How historically accurate does historical fiction have to be?

thoughts orangutan

Well, the short answer is it depends! I know, that’s a satisfying conclusion to any debate 😉 But it really is the sort of thing that’s up to the reader.

Because some people will be happy for historical fiction to be graphic and authentic and hard-hitting… others are looking for light entertainment. And that’s okay. A lot of readers are looking for a little escape from reality and history can be a little grim.

And I have to admit, even I’m not always into hard-hitting historical realism. I’ve mentioned before that everyone has their limit and I can’t pretend to always be down for some skull-bashing war drama.

Buuuut… Sometimes I feel like the historical setting is entirely lacking. Recently, I’ve had this problem with a some popular alternative history books, like Bringing Down the Duke, Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue and Ransom My Heart, where the modern twist is so prominent that the history sinks into the backdrop. In Gentleman’s Guide and Bringing Down the Duke in particular, it was the characters that felt out of place- so much so that I wondered why they were not just written for a modern context. All the characters either thought like people from the 21st century… or they were a moustache twirling villain. And that’s a little frustrating- because, more than getting the setting right, it’s got to feel like the people come alive.

Though perhaps this is just an issue that stories like these stretch the bounds of reality a bit too far for me (which is a shocker, given I’m a massive fantasy nerd 😉). For some reason, if I know the history or I’m thinking of real people, it’s just going to be that much harder to suspend my disbelief (which is why I’ve never got on well with Philippa Gregory books for instance). It’s not so easy to switch off that sceptical part of my brain snapping out “yes but the real Anne Boleyn probably didn’t commit adultery… least of all with her brother!” (okay, I have good reason not to like Philippa Gregory- what is with her and incest plotlines!)

What I’ve come to realise is that this is a world building problem- just as much as it would be in fantasy if everyone started breaking the rules of the magic system. I can suspend my disbelief… but only so far. I have to be able to buy the way the world works- and in historical fiction it’s that much harder to change things up.

what the wind knowsOf course, it’s hard to draw a definitive line here. Many of you will know, I’m all about *exceptions* and I’ve read my share of great alternative fiction. For instance, it’s not like time travelling to Ireland before its independence is a realistic plotline- but I still enjoyed the hell out of that book! So, I really can’t be the one to judge what is “too far”- what works for me could easily not work for you, and vice versa!

Which is why I wanna pass the question over to you- where do you draw the line? How accurate does historical fiction have to be for you? Let me know in the comments!

57 thoughts on “How historically accurate does historical fiction have to be?

  1. I wish it was just called fiction. To my mind, adding “historical” means it is actual history fleshed out. I know that definition is no longer true, but it was true at one point and I’ve never moved beyond that. It gets me riled up (surprise!), so I don’t read it any more. At least my SFF authors stick to the rules. Well, for the most part 😉

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    1. That’s fair! I think that is what put me off for ages (and still means I read very little of it). I see the word “historical” and think I’m getting something akin to a dramatic documentary- and a lot of the time it’s just the author’s fantastical version of events! So yeah, I also got riled up about that. It’s only recently that I’ve found a few I like (especially if they have a fantastical element 😉 ) hehe that’s true!

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  2. I can fall into either camp depending on my mood. I will say it is pretty tedious to me when people from centuries ago have 21st century sensibilities. It’s as if the writers are suggesting we haven’t evolved at all over the years and the “good guys” have always held these beliefs, and it wasn’t the combined efforts of technological and social change that helped these changes in attitudes come about.

    I actually really enjoy Phillipa Gregory’s books in spite of the incest plots (I don’t think there are that many, but I haven’t read her stuff in a while so I don’t know). If you’re adverse to that sort of thing for the love of God don’t read the “Wideacre”series xD I loved that book series but it made 50 Shades of Grey look like a children’s bedtime story with it’s WTF-factor. I enjoy the more fantastical liberties she takes. The past is a pretty mysterious place so I think giving it a sort of mystical feel is entertaining, but that’s just my personal preference.

    I believe in erring on the side of historical realism in most cases, nevertheless, if someone is holding a torch instead of a rushlight, I’m not going to wet myself lol. As long as the historical inaccuracies aren’t glaringly obvious I’m okay if the writer doesn’t get it exactly right.

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    1. I get that. Yeah I definitely don’t like when that happens either. It’s very transparent imo and it’s just not realistic (and I like your point about the technological and social changes).

      There are at least 2 that I’ve read (and know that there are others) it’s just very off-putting after even one for me tbh! I have unfortunately read the first Wideacre book on a friend’s recommendation- big mistake!! I can understand that- I think I like the idea in theory (which is why I’ve picked up a fair number of her books) but for some reason it never gels with me in practice.

      Yeah I think I tend to veer towards historical realism (which is perhaps odd, given how much I love fantasy). Hahaha fair enough!!

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  3. For me it’s about language and values.

    I realize that any book set in a historical period is going to be written in translation, but I don’t want the characters to talk like Americans from the 1990s. This is especially true when the historical period is one where we have lots of literature that the author could immerse herself in to get a feel for the rhythms and some of the vocabulary. If your story is set in Elizabethan Times, read some Shakespeare. If you heroes are early Anglo-Saxons, read Beowulf.

    If authors immerse themselves in literature from the period they are writing about, they will also get a sense of the prevailing pressures and concerns of people of the day. These will be VERY different from the ones we moderns face, especially if the historical setting is before the Industrial Revolution. Even coming of age was a pretty different process back then. I could rant about this for 1000s of words, but I won’t.

    One author who is really great at this is Edith Pargeter (pen name Ellis Peters). Her Brother Cadfael mysteries are set in Shrewsbury during the 1100s, and based on the historical detail and especially the language in her books, I honestly think she ate, slept, and breathed the time period. And it shows. Brother Cadfael is sort of unconventional, but he’s unconventional within his historical context. He’s not just a modern guy dropped into 1100s England.

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    1. That makes a lot of sense!

      “written in translation” is such a good way to put it. And yes I very much agree! It’s very noticeable when the rhythms and vocab is off (especially if there’s modern slang!) And that’s great advice!

      And I like your point there as well! That is so important!

      Oh I really want to read the Brother Cadfael mysteries, so I’m really glad to hear that it’s so accurate! Love the sound of it in general, but this makes me even more excited!

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  4. Well I don’t mind as long as the setting is believable. You see, I don’t know whole world’s history. I like WWI/II setting but I’m not historical geek who has PhD in it, I like it because I can see through books about people’s situation and how they might have lived with it. Ask me Indian history I can say this was fact, close to fact or around fact but that’s the limit. I google things when I read it in historical fiction and that’s how I can know and learn history. After reading books and some classics, I get the idea how people talked and walked back then. But if one is writing a story in history and then characters start acting like modern people or talk normally, I wouldn’t believe it. That story would have worked just fine under fiction without labeling it historical fiction. Wonderful post!

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    1. That’s completely fair! And yeah I understand that. I think for me personally (and someone else was saying in the comments) if I don’t know the history, I just like it to be fleshed out well enough that I can understand it. And yeah I think that historical fiction can also teach us something (preferably for me if it’s accurate). And yeah- characters talking in a modern way is particularly distracting! Absolutely agree! Thank you!!

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  5. I think true Historical Fiction, at times, receives a lot of flack for portraying attitudes that have changed. A novel set in the 1800s where the male character expects his wife to stay home and care for the children would be in line with 1800s sensibilities. To the 21st century reader, we consider this an outdated notion that went out the window several generations back. The trick of the historical fiction author is to stay true to the times without offending the modern. Unfortunately, the easy way out is to convert our thought process into the past “setting” which messes with our minds and distracts us from the story.

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    1. Oh yes that’s an excellent point! I have seen the opposite argument a lot- if the author shows history in an accurate way, then a group of readers will complain that they didn’t relate/didn’t find the characters likeable etc. And I do see why. But I couldn’t agree more that the trick is to get the balance right! And yeah that is the problem- a lot of the time it’s just easier to transport modern characters back in time! thanks for your comment- really well put!

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  6. I prefer it when the historical fiction I read is historically accurate. These people lived such dramatic lives, there’s no need to change things to make it even more so. As Hilary Mantel has said, you can have a historical figure who is well-documented, but there will invariably be gaps, and in those gaps are where a writer brings life to their story.

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  7. The expectations of the reader are very often linked to the ways the author himself presents the book.
    If the author presents it as a biography, it has to stick very narrowly to the historical facts. In this context I remember lively the controversy that surrounded Haley’s book “Roots:The Saga of an American Family” that later averred to be a complete confabulation and, even worse, partially plagiarized from Courlander’s novel “The African”.
    If the book is promoted as a historical fantasy, it usually indicates that the author has taken some artistic liberties with the historical accuracy. Nevertheless, all books that carry the epitome “historical”, should at least be founded upon a world building that correspondents with its setting.

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    1. That’s a fair point. I do see that happening to an extent and it would certainly put me off if I saw an author implying their work was historically accurate and it wasn’t (I’ve definitely had that with historical fiction, where the author has claimed to have done a lot of research for the sake of accuracy and yet I feel it misses the mark or in some cases is just completely fanciful). I hadn’t heard of that case- very interesting- thank you for sharing! And that’s true.

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  8. Great post 🙂 I rarely read historical fiction. I find it difficult to get into. If I do actually read it, I prefer the details to be authentic but at the same time I want the story to take precedence and not get bogged down in the worldbuilding.

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  9. My Dear Hamilton, about Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, wife of Alexander Hamilton, and America’s First Daughter, about Patsy Jefferson, daughter of Thomas Jefferson, both by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie, were well researched and beautifully written. They based much of each story on the written material left behind by the main characters and other original sources. In each book they showed the challenging lives of these women in relation to the famous men who established so much of American democracy, and didn’t stint on revealing the hypocrisy of all major players.
    Alice Hoffman also based her book, The Marriage of Opposites, on original sources to tell the story of Rachel Pomie, mother of Camille Pissaro. All these stories convey authenticity and conviction, portraying the complex politics, social structure, and challenging lives of the women who were crucial to the success of these famous men.

    One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus begins with the life of May Dodd and the real incident of a Cheyenne chief who proposed to President Grant trading 1000 horses for 1000 white women to become wives to his warriors. It was an audacious but brave offer that was never accepted. But Fergus imagines what if this proposal had occurred. Who would be the wives and how would the cultural exchange impact both cultures? He exposes the terrible savagery of both Indians and the American military charged with controlling the territories, the humiliating circumstances of the women that led them to be sent as wives, and the disregard for human decency that was a mark of the times.

    I love historical fiction when thoroughly researched and imaginatively written. All novels stretch the truth – it’s what engages this reader. The brilliance of outstanding historical fiction is in writing what life was really like “back then” through characters we can relate to – whether or not we love them.

    As for Philippa Gregory – I can’t figure out all the adulation.

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    1. Oh I already wanted to read My Dear Hamilton and I like the sound of America’s First Daughter. They sound brilliantly done!
      And that sounds very interesting as well!
      Oh I like the concept there as well.
      Thank you so much for these recommendations!
      I agree with you. I love how you put that.
      Hehe nor can I!

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  10. I love historical fiction, but I don’t read it often. I think a part of that has to do with my lack of knowing what I like to see in HF. I’m just as content with a historical fiction that leans more heavily on the historical part of the term as I am with a book that leans more on the fiction part of the genre. However, I think the only time I find myself unhappy with the material is when the language, dress, and values don’t quite match with the time period. Unless it is intentional for comedic or satirical purposes!

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    1. I think that’s fair! And yeah that definitely throws me too! I think that’s something that I am especially thrown by! (especially cos then I wonder why it’s set in that time period at all!) Ah yes, that’s a good point- there are a few fun ones like that!

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  11. I don’t think I can catch every anachronism in historical fiction novels, but the big thing to me is whether the people feel realistic. Are they 21st century people (from a Western-based society) in a historical setting? That normally comes off as out of place, especially if the culture is not Western at all.

    Other than that, I’m not actually sure how many mistakes I can catch. I’m probably “stricter” when it comes to Japanese and Chinese history because I know a little about that, but I’ll probably miss things when it comes to other countries. I do appreciate it when authors write about where they’ve taken historical liberties with – it helps me learn about the history of the place!

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    1. I do get what you mean. Yeah I completely agree with you.

      And I understand what you mean there- I have a similar perspective about catching more mistakes in European/British historical fiction. Oh yes definitely agree with you! I noticed that in what the wind knows that I read recently- at the end of the book she’d explained the liberties she’d taken for the story, which was great!

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  12. Good timing on this question because it came up in our book club discussion yesterday which was about Little by Edward Carey, a novel of the life of Madam Tussaud. According to the book her mother died when she was six, leaving her an orphan with no relatives. But apparently that’s not true.

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  13. Too true! I’m still to find historical fiction that I can get behind. The problem I always have is there’s so much background that I feel like I need to read up on the time period to understand what’s going on, or like you mentioned about The Gentleman’s Guide, the characters are too modern-day they don’t fit in.

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    1. Ah I really relate! Oh yes, I completely understand that- cos if I’m not familiar enough with the time period, I’d like it if the book gives a good enough background/has really clear world building so I get the gist. And yeah, I find characters not fitting into the time period a massive issue for me personally.

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  14. It should be accurate…. I have a great interest in history and most of the times I am learning from those Historical tv series or documentaries… That way if us easy to remember and it is interesting too… Inaccuracy is something that puts me off… But yeah this is entertainment, and some liberty may be given to the makers

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  15. Well, to me “fiction” and “accurate” or “realistic” are completely contradictory and I don’t expect fictional novels to be either accurate or realistic. That kind of defeats the purpose. If you really want to learn about the details from a historical period, you should read a history book / watch a documentary (and even for those, experts debate the “accuracy”).

    For historical fiction, I think the important thing is for the publisher / author to be completely open about the degree of fiction to avoid disappointing readers. Also, even if I don’t care too much about the details, I think the author ought to capture the overall tone and setting from the period. Why else choose that period?

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  16. I don’t read a lot of historical fiction (most of the time I’d rather just read history), but when I do I want a fairly high degree of accuracy. I want any actual historical events that take place in the story to play out pretty much how they did in history. I want characters to think and act and speak like they belong to that culture and time period even if that makes them seem less admirable to us. When I read historical fiction I guess I’m looking for history brought to life, not a few details from past eras being used as props and scenery by lightly disguised 21st century characters.

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    1. Yeah I understand that! I think I’m very similar (especially now that I read more straight history books). I agree. And yes, I much prefer if it’s accurate than if the characters are likeable. Absolutely agree!

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  17. I think for stories…it just depends how well you’re able to suspend your disbelief. Sometimes with historicals it this really depends how well you know the history and how seriously you want to take the text. For example, I ranted A LOT at the TV show Reign because I actually wrote a paper on Mary, Queen of Scots in college and also that new movie, why does she have a Scottish accent???? Some things you just can’t get over LOL. But then reading something like My Lady Jane…that was clearly just in fun so you could really look past anything in there. So, yeah, with you when you say ‘it depends’.

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    1. Yeah I get that. And that’s such a good point. I’m definitely more lenient for historical fiction where I don’t know what actually happened (and harsher about things like the Tudor England, which I know more about 😉 ) haha I relate to that about Mary Queen of Scots! (I didn’t even watch the new movie cos I knew it would anger me so much lol!! And yes, absolutely agree with you- I was the same about My Lady Jane.

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  18. This is hard cause while I don’t mind some deviations or putting a new spin on historical figures I also find it hard to detach from what I already know – the joys of being a history graduate. Because of this I also get super protective over my favourite historical settings. For example Glyndwr (Glendower) in the raven cycle. I studied his life extensively at uni so I was overjoyed and also wary of Stiefvater’s use of such an iconic Welsh figure, especially since he’s relatively unknown beyond Wales. Thankfully, I really enjoyed how she wove the history into the story and it was quite effective.

    To cut a long story short, i like my research. I want to be able to identify the time period but I don’t mind if they deviate from the events.

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    1. Ah I completely get that!! And yeah I understand that. And that’s really interesting that you had that specialism! I’m glad you ended up enjoying the raven cycle and that she wove history into the story well (for me, that wasn’t an area of history I’m familiar with, so I was relaxed about it there 😉 )

      I totally get that! 😀

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  19. I think I am squarely in the camp that I don’t really care if things aren’t super accurate. I sometimes get annoyed with certain language used, but other than that, I think it doesn’t matter all that much to me. The thing is, if I feel like that’s an interesting era or setting (even if it is really just a backdrop rather than a fully developed world), I feel all the more curious to research the real historical events.

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    1. Oh yeah the language thing bugs the hell out of me! (especially cos it’s something that’s a really easy fix!!) I can understand that and I like hearing that perspective, cos it’s so different from my own! It’s very interesting, cos it’s just one of those things where I really struggle to suspend my disbelief.

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  20. I write historical fiction, so I read you post and all the comments with great interest. I’m working on what I hope will be my first historical novel. My fear is that a reader will find that I made an error; however, if I wait for my novel to be mistake free, I’ll never finish it.

    Several commenters mentioned language in historical fiction. I’m working hard to stay in top of that by keeping a dictionary within reach that indicates when a word came into usage. Even so, I’m bound to miss some. I’m striving to be as historically accurate as possible in my writing. Like one of two others commented, what’s the point of writing or reading historical fiction if it’s not true to time and place?

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    1. Giving your work a flavour of the time in history in which it’s set it important. Yes there may be the occasional word, phrase or event that’s not entirely accurate. At the same time the reader may engage better with the story.

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    2. That’s really cool- I’m glad to hear it! Ah I think that’s completely fair- and I think most readers (including me) are forgiving of little mistakes or liberties. The general gist is that people want a strong sense of the history, if not the accuracy.

      And yes, I think that is a really good idea! Because I think using modern words or slang can throw a reader (though obviously, again, people will be forgiving if it has the spirit of a historical setting). And very true. I think that’s my outlook.

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  21. I believe that historical fiction doesn’t have to be entirely accurate, but I agree that a line needs to be drawn. I have to believe that the characters belong in that setting; otherwise, as you mention, why not place the characters in a modern context?

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    1. Yeah I completely agree with that- I’ve found that, even if you want a character to have certain values, it still has to be realistic within the world, otherwise it just doesn’t make sense (and personally it throws me out of the story).

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  22. Fiction using historical events and people as a backdrop can give realism to a fictional story. But you have to remember it’s still fiction. What I enjoy doing after reading or watching an historical based drama, is to find out about the actual historical event/person.
    The only down side to this is you end up realising how little true information was incorporated in the novel/drama.

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