Writing Historical Fiction; the Do’s and Don’ts

Writing Historical Fiction; the Do’s and Don’ts

I have any number of very talented writer friends who tell me that writing historical fiction is far too terrifying even to contemplate. That they just know they’d get something crucial wrong and be torn to shreds by a baying pack of vicious reviewer hounds.

The Review Hounds are a terrifying prospect indeed (though one I thing I always tell any author is, for the love of God, don’t read your reviews. Especially the negative ones). And yes, it’s horribly easy to get things wrong when writing historical fiction. Colloquially it’s known as the Potato Paradox, though obviously different from the mathematical problem of the same name. Obviously, because potatoes are a New World food, they were unknown outside the Americas European colonization, specifically the Spanish conqest of South America. No, Christopher Columbus did not bring them back on his ship in 1492. Potatoes are a cool-temperate crop from the high Andean region and were not recorded in any literature until the late 1530s, in what is now Columbia. The earliest records of them being cultured in Spain date from the 1570s, so if you have someone in mid-16th century England tucking into a dish with any sort of potato product in it, give yourself a smack. You just breached the potato paradox.

And, of course, potatoes are just one of hundreds of foods which have a ‘start date’ before which you cannot reasonably use them in your writing. Corn, beans, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, cocoa (chocolate!), turkeys, coffee, peanuts, vanilla, tobacco, tomatoes (which took a long time to be adopted for a food as they were thought to be poisonous) are all ‘Columbian exchange’ items, and there are many, many others which aren’t as easily dated in literature. Chocolate is one of the major peeves of mine in Regency (ie, Austen-era) fiction, as the sweet we call chocolate just wasn’t available in anything like its current form at the time, and was usually made into a drink. Sugar was produced in cones which were grated down and was prohibitively expensive for all except the wealthiest; while the Bingleys and Darcys might have cooks who used it regularly, certainly the Bennets wouldn’t have been able to afford it.

Of course, we’ve all read books which get things dreadfully wrong. Raccoons in the woods of southern England? Wolves in Austen’s time? Obviously, raccoons are an American species, and wolves were pretty much extinct in England by the end of Henry VIII’s reign (1509). So no, you can’t have Elizabeth or Georgiana running off into the woods and being cornered by a pack of wolves. The only predator they would have needed to fear was man.

As JAFF writers, we’re blessed in that dear Jane lived in the era of which she wrote. She knew, intimately, the social customs, the language, the foods and the locations she was writing about. She knew how long it took to walk two miles across muddy fields; how long it would take to travel by coach from London to Derbyshire, or the difference in travel time between a mail coach, a public coach, a private carriage and a man on horseback. We have to research these things, and this brings me to the point of this blog post.

RESEARCH.

Don’t be afraid of trying to write something just because you might have to do research on it. If you want to write a crime thriller you’re going to need to research police procedures, after all. If you’re writing science fiction, you’ll need some sort of believable mode of faster-than-light transport. If you’re writing fantasy… well, guess what, you’re still going to need to know how fast a man on horseback can cover long distances. Or how long it takes to cover half a continent on foot, or how long to sail across an ocean. The only time you DON’T have to research is if you’re writing what you have direct, personal experience of – which is why ‘write what you know’ is often the advice most handed out to beginning authors. Even then, though, you should bear in mind that not everyone’s experience would be the same as yours. How might things have been different if the person experiencing them was of a different colour/race/gender/affluence/attractiveness? If they had a more, or less, supportive family? There are a million variables that influence the outcome of any scenario, and you should always ask other people what their experiences have been too.

Research is a part of writing, whether it’s just chatting with others in a similar situation, burying yourself in the library or becoming an expert in Google-Fu. One of the simplest things to do is look up the specific year, or years, in which you are setting your story, and look at the major events which occurred in that year. Then consider the speed at which news travelled around England and across the world.

Here’s just one example. How many books do you think you have read which were set in the year 1812? It’s a popular one in both Austen fic and Regency romances in general.

Did any of them mention the assassination of Spencer Perceval?

(by George Francis Joseph, oil on canvas, 1812)

I can almost see brows furrowing as you wonder who the heck Spencer Perceval was! Well, he was the only British Prime Minister ever to be assassinated while in office.

NOW do I have your attention?

If you’re writing a story set in or about May 1812 and people aren’t talking about the assassination of the Prime Minister, then you’re missing out on an easy opportunity to make your story sound genuinely authentic. And no, you don’t have to go read up whole textbooks on the topic, not unless you’re planning to write a book where Elizabeth uncovers the plot to kill him! The Wikipedia entry will do just fine to extract snippets for conversation, or at the bottom of any Wikipedia article you can always find links to primary sources to do MORE research.

Handy tip; Type ‘1812’ (or whatever year you want to research) into the Wikipedia search box and you’ll get a list of dates and major events. Please take just a few minutes to consider whether your characters would have heard of any of them, or might discuss them! Because if you think Elizabeth and Darcy didn’t read the newspapers together, I’ve no idea what to tell you.

There are a thousand and one topics to consider when doing your research, and I hope I’ve made you think about just one or two of them here. For more information on what and how to research, I’m going to recommend a book I recently read and reviewed: Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders, by Susanne Alleyn.

You can read my full review here, or pick up the book at any major ebookstore using this universal link!

Seriously, I can’t recommend this book highly enough to all current and aspiring writers (and editors, and readers!) of historical fiction. It’s written in a fun style and details a few shockers the author has found in fiction – Charles Dickens even gets named and shamed for getting the French Revolution horribly wrong in A Tale Of Two Cities, so never fear. If you DO make a Potato Paradox blunder, at least you’ll be in good company!

33 Responses to Writing Historical Fiction; the Do’s and Don’ts

  1. Thanks for the book recommendation, it looks like a lot of fun and I love that it mentions Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities as I remember having to read that in school so I’m interested in finding out what he got wrong.

  2. Great post, I agree research is hard and wouldn’t it be fun to go back for a week and actually live in the times we write about. I’m sure it would be an eye opener.

  3. Great post, Catherine! I will have to add that book to my growing pile of research material. I am always researching one odd topic or another.

    My dear friend -who is not a fellow author – once told me ‘ you don’t always have to be so accurate – you spend too much time resreaching’

    I tried to explain but she just doesn’t understand that this genre needs to be portrayed in an accurate light or it loses credibility 🙂

    I wonder if it is more freeing to write sci-fi or fantasy 😉

    • I’ve tried to write sci-fi and fantasy both, and there are just different constraints. You have to build an entire world (in the case of scifi, an entire universe!) and stick coherently to the rules you establish, whether that be magic or science. Plus, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been reading fantasy and groaned because the writer had a rider covering fifty leagues in a day!

      • I also groan at that, Catherine Bilson. I even groan when they gallop for two hours. Although they couldn’t travel fifty leagues in a day, if a writer wants to cover a third of that distance per day, he should have his characters using dogsleds.

        I’ve written both fantasy and science fiction. I like fantasy best, because I could make my world. But it has to be consistent.

  4. Thank you, Catherine, for such an informative post. I also appreciate the books you mentioned and promptly bought them. I look forward to reading both, but especially the mystery one as I will be starting my Regency Mystery Series around the first of the year. I am also one of those who does a lot of research to make sure my writings are accurate. Lately, I’ve had two critics throw rocks at me about (1) clipper ships and (2) using the word ‘gotten.’ An historian roundly castigated me about having Darcy own a clipper ship because clipper ships were only around the mid 1800’s. The historian totally missed the point that I had Darcy owning a Baltimore clipper which began being built in the early 1770’s and reached their zenith in the War of 1812. My book was set in 1807. I appreciated also the Ingrams link you shared. I had lost that and was glad to add it to my records. So, I looked up ‘gotten’ which I had seen listed as a North Americanism in one dictionary but found that was not exactly accurate. On using the link, gotten was very widely used in England in the 1600’s, and although usage began waining during the 1700’s, it was still being used in 1807 and 1808 by at least two Anglican clergymen and a William Turner (possibly the artist) around that time as well. Also the Journals of the House of Lords – Volume 45 had the word gotten in it in 1805. I do my best to make sure my info is accurate. BTW I knew you were referring to the Prime Minister’s assassination. Gives me an idea for another P&P plot. Thanks again. 🙂

    • I know; I put ‘gotten’ into Ngrams and got that result as well. It just throws me so badly because I grew up in the UK and lived there for 25 years before emigrating to Australia, and I don’t think I EVER heard a British person use the word. It always jerks me right out of the story.

      • Although it’s the past participle of got, it’s a shame it has such a stigma now. What jerks me out of a story I’m enjoying is having porn rear its ugly head when I was expecting a clean read.

  5. Oh, this is excellent stuff Catherine! I am definitely going to get the book you recommended, as historical snafus are one of my great horrors! What an informative post.Thank you for sharing!

  6. Great piece! I have to book, but haven’t finished it. I always think of language, not so much the use of US vs. UK English, but actual words on whether they would have been in use at the time.

    • Exactly! As I suggested abut the term “OK” or the word “okay”…1812 Americans could not have used it. 1840 Americans would have. Post-WWII Britons might have given the exposure to Americans from 1942-45.

  7. Fascinating piece, Catherine Bilson. There are a couple of useful reference books I bought some years ago that show history as a horizontal time line — I just can’t remember the name (maybe Time line of history?) or author, and the dog is asleep in our library so I cannot disturb him at the moment. When he wakes up I’ll try to get into the library and find out the names of the books. Yes, I often find displaced words, actions, foods, events, etc in historical fiction — if the story is good I do try to overlook it. Sometimes, however, it pulls me right out of the story. And I am also appreciative of learning new points of history via these novels — my knowledge of English/British history is not very extensive but it is growing thanks to historical novels that have led me to do my own research. Many thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic.

  8. Oh…what a wonderful post, CB. I “live” in the archives. A an instructor at 3 colleges of universities, I also have access to the full library system that now stretches invisibly across the country and around the word. As Leenie noted, one can get lost (but the process of finding one’s way is so much fun!) in research. One of my classes is “Research Writing for the Social Sciences.” That is what we are doing in a major way as we create believable universes within which our characters move (see my 9/12 post here).

    As I was explaining to the woman of my life, search terms can be a beast. You have to think things through before you “googleize.” Try the words in different sequences. Being too general is brutal. Being too specific may close other avenues of fruitful research.

    Oh, (Thank you Carole S…Carole in Canada) and one of my favorite web search sequences is “”Insert word in question here”) etymology”. That way you will learn stuff like “teenager” was never used until the 1880s-90s. For me, since my books involve timeshifting, this is critical. T’is “adolescent” or “young person” in the Regency.

    BTW…fun fact…”OK” did not occur until the American election of 1836 when supporters of Martin Van Buren (known as ‘Old Kinderhook’ from his New York Dutch heritage) would make a hand sign (the forefinger touching the thumb to form a circle with the rest of the fingers extended vertically) and said “I am with O-K” which meant to the observer of a like mind that the speaker was on the right side of the battle (Clay v. Van Buren) and was, thus, “all right.” Over time the political meaning vanished and the statement of condition remained–to this day. So, unless you are writing an epilogue set in at least 1837 (allow for some travel time, although I think such slang would take more than a year to seep into Victorian English), having a character say “OK” is not okay.

  9. We all make errors at times 🙂 , and our body of knowledge and understanding grows as we go. There are always so many interesting articles to read that I know I can get lost for hours on topics that have very little to do with what I am writing but the research rabbit trail led me to something irresistible. 🙂 I actually used chocolate conserves as a gift from Elizabeth to Lady Matlock in a book. That was a fun research trail that included an attempt at making them from a recipe I had found in the third edition of a cookbook printed in 1828. My son was my taste-tester, and he found them to be too sweet. 🙂 Those old cookbooks are not always easy to follow as precise measurements were not always used and some of the terms are not familiar. Google books is a great source for these sorts of primary source documents. I have also stumbled across a great book on domestic ecomomy from 1823 that includes estimates of household expenses. Seriously interesting information…that can suck me in for hours. 🙂

    • Old cookbooks, household diaries, almanacks etc. are a brilliant source of information contemporary to the period. One of the things Susanne Alleyn recommends in Medieval Underpants is reading contemporary source material, whether that’s fiction written in the time you’re writing about or properly researched material. And never, ever rely on other people’s historical fiction for your research!

      • Well, it is called fiction for a reason, isn’t it? LOL 😉 And that fiction title should even make us pause when considering information in stories of the time period — they are fiction, so look to other sources to verify things. I know I always taught my students to ask questions such as is this a reliable source? Have they listed their sources? Did they use reputable sources? Can you find this information in more than one place? and so on.

    • Well, I try! I know when I’m reading historical romance (and I read a TON), the books I enjoy the most are always the ones where the author knows their stuff. Some of my favourite authors are history professors, and I love reading their books because I always learn something really interesting as well as enjoy a good story (Susanna Craig is one of them – SO GOOD!)

    • I agree with this. I know some of my fellow Austen Authors don’t, but I’m British originally, now Australian, and words like ‘gotten’ from the mouth of a British person of ANY era (it’s not a word they use today, even) honestly make me feel a bit queasy.

  10. Catherine, Thank you for an excellent article. Great advice. I remember my first few blunders in writing Regency tales. Etiquette was my particular stumbling block. Happily I found an editor who knew how ladies and gentlemen conducted themselves. I had no idea Darcy couldn’t hand Elizabeth a letter in front of a witness? 🙂

    • I’ve definitely done that as well… not known enough to know I even needed to do research on something. I think that’s where the real trouble comes 🙂

      • You’re so correct! It’s what you don’t know you need to look up which trips you. Which is why I like Medieval Underpants so much; the author divides the book up into lots of different topics for you to consider, like currency and the buying power of money, language, etiquette and a brilliant section on exactly how the British peerage works.

        • Unfortunately, that is only too true. I can never say never, but I do my best to not look an uninformed idiot. Look forward to the book. 🙂

  11. I constantly need to do research and fear I am still making lots of mistakes. Sometimes my research isn’t historical. Yesterday I researched whether a rider could tell if a horse lost a shoe. One web site said essentially, sometimes. I plan to use the answer I prefer in the book I’m currently working on.

    Summer Hanford and I briefly mentioned the assassination of Spencer Perceval in “A Death at Rosings.” We used it to show that Elizabeth and Darcy paid attention to the events of the time.

    • Renata has a better memory than I do 🙂 I recalled that yes, I did look that up before and we did use it, but I had no idea in which book!

    • Well, as a former horserider, I can tell you that you’ll definitely know when a horse has lost a shoe 😀 They tend to ‘peck’ which means their head drops sharply towards their forefeet. If you’re travelling at any speed, you’ve a very good likelihood of falling off the sudden cliff which has appeared in front of your saddle! I’ve been there, done that and got stepped on!

      Always happy to answer horsey questions, if you need a horseperson to assist!

      • Thank you for the information on horses. That is the answer I wanted, by the way.

        I enjoyed your post.

        As a bit of trivia, the Austen family grew potatoes, making it very reasonable to mention them in a novel set in her time.

  12. Thanks Catherine for sharing. I’m not much of a reader and also hadn’t travel much. I wouldn’t really know reading a novel if some details are accurate. I have read one P & P variation book mentioning the assassination and that was the only one. So i thought it was one of those they just added to emphasize the unrest happening in London.

    I salute all for writing such stories and doing all that research…thanks for your devotion not only in writing P & P variations but also making it informative.

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