The Historical Fiction Writer’s Conundrum: How Much History?

Read an exclusive guest post from Paddy Hirsch about how much history to include in historical fiction, then make sure you're signed in and comment below for a chance to win a hardcover copy and an audiobook copy of The Devil's Half Mile!

The moment I started writing The Devil’s Half Mile, I began what is shaping up to be a lifelong struggle. I’m working on a series of sequels to the book now, and every day I find myself wrestling with one of the great existential questions that hangs over the head of every writer of historical fiction:

How much history?

Position 1: It’s fiction! Sure, you can set it in the past, but the historical setting is just the vehicle for the story. All you really need is a date. Say you decide on 1523. There are some obvious things to avoid, like cars, cellphones, and dentistry, and you need to know that 1523 wasn’t the bronze age, but otherwise, you’re good, right? I mean, you’re not writing history…

Position 2: It’s history! Yes, you’ve included a fictional character or two, but the whole point of a novel set in the past is to give readers an account of an historical event, only in a more engaging and arresting way. It should be a meticulous recounting of a sequence of events that actually happened, only with a fictional character or two thrown in to give things texture and color. Otherwise, the point is to be as accurate as possible, and not just with the chronology—you want to show people how things looked, felt, tasted, and smelled back then.

I’ve had plenty of advice from my literary influences as I’ve vacillated between these two positions. On one shoulder I have Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall, which tells the story of Thomas Cromwell’s rise through the court of Henry VIII. Every significant player in the novel existed, and while Cromwell’s musings and the minutiae of his interactions may be invented, everything else—from the chain of events to the layout of London to the meticulous descriptions of daily life in Tudor Britain—has been rigorously researched.

On the other shoulder, I have Sven Hassel. Hassel is a bit of a mysterious character—possibly Danish, possibly a former trooper in the Waffen SS—who wrote a series of books about the members of a penal battalion in the German Army in the Second World War. Hassel nailed the teeth-grinding minutiae of the German soldier’s life and the brutal violence of small unit warfare. That made his books treasured contraband at my prep school. We would pass them around, wrapped in the torn-off covers of Hardy Boys adventures, and read them by torchlight under our blankets.

Author Sven Hassell (1917-2012)

Now, I love Hilary Mantel … but what if you want to have Thomas Cromwell poison Ann Boleyn? There’s no room for that kind of malarkey in Position Two. As for Sven Hassel, well, over there in Position One, you can do pretty much whatever you want. But there’s something profoundly unsatisfying about that degree of freedom. Hassel’s novels riveted me when I was 12, but I read a couple of them again recently and realized they are disappointingly lacking, historically. They make a nonsense of the chronology of the war, and they are riddled with inconsistencies.

Which puts me, both as a reader and a writer, somewhere in between Hilary and Sven. For me, it’s fine to have made-up characters and a made-up storyline, but the close-up details have to be right, and the frame, however indistinct, needs to be absolutely accurate. For example, if you’re writing a novel set in New York in 1799, you can’t have your hero chase a man in a bowler hat through the Five Points: the area was still a freshwater pond back then, and the bowler hat wasn’t invented until 1849. As for the frame: you can’t have the newspaper headlines full of the war with the British. Or George Washington’s cabinet picks.

There are plenty of reasons to get these kinds of details right. If you don’t, you’ll lose readers. Not all of them, because a lot of us won’t know any different, but some will spot something inaccurate and just put the book down. You also risk betraying the reader’s trust. It’s a subtle thing, but I think that most people read historical fiction believing that they’re getting a kind of history lesson. When you put a fashionable woman in a see-through chemise negligee at a soiree in 1750, readers will believe that is the way some women dressed back then. If one of them happens to find out you’ve got it wrong—say by bringing it up in conversation with someone who knows the Directoire style didn’t emerge until the 1790s—our reader is likely to feel at best duped and at worst foolish. Betray her trust this way often enough, and she’s gone.

So how much history do you need? For me, not that much. I’ve found that too many historical novels are overloaded with history. And I’ve certainly been guilty of that myself. Early drafts of The Devil’s Half Mile included turgid explanations of financial irresponsibility in the run-up to the panic of 1792 and cabinet meetings discussing regulation thereafter. Yawn. It took me a while to realize that less is more, and I do best when I’m working like an impressionist—a smudge of history here, and a dab of period detail there. The cut of a foppish man’s coat; a slang word for brandy. That’s all it takes to catch a reader’s eye and hold his attention.

But that detail has to be true, and that truth comes from wide reading and hours of meticulous research. The trick is to know when to stop and what to leave out. Which is most of it. It can be painful to have spent hours and hours finding old paintings and comparing men’s coats, only to edit that detail out in the final draft. But it’s important to me to feel that I have that degree of knowledge about the period. That way I can paint the frame of my story and fill in the fascinating little details, secure in the knowledge that my fiction really is historical.

Comment below for a chance to win a hardcover copy and an audiobook copy of The Devil’s Half Mile by Paddy Hirsch!

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The Devil’s Half Mile Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at http://www.criminalelement.com/the-historical-fiction-writers-conundrum-how-much-history-comment-sweepstakes beginning at 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) June 4, 2018. Sweepstakes ends at 2:59 p.m. ET June 12, 2018. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.

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Comments

  1. MaryC

    Informative post.

  2. John Smith

    The books sounds like an exciting 1790s thrill-ride!

  3. SUSAN GANNON
  4. SUSAN GANNON

    thanks for the chance to win awesome book

  5. Mark Vollenhoven

    You should read the historical of Philip Kerr in his Bernie Gunther books where he shows the Great wars different face before, during and after WWII. He gives his audience an great tale and dares to show a different truth than you perhaps accepted before.

  6. anne

    Fascinating historical. Interesting feature and giveaway.

  7. Mike Daly

    I’m a big Hirsch fan. Would love to win this book !

  8. Jackie Mungle

    I love books, and this sounds like a good book to me

  9. joyousgard

    Exactly the right thing to explain to a friend what her story needs. Thank you!

  10. Karen Hester

    Interesting post – I would like to see what choices he makes in his book.

  11. Jean Barber

    Wow!

  12. Tammy Mitchell

    I hope to win the audiobook asi have transient blindness and low vision, but I’m interested in reading this book. Thanks for the chance.

  13. Kate Vocke

    Sounds cool – thanks for the chance!

  14. Rebecca Brothers

    Most of the historical mysteries I’ve read set during this time have taken place in England (C.S. Harris’ Sebastian St. Cyr series, to name one) so one set in America sounds promising.

  15. Linda Farabaugh

    I historical mystery thrillers. This one the first in a new series. Sounds intriguing.

  16. Marjorie Manharth

    Very interesting post. So glad this author tries to be authentic.

  17. Marjorie Manharth

    Hope the book is as interesting as this post. Would love to read it.

  18. Vernon Luckert

    Would love to win what sounds like a great read.

  19. Karen Mikusak

    Sounds great. Would love to win!

  20. Lori P

    I’m a historical non-expert, which usually means a good story wins out, however, I’m mindful to recognize that historical fiction is not historical fact.

  21. Barbara Lima

    Interesting to hear how a writer’s mind progresses.

  22. Andrea

    I am intrigued.

  23. Michael Carter

    Yes, please enter me in this sweepstakes.
    Thanks!

  24. Laurent Latulippe

    I love historical fiction. I hope I win this.

  25. Deb Philippon

    I find that the insertion of historical trivia can be jarring when it interrupts characters’ interactions. Sometimes, indeed, less can be more.

  26. Catherine Myers

    Would love to listen to this one

  27. Earl

    My preferred type falls between the two initially mentioned but closer to the second. Technically, the second option isn’t truly historical fiction but fictionalized history, since all the writer is doing is speculating about what was said and what was thought between known events. I prefer a step or two more into the fiction area from that, where there can be completely fictionalized events as long as they don’t interfere with what actually happened. Nothing more fun than looking back at the historical record and seeing that the week of completely fictionalized events took place while the historical figures involved were unaccounted for in the annals of history. That is historical fiction at its finest. In my opinion, of course. That said, I enjoy some of everything all across the spectrum.

  28. Suzanne McMannis

    would love to read and listen

  29. Carole Knoles

    Exciting story!

  30. Shirley Evans

    I have to say I notice things in books, such as while reading a novel not too long ago where the town in the novel was misspelled. I grew up in that state and it has bugged me ever since I read it. It was not a brand new novel mind you but still bothered me. So I do appreciate the history of a novel ringing true to the era it is set in. Thank you for letting me comment on your post.

  31. susan beamon

    I find I need the details to be correct. I read Regencies and the fashions need to be spot on or I tend to wonder what else is incorrect.

  32. lasvegasnv

    interesting info

  33. joel timmons

    Love. Historical. Genre awesomeness

  34. luvlife4ever24

    Sounds like a very fun read. Thanks for sharing.

  35. Andrew Gordon

    looks like a good read

  36. Susan Morris

    I love the research behind the historical mysteries. Yes, I want the authentic scenario. Sometimes I learn a little history along with a great read.

  37. Teresa Young

    This: “a smudge of history here, and a dab of period detail there” – exactly what I want in my historical fiction!

  38. Susan Marshall

    As a reader of historical fiction there is a very fine line between enough information and too much information Sometimes it can be too much and I lose interest. That’s just my personal opinion. This sounds really good.

  39. Susanne Troop

    Sounds great!

  40. pat murphy

    Thank you for the chance to win .

  41. Patricia Reed

    Love historical fiction. Putting this book on my TBR pile.

  42. Carolyn

    I love historical fiction!

  43. Janice Milliken

    History always repeats itself!

  44. Jane Schwarz

    You are right about the need to be accurate in the details of the period that your story is set. We readers can not only get an engrossing story but be drawn into the era and hopefully learn about it. Thanks for the opportunity to win a copy.

  45. Carol Kubala

    I think you got this just right. I want enough history to set the scene and whet my appetite to do my own research and read non-fiction.

  46. Desmond Warzel

    Count me in, please!

  47. carloshmarlo

    I totally agree, historical fiction without accuracy is pretty much unreadable. This looks like a great story. Thanks for the chance to win a copy.

  48. Karen Terry

    Sounds like an interesting read.

  49. Ann Muth

    I love historical fiction.

  50. Helen Allman

    I am a fan.

  51. Jean Feingold

    Not sure what I think of historical fiction

  52. Bill Cook

    I love history, but in a novel I agree that you should spend more effort on the feel and atmosphere around the era and tell a good story. Looking forward to reading your book, Paddy!

  53. Leslie Davis

    Would love to give this a listen

  54. Kara Lauren

    Sounds like a very interesting read!

  55. tex2309

    would love to win this book

  56. Marisa Young

    Interesting article.

  57. Alison Almquist

    The book got great reviews from Booklist and Library Journal.

  58. zenlady21

    This sounds like a fascinating book, especially since it takes place in 1799!

  59. Janet Gould

    Fascinating article.

  60. Vicki Andrew

    great info, made me more interested in this book

  61. julie hawkins

    Great information.

  62. JAMES LYNAM

    This I want. Especially the audio book.

  63. Tawney Mazek

    Thoughtful look at an author’s choices. I read a great deal of non-fiction history, so, yes, I want the history to be accurate and relevant, but the characters to be fictional. So I want to read what you’ve done – another for my TBR list.

  64. Patricia Mansker

    I love the idea of the different types of historical writing; one, which follows history directly but inserts a person or two, and the other, which sets itself into a historical time period but is not particularly history

  65. Joyce Benzing

    Thanks for the chance to win.

  66. Leela

    Thanks for the giveaway!

  67. Sandra Brossart
  68. Barbara Lima

    What’s not to love? I love audio books and I love historical and mysteries!

  69. Brenda Elsner

    I love these kind of books!!!

  70. susan smoaks

    thank you for the chance to win

  71. Ed Nemmers

    I would like to read the work of Paddy Hirsch.

  72. kathy pease

    Thanks so much for the chance 🙂

  73. Jae Park

    Thank you for hosting such a great giveaway! I prefer hard copies of books, but audiobooks are great for listening to on long summer road trips. This book sounds like a great read too.

  74. Tricha

    Sounds great thanks for the chance

  75. Daniel Vice

    This looks great

  76. Shannon Baas

    I would like to read this.

  77. Linda Peters

    This sounds like a great read, thanks

  78. Sand Lopez

    I would love to read this!

  79. pmeredydd

    I get tingles down my spine whenever I read historical fiction and realize something is true that maybe sounds made up. To that end, I’ve attempted to ride that truth line pretty tightly in my own work. Perhaps someday my own name and book shall appear on this site!

  80. Christina Gould

    Thanks for the giveaway!

  81. 23sunnystreet

    Thanks for the giveaway!

  82. Steve

    Interesting discussion regarding the conundrum of historical fiction.

  83. Buddy Garrett

    It sounds like an interesting read. I love going back to earlier times and reading small details about that era.

  84. Lily Kwan

    Thanks for the great giveaway!

  85. teresa sopher

    I’m definitely one who likes a little history with my mystery.

  86. alex

    So sad to see a lot of spammers who are actually not interested and haven’t appreciated this post.

  87. alex

    So this is website to start attacking with the links ?

  88. HESTER MAYO

    Fascinating read!!

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