Authenticity: The pleasures and perils of writing historical fiction

Authenticity. A word that, for a writer of historical fiction can be at one and the same time an inspiration, a labour (whether of love or hate), and the most enormous elephant trap.

An inspiration, because if you’re anything like me,  the more you learn about the past, the more fascinating it becomes, and the more material it offers for new stories. A labour, because research is a time-consuming and often tedious task, and one that can very easily morph into the most insidious displacement activity. And an elephant trap, because however much work you do, there’ll always be something you’ll get wrong, and there’ll always be Someone Out There Who Spots It.

That said, there are some writers who don’t seem to care very much about historical accuracy, though whether that’s the result of laziness, or a deliberate decision to focus more on creating a certain ‘atmosphere’, can be hard to tell. And at the other end of the scale there are those who’ve done so much research that they’re determined to ram it in somehow, at whatever cost to the pace of the story, or the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

So the question is, how far should you go?  And the answer to that question is, ‘it depends’. That’s because authenticity isn’t monolithic: there are different types of historical authenticity, some of which (I think) are vital, and others which require a rather more flexible approach.

Let’s start with the facts. Now this is something you really do need to get right. Take, for example, the TV series The Tudors.

It certainly looked the part – lots of lush costumes (and even lusher bedroom scenes), but the basic historical framework was absolutely lamentable. Henry VIII did not have one sister but two, but this was clearly one sibling too many for the scriptwriters, who solved the problem by merging Margaret and Mary Tudor into one character who had the name of the former and the history of the latter. Which was, of course, not only irritating but downright misleading:  I do hope the production company aren’t planning a follow-up called The Stuarts, because according to their version of history, Margaret Tudor never married the King of Scotland, so James I would have had no claim to the English throne.

In my own novel, The Man in Black, I set myself the task of ‘recalling to life’ Charles Dickens’ London (to use Dickens’ own phrase), and in that case getting the facts right covered everything from the big picture to the tiniest details. From the landscape of the city with its widely different districts, like the leather industry of Bermondsey or the slums of Seven Dials, to the minutiae of daily life, such as the cost of a hansom cab from the City Road to the Strand, and exactly which omnibuses you could catch along Regent Street in 1850.

Next up, the aforementioned ‘atmosphere’. Hard to define, but easy to spot – and all the more so when it’s absent. I firmly believe that you can’t get this right unless you get the facts right too, but this is the point where dry research turns into something much more creative. You need to ‘live the period’ imaginatively – understand that the past is indeed another country, and the people in it were not just “us in fancy dress” (as JL Carr memorably puts it in The Harpole Report).

One small but important point here: nothing kills atmosphere more completely than those toe-curling scenes where characters have conversations that are obviously designed with the sole purpose of conveying background information to the reader.  All those handy resumés of the French Revolution, or the Crusades, or the causes of the First World War. Unfortunate though it may be for the historical novelist, people within their own time just don’t have useful chats like that, any more than you and I would need go back through the reasons why there are currently British forces in Afghanistan. We don’t have to say it, because we already know it. Every writer of historical fiction faces a version of this problem, so how do you solve it?  

In The Man in Black, I’ve taken the approach of  having a third-person narrator who is clearly standing in the 21st century, looking back at the 19th century with all the same hindsight about that period that my readers also have. Which means they – like my narrator – can see at once that one of my characters is suffering from Alzheimer’s, but that’s a disease that wasn’t to be identified until 1907, making it all the more terrifying for the people within my novel, who have neither the vocabulary nor the knowledge they need to comprehend a disease that can render a person ‘lunatic’ one minute, and lucid the next.

Talking of vocabulary takes us neatly to the last, and perhaps the trickiest aspect of historical authenticity – the language.  People in the past didn’t just dress differently from us, they talked differently too, and that difference gets wider the further back you go. And at some point – probably around the year 1500 – authenticity of language becomes literally impossible: if you’re writing about the Trojan war you simply can’t do your dialogue in Ancient Greek, any more than a character like Cadfael can speak in Middle English (or, indeed, medieval Welsh).  So some sort of compromise has to be found.

Do you opt for a style that conveys some notion of the period, or take the view that your characters would have spoken the ‘ordinary English’ of their time, so allow them to use ‘ordinary English’ as spoken now? I’ve seen both approaches – and many variants in between – and each has both pros and pitfalls. The danger with the former is what I call Forsooth Syndrome, in which you end up with characters spouting a queasy mixture of contemporary English liberally sprinkled with cod words and phrases designed to give a period feel. It can sound very phoney – a bit like a newly-built pub decked out with reproduction horse brasses. But going for the full-on modern-English-and-be-damned approach does make the task of creating that elusive ‘atmosphere’ all the harder.

In my first book I faced an even more acute version of this issue, because I set myself the task of writing an Austenesque murder mystery in Jane Austen’s own style. That meant not only mimicking the beautiful cadences of her prose, but ensuring that every word (as far as I could manage it) was not only in use at the time, but used in the right context. As you can imagine, there were snares aplenty there: to cite just one of my favourites – my editor asked me at one point if we could change the phrase ‘the mood in the room’ to ‘the atmosphere in the room’, but I had to point out that Austen only ever uses the word ‘atmosphere’ in relation to the weather, or other physical qualities of the air.

The Mansfield Park Murder was a hugely enjoyable intellectual exercise, but by the time I got to The Man in Black I knew I wanted to write in my own voice. And as I’d decided to have a 21st-century narrator, I could be as free as I liked with the words I used in the main body of the narrative. But I was still a stickler when it came to dialogue. And given the subject-matter of the book I soon found myself looking up a whole lot of more or less shady slang words, from bloke (first written use 1851, possibly deriving from the Dutch word ‘blok’, meaning ‘fool’), to frig (which dates back to the 1600s), to geezer (first written use in the 1880s, but probably in spoken use long before then, as it may derive from the Basque word ‘giza’, or ‘fellow’, which Wellington’s soldiers would have come across in the Peninsula War).

You’ll have gathered by now that authenticity is one of the things that matters most to me as a writer. I’d be really annoyed with myself if someone contacted me to say I’d made an elementary gaffe (it hasn’t happened yet, but I’m not complacent). And I’m just as demanding as a reader – nothing irritates me more than an author who clearly hasn’t bothered to do the most elementary research, because with all the resources of the internet at our disposal, there really isn’t any excuse.

Authenticity alone isn’t sufficient to make a good historical novel, but it’s absolutely necessary to make a great one.


Published in October 2012, updated 2022

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