historical fiction (third blog post), I want to explain what the discipline of studying history is and why, when answering writers’ questions, I constantly want to say, “You’re asking this question incorrectly.”

As a creative writer turned historian, I have a unique and fussy perspective on this.

I’m a writer of historical fiction who is simultaneously studying history. I have yet to find someone else in this position, so I would venture to say that most historical fiction writers are history buffs, not historians. True, I am a couple months out from holding my degree in my hands, and I haven’t done postgraduate work (yet!), but I’m in a position to offer fellow historical fiction writers insights they need.

My main interest as a historian is England from the period of 1066 (the time of the Norman Conquest) to 1215 (the signing of the Magna Carta). Within that, I’m most interested in the collision of culture and languages (Norman French with Old English in a society that keeps records in Latin), laws, and record-keeping (Doomsday Book, the Exchequer).

I want you to take a look at that paragraph again, because this is part of the disconnect between writers and historians. I’ve noticed that writers—especially young writers—tend to think in really broad terms. Let’s return to Plea for Help Two, where a writer might, for example, ask about marriage practices “in the Middle Ages” and tack on “Also, how do you escape from a castle?”

The Middle Ages is usually defined as the 5th century through the 15th century—that is, a thousand years. Notice that the hypothetical writer has not specified a location. The experience of this period in England is going to be very different from the experience in Spain or Italy. People tend to default to English settings in both historical fiction and fantasy—a rant for another day—but even if we assume the writer meant England, things are going to vary wildly from 750 to 1100 to 1375 AD. “Castle” means something quite different in each of these three “example” years. Marriage practices definitely change.

This may come as a surprise, but there is no such thing as a historian of the entire Middle Ages in all of Europe who knows about marriage and castles. It doesn’t happen. Medievalists’ interests look more like this: plagues and purgatory (my English history professor), power structures in French aristocracy (my senior capstone advisor), and Cistercian monks in Wales (my professor in a class basically about that). As to this hypothetical marriage/castle question, any one of these medievalists may have a good general idea, but a good general idea isn’t going to get you very far on the way to accuracy or even interesting facts.

If I have overwhelmed you, I’m sorry, but it gets more boggling. The Middle Ages is a period of relatively slow change and comparatively scanty records. Some generalizations are an unfortunate necessity, even by medievalists. So if a medievalist would be reduced to tears by your generalizations, just consider with me how historians of more recent periods would feel. A historian of the 19th century may find it hilarious that I consider myself proficient in 150 years of English history. They could well be restricted to a decade.

Besides proving that I’m excellent fun at parties, what am I trying to get across here?

If you’re going to write historical fiction, you need to do something that historians do naturally: be specific. This may sound exaggerated, but specificity is the number one secret to writing strong historical fiction—stories that are not only compelling, but plausible.

You need to pick not only a country, probably, but a region within that country. I don’t mean you have to pick a place that absolutely existed—although it can help—but you should know what kind of land and towns generally surround your fictional manor. You should probably pick a particular year. Why? Even in the Middle Ages, a year can make a lot of difference. The King of England in 1199 is different from the one in 1200. 1207 and 1208 are also going to be quite different—in 1207 England has religious business as usual, and in 1208 England is under interdict, which prohibits the English clergy from performing most religious services.

Even if your book is all about little William Nobody who wants to become a knight, and the story doesn’t really touch on religion or the dispute between the king and the Pope, this situation is still going to affect William and those around him.

My own historical fiction tends to be about very “small” people—they’re not in contact with the greats of their world, the people we know enough about to write their biographies. But what the greats are doing will still have impact on what the normal people can do, much as President Obama’s decisions affect your life (whether American or not!). If the country is under interdict, William will probably not marry his true love at the closest cathedral (perhaps cathedral weddings weren’t what was done in his area anyway, but I haven’t researched that).

Being specific also will help clear your mind of clichés like those employed in the hypothetical “chapter one” in Plea for Help Three. If you pick a specific town, you’re more likely to discover things like this: Nottingham is in a part of England with lots of sandstone, and so people carved many spaces (including parts of the castle) out of the stone and used them as living spaces or places for animals. Maybe that won’t change your market scene, but it might suggest ditching the market altogether because Cool, caves!

History’s little-known secret is that the more specific you are—the more you narrow your search—the more interesting it becomes. In fiction writing, another craft driven by detail and curiosity, this sadly neglected truth can be your friend. I once read a really thick book called England under the Norman and Angevin Kings (I even enjoyed it), which contained a very brief mention of the fact that people both kissed saints’ shrines and left coin offerings; and so sometimes, thieves would pretend to kiss shrines to pick up coins in their mouths. I ended up writing a short story about someone who survived in this way, and I made a whole list of other, similarly interesting and lesser-known facts for future stories!

It is so sad that this isn’t better understood. Many writers stay in the shallow end, aware enough of what they don’t know that they fear writing in all but the broadest strokes. Or they think they know enough and lean heavily on cultural perceptions, films, and other books even though these sources can be inadequate if not (frequently) factually wrong. If they could realize that no one, least of all historians, expects them to know “everything about the Middle Ages,” they would be free to study a specific place and time. The details that would result from a narrow research topic would make their stories so much richer and more interesting.

Now that I’ve got you tracking with—or at least interested—in a historian’s perspective, next week we can jump right into how to find the information you need.

Have you ever tried to write historically accurate fiction?

About Rachel

Rachel was one of the seven students—or self-labeled “guinea pigs”—who took part in the pilot class for The One Year Adventure Novel. Known as “Nairam” in the extended OYAN community, Rachel is an example of dedication to her craft and a gifted editor. She is also a kind and forthright writing mentor to students at every level of the program, and a Story Coach. A homeschool graduate, she is now in college studying history. When not hiding out in the medieval England section of her school library, she edits her Robin Hood retelling and pretends that ten years is definitely not too long to spend on a single writing project.

This Post Has 6 Comments
  1. I’m working on my first novel that is set in a seriously obscure time-frame: post-Babel, pre-Abraham in uncharted Europe. :}

    I’m not only wanting to be historically accurate, but also Biblically accurate, which for me is not having evolution in my writing. But a lot of my history resources are from an evolutionary perspective, making it near to impossible to narrow down what is known of that time-frame. 🙁

    I look forward to your upcoming research post. 🙂

    1. Oh, that sounds tough! That’s the kind of period that depends a whole lot on archaeology, which I honestly have found very baffling (archaeology, that is). You’re probably going to have a little more liberty in how you interpret things because it’s anyone’s (or archaeologists’, I suppose) guess.

    2. Alexis, While this is a bit later historically, in the Greek/Roman era, it does help you get some perspective of what would be involved with travel in those days: In particular, it shows you how FAR things are from each other, and how long walking would take, and what paths one would take. I really like that program and think it’s a great resource.

      Since you’re talking about the START of history, in Europe, you are talking “prehistorical” Europe. All you have to work from is what archaeologists have found, and anthropologists have surmised from those findings. It’s all a guess.

      In this case, archaeologists are basing everything on Carbon 14 to set up a time frame for context. This does not demand evolution, but it does hint toward an old earth. can help you navigate the Christian side of non-evolutionary prehistory.

      A LOT is learned of the time period from an Iceman they found called “Otzi.” My kids are currently making a Neolithic “Bones in My Backyard” episode (keep an eye on based on that time period.

      Neolithic is the period right when agriculture gets started and the ice has melted and people are gathering into towns.

      I suspect that Otzi is the key to what you would find there in Europe. He had 12 different animal’s skins on his clothing! And teeth rotten from too much grain, and lungs injured from being in the mines. He also (strangely) carried a bronze axe. Neolithic and Bronze age together.

      This matches what I saw when I compared (hat tip to Rachel) these two Wikipedia articles 😉 (mentions Abraham) and

      We see Neolithic immediately after Adam in the Bible. And a quick jump to Bronze AND Iron. You can’t go wrong with an Otzi-like person/group. He lived in northern Italy in 3,300 BC (and as I said had a bronze axe, which breaks the rule–according to the Bible, all metals were discovered in the same generation, but the skills and secrets might have been privatized). See compare with 1 Samuel 13:19-20.

      By the way, I found out that Pleistocene time was when the volcanoes melted off the ice, and opened the way for the people of the ice-age to settle down. So when it says the Mesolithic people at the end of Pleistocene had a form of Ceramic pottery, it also means they were dealing with volcanoes. This is my take on the research I’ve found.

      Hope this helps.

  2. Thank you so much for writing a series on historical fiction! I have read so many fabulous historical fiction books through my homeschool years with Sonlight curriculum, books so excellently written and full of such specific, accurate details, that I always thought of writing excellent, accurate historical fiction – and the research involved – to be a daunting task. This article already helps me understand some of what is involved, and I look forward to reading the rest of the series! 🙂

  3. I love the tip about being specific. As an art history major myself, I love getting into the specifics. I think that is my problem though. I want to write about Isotta degli Atti, a mistress in the Riminese court in the mid to late 15th century. I am concerned portraying her and her world accurately. At the same time, I don’t want to write a biography. I know you said you write about “small” people in history, but what tips do you have for a writer to find a balance between writing the story and staying historically accurate when they are writing on people we actually have (some) information about?

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