29 July 2021

Guest Post by Savannah Cordova: How to Balance Accuracy and Narrative When Writing Historical Fiction

If there’s one thing that seems to shore up endless debate and contrary opinions in the historical fiction realm, it’s the question of accuracy vs. narrative. People can’t seem to agree on an ideal ratio: some would attach references to every last detail, while others are fine taking generous creative liberties.

The balance of each story is ultimately up to its author. However, I’ve found that the very best historical fiction books seem to take similar tacks to strike that balance. Here are some useful guidelines on how to mimic them when walking the fine line between fact and fiction!

Research extensively, but prepare to only use a fraction

When authors and even readers think about historical fiction, research is often the first thing that comes to mind. This is for good reason; as noted in my previous post, writers must familiarize themselves with the era they’re writing about if they want their work to stick the landing.

Indeed, don’t underestimate the amount of time and effort you’ll need to get your facts 100% straight. Remember, many of these facts aren’t just a backdrop, but important elements of your story. Everything you learn through your research, from the events of great battles to the exact Tudor line of succession, will bolster your portrayal of both the atmosphere and plot.

That said, you should be selective about which details to explicitly include. After spending countless hours on research, it may be tempting to cram all those nuggets of wisdom into your pages, no matter how small. But this is where hyper-accuracy can be a hindrance rather than a strength! While historical fiction readers typically do have an interest in the era of your novel, at the end of the day, they’re reading it for the story — not the trivia.

You want to offer just the right amount of information to keep readers feeling immersed in authenticity, without forfeiting your story. This means no tangents or info-dumps about anything that’s irrelevant plot-wise. In the end, you will likely only end up using a fraction of the research that you have gathered, but that’s okay: as established by Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory, this restraint on your part will actually help build a better story.

Filter the facts through your characters

Historical fiction is compelling because it takes real-world events and settings, then makes them tangible to the reader. To do this, of course, an author must center a character (or small group of characters) and their specific experiences of the period. Luckily, this technique almost automatically achieves a nice historical fiction balance — focusing on characters is a fantastic way to be accurate in your depictions without sacrificing the human pull of narrative!

Say your main character is a seamstress at court and you know a great deal about the practices of the time. Instead of having a long, fact-laden description of the profession, concentrate on what it means for your character. Describe their sore fingers after a long day; the headache after trying to finish a garment by candlelight; the fear of not meeting their master’s requirements. Just be careful to avoid anachronisms or imposing too much hindsight — if there’s about to be a revolt, your character might hear rumblings of it, but she shouldn’t be able to predict the outcome.

Characters departing from the norms of their time is a particularly tricky instance where you’ll need to balance accuracy and storytelling. It might be unlikely, for example, that a seamstress at court would become involved in a plot to assassinate the king. However, as long as you clearly show how your seamstress has gotten into this situation, you can safely bend the facts a bit to create intrigue. (Besides, wouldn’t it be more unrealistic to have everyone conform to the norm?)

Make the most of your dialogue

Another thing I touched on in my previous post is not getting bogged down by strictly historical dialogue. Instead, you might want to go more for the impression of accuracy.

Your execution depends on when your historical novel is set — recent, Western civilizations are obviously closer to modern English than others — but most authors draw the line at attempting to replicate dialogue older than 200 years or so. Instead, try to have your dialogue match the tone of your narrative voice, while still allowing each character’s individuality to shine through. 

Many historical fiction authors choose an “invisible narrative style” for their story that requires removing expressions associated with any specific time periods. More often than not, this means avoiding colloquial language and idioms that might be jarring to the reader. However, the dialogue itself can still be lively — again, so long as you focus on the characters and how their personalities influence what they think and say.

This strategy will hopefully help you steer clear of any “Meat’s back on the menu, boys”-type follies, while still allowing your dialogue to sound authentic and colorful. And one more pro tip: for historical fiction taking place in 1500 or later, you can use Google NGram to see whether an unusual word was in common use at that time. Indeed, even with the most neutral of tones, you sometimes need to fact-check to ensure you’re not being anachronistic.

Take care when twisting history for dramatic effect

When it comes to injecting fiction into history, choose your areas of embellishment wisely. You don’t want to invent something major in the context of an extremely well-known period; this will ring immediately false to readers and can undermine your entire book. For example, imagine you were writing an otherwise-accurate — e.g. not alternative history — novel about the American Revolution, and you killed off George Washington before he could become the president. You’d lose all narrative credibility after that!

To combat this issue, simply focus on twisting history where there is plentiful room to do so. After all, there are so many genuine uncertainties and unanswered questions in history, it shouldn’t be difficult to find one to try and untangle. (Just think of all the famous historical enigmas, like the construction of Stonehenge and the abandonment of the Mary Celeste.)

You may have to do a bit of extra research to find the right gap to fill, but trust me, you’ll be glad you did. As a reader, it’s so much more satisfying to have a solution posed to an actual mystery than to have plot points conjured out of thin air! So as an author, don’t be afraid to lean into those gaps — and present your own plausible explanations.

Utilize the author’s note/historical note

Finally, know that departing even substantially from facts doesn't have to be a problem in historical fiction, as long as you acknowledge the liberties you have taken. Aim for transparency and cover your bases by taking full advantage of the author’s note, or historical note, in your back matter, where you can explain the divergences you made and why.

Specifically, you should talk about any ambiguities and/or discrepancies you discovered during your research — anything that historically knowledgeable readers may have questions about. This will allow you to remain consistent in the main body of your novel, yet also show that you’re aware of where your work might digress from historical records, and that you’ve made a deliberate decision to do so.

With the help of these tips, you should be more than ready to write historical fiction that is both accurate and engaging. Happy balancing!

Savannah Cordova 

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About the Author

Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading and writing short stories. Naturally, she’s a big fan of historical fiction — when it’s done right. Find out more at https://reedsy.com/ and on Twitter @ReedsyHQ

See Also: Guest Post by Savannah Cordova: Five Crucial Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

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