Demands of Historical Fiction Writing

I am putting off doing quite a bit of research into rural North East England in the early 19th Century for exactly this problem. Oh and 10th Century Britain/Norway (Vikings inspired weird project involving a cross-island) I swear it makes sense in context.

I adore the Victorian era, I find it fascinating but it is also very much a rabbit hole when it comes to keeping it accurate, and let’s not mention the clothing issue I currently have with the Viking age.

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Have you noticed that the farther back you go in history, the more freedom you have with facts (because they were never recorded) but the more your imagination is challenged to come up with something that might have been real? Clothing–argh–how did they sew those skins together with bone needles and sinew, I want to know! I would have frozen to death.

I recommend Kenneth W. Harl’s lecture on The Vikings. It’s on The Great Courses or Audible. Unfortunately, it’s rather pricey if you’re not on the subscription service. (The video version on Great Courses is on sale, but it’s still fairly expensive.)

As for viking clothing… Hurstwic.

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I know the feeling @PipPop

I have another character whose origins is the Bronze Age in Europe or maybe back further than that? I really don’t know, and another who has literally lived through all of history from when life first formed in the ocean.

The clothing one from the Viking age irks me massively because I would like to actually make those clothes. I will have to take some kind of liberties with them though, especially in terms of little additions and decorative things which I highly doubt was actually done from what I could find. Again though research itself is a bit of a black hole that way.

Wow! That’s a treasure trove of info!

That link that @Kameron_M_Sovka sent seems to be your dream come true. Of course it will entail a hefty amount of knitting, it seems!

@Kameron_M_Sovka I’m so sorry I missed this reply when I checked in earlier! I have seen that link before but I don’t remember it being as detailed as that broken down. When I looked it all up earlier in the year I found quite a few sources that liked to contradict one another so I’m not sure how much is personal taste and how much is accurate etc.

One of the problems with historical research. The later years are a lot more detailed in things.

@PipPop Knitting has never been that daunting for me. I’m learning nalebinding (I can never remember how to do special characters) at the moment and working on the basic stitches so I can put things together once I actually manage to get my hands on some decent wool.

@riverdoe I’ve never heard of that, and I knit! Something to store in my fact box!

@PipPop the effect is a lot like knitting and crocheting at the same time but you can create tighter or looser weaves and even rope things that look amazing. It is also very therapeutic so long as I remember not to stab my own thumb when I’m doing it

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Like @M.B_Voelker said, seeing writers write characters to be suspiciously modern drives me crazy. Is it so hard to accept that the past wasn’t perfect? It makes me suspicious.

Two words: character assassinations. Maybe I’ve been embittered by one too many novels about the French Revolution where Robespierre is a complete monster but if I’m reading a historical novel, before I even open the book, you’d better believe I’m googling the authors name and looking up every single thing about them to find out their motives for writing.

Like putting a historical figure on a pedestal is bad (cough Hamilton cough)* but once they start literally skinning women and turning them into coats, I’m throwing the book across the room.

My goal when writing about history is to avoid both the “good Queen Bess” and the “bad King John” schools of thought.** All these people were just that: people. They worked within the context of their times.


*I’m not hating on Hamilton. Lin Manuel is a gift. But not all of the praise Hamilton receives in the musical is totally deserved, ya feel?
**I’m taking this term from E. H. Carr’s What is history? Which is an incredible intro to historiography and I love it. <3

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@frenchcookie47 @M.B_Voelker
Just discussing this with my daughter, in terms of ascribing labels to people in the past which have been created to understand our currents issues (such as sexist, racist, or myriad gender roles). Complex issue.

One issue I grapple with, though, is a story that latches on and morphs facts to create a titillating (and in my opinion farcical) character.

I thought this of The Favourite (movie). But I also read this History Behind The Favourite–which stated “Lanthimos doesn’t simply ignore the perceived conventions of a period drama. He pulps, composts and mixes them into a florid international filmography to conjure an entirely new genre that is distinctly his own.”

That thought seems to suggest that perhaps twisting something historical into something else can be perceived as an art form if you do it well enough. :woman_shrugging: I just don’t know. I can’t quite stomach going so far.

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I don’t mind legitimate alt-history if you do the world-building behind it. I actually have a female pilot flying the tow plane for a glider in the Normandy invasion – because she’s a vampire, a member of an all-vampire special forces unit, and they balanced out culturally between putting a woman into direct combat and the fact that she’s essentially immune to bullets.

She was an AirWAC who died ferrying a B-17 to Britain and the vampire unit was very short on pilots.

No one told anyone involved with the invasion that Capt. Smith was a woman anyway and the records of her presence were conveniently lost so it’s not like I just added female pilots in units they had no business being in because women’s rights.

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How creative and fun. I have no issue with alt-history, just history that isn’t “alt” but masquerades as what might truly (not) have been.

Yes, exactly. Alt-history, not fake history.

I took some care to work the known existence of vampires and werewolves into history without changing a great deal up until the point that I wanted it to change significantly.

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I haven’t seen The Favorite but “He pulps, composts and mixes them into a florid international filmography to conjure an entirely new genre that is distinctly his own.”” sounds like Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. In which stylism used to demonstrate something about the historical subject. So the over saturation of color, the pop music soundtrack and the set dressing are all used to convey the director’s opinion that Antoinette was a child and couldn’t be blamed for her naivete.

I have O-pin-ions on that message, but I’m not going to say that should be invalid. Film allows you to convey meaning through a visuals. Use them well, directors!

But! Buuuuutttttt,
There’s a difference between being stylish to convey facts/ideas about your subject and outright lying for the sake making someone look good/bad.

I have seen both. Often in the same material. (Hello 1983 Danton and Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. And you too, Da Vinci’s Demons! And oh! How could I forget you, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson)

Sorry, I’m a huge nerd about this stuff since the interplay of mass media and history is what I want to do with my life.

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I enjoyed The Favourite. I will say it is one of the most unique films I have seen in a long time. It’s not something that I intend to watch on a regular basis though. I also can’t access the full article which I would like to read. I did spend most of that film eyeing up the costumes and the stunning place that they used to film it.

I don’t like it when media tries to stay “faithful” to history. When I’m watching something, I immediately think of it as an alt history because frankly there are a lot of things we won’t know what was said or who said it/done it. And in some cases a lot of things are rejigged around or flat out ignored (Looking at you, The Greatest Showman)

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I’m not totally sure I’m taking your meaning here. So you don’t mind when directors/writers/ect deviate from history but also there’s a criticism at The Greatest Showman in that last sentence.

I’m passionate about this. I feel very very strongly that if one wants to write about history, they take on a sort of authority. If you’re going to write alt-history, that’s fantastic! Please do. But I think it needs to clearly delineated. Readers, watchers, whatever should be able to tell that it’s an alternative or speculative.

Yes, we can never get a perfect view into a the past. People lie in records, documents are lost, the story and cast gets distorted by time. And that’s nothing to say of the lies of omission, where you can just leave out information to mislead people. That’s not an excuse to not try to remain faithful, to try and express the truth as closely as possible.

Because at the end of the day the interpretation of history that you express artistically might be the only one you’re audience ever sees. Of the people who go to see The Favorite or Greatest Showman or Marie Antoinette who is going to go home and fact check? Unless you’re passionate about the subject, one might never know they’ve been deceived, either intentionally or accidentally.

What of the biases that someone brings to project? If they’re English and genetically predisposed (I’m joking here, just to be clear) to hate the French, when they write about French history, how are they going to portray it? Fairly? They way they were brought up? Along their own ideological lines or beliefs?

I wish I could be more relaxed about this topic, but these days I’m so suspicious of everyone’s motives when they portray/talk about history. It would probably be better if more people understood that media about history is simply an interpretation, not gospel and I’m glad that you do, but until then I really strongly believe that those who write about history need to be as accurate as possible, just to make sure the truth gets told or make absolutely positive that the audience will understand that it’s a fiction depiction.

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I hear your passion and second it, perhaps because I am a historian and in doing deep research of subjects, I see many, many inaccuracies and prejudices written as truth.

So…I will tell you about my latest passionate diatribe regarding historical accuracy…the incredibly well-received and lauded HBO series Chernobyl. Now my husband is a physicist, so on that side, we had an inside scoop–if he hadn’t have been watching I wouldn’t have known how scientifically misguided some of the series was. But on the history side, wow! So bad, by the end I was tearing my hair out. We get together with friends every Sunday and watch whichever shows strike our fancy–I was steaming by the third episode, simmering by the fourth, and the last–oh my goodness, I got up in an absolute tizzy and flounced off to another room to boil over. There’s a courtroom scene there, and the people who were testifying weren’t even in the actual courtroom at Pripyat. OMG. Steam coming out of my ears.

If the producers had chosen to say, at the very beginning, that the information presented was told in a way to further the plot and the characters, not to accurately portray history, I might have gone along with it. (Although in this case, I doubt it. The purpose of the movie wasn’t as much to entertain but inform in an entertaining way.)

I try to remind myself that ultimately, movies (and books) are made to entertain and make money, and that alone makes historical accuracy suspect. It’s my responsibility to keep that in mind–but I fail miserably quite often. Thus my rant.

Thank you for listening. :grimacing:

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But is it?

This a very important question. Where does the responsibility lie in historical accuracy? The creator? The consumer?

Setting aside the question of money, because while I’m as much a business person as an artist, does it really take that much more to be historically accurate?

I’ll be honest, I know nothing of the subject and if I’d watched Chernobyl I would have assumed I could have trusted basic facts: like who was in the actual bloody courtroom. That’s a basic fact that you can find very quickly. Were those characters so critical that they couldn’t be removed? Was there really no other way to achieve that drama? These are hypothetical but I’m sincere about the concept.


I have a rant. (Well actually I have many, but this is the most recent.)

The adaption of Good Omens was very good but I found the whole thing spoiled for me because of one scene. There’s a cut to the French Revolution and one of the main characters is in the Bastille…in 1794. (For the uninitiated, the storming and subsequent destruction of the Bastille was the official event that started the Revolution in 1789.)

I understand why they did it. Bastille is a term most people would associate with the Frevolution but I also had the background knowledge that A) Neil Gaiman loathes the French Revolution and B) it was unesscary to even include the Bastille detail when you have the bloody guillotine outside of the window. You could have put it anywhere and the environment detail would have gotten people to the point. But nope, we have to make sure everyone knows what little respect there is for this historical event.

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Oh, that’s funny-awful! I verify your need to rant–The Bastille! Come on now.

I had to laugh, though, because the first paragraph of my work in progress has this: “…and fortresses–the best kind, the ones with dungeons and oubliettes.” And I am referring to the Bastille. And my desktop has this picture upon it:

The coincidences in life always amuse me.

There always seem to be reasons given for the decisions to mess it up, but really, it’s the exact thing I said to my husband about Chernobyl. There is no need to write sloppy history or mix-and-match it. A storyteller can make it rich, fascinating, evocative without messing with the proven facts–especially those big ones. Those monumental ones!

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