Discussions · Writing

How Important is Research in Historical Fiction?

This year, I’ve challenged myself to get started on my own novel, a historical fiction set in the Tudor period. The process has got me thinking about the importance of research when it comes to attempting this genre. Unlike say a fantasy or a romance, historical fiction is largely based in fact.

As a reader, I prefer my historical novels to be well researched. This is probably because I took History at university, so it can ruin my reading experience when a period I know a good deal about is poorly represented in fiction. Whilst the author is entitled to some creative freedom, just how much usually depends on the period in history that their story is set.

  • The earlier the time period, the more room for interpretation

I think it goes without saying that there are fewer accounts of life in medieval times, than events in recent memory such as the Second World War. Surely then, stories based in the distant past can get away with some made-up scenarios. Years ago, I wrote a short story that imagined the meeting between King Henry VIII and his third wife, Jane Seymour. Whilst I knew for a fact where this meeting took place and who was present, I could only guess at the words that were exchanged. This allowed for some imaginative wiggle room, but I still tried to ensure that the scenario remained realistic. For instance, as a shy, retiring type, I knew that Jane was unlikely to drive the conversation, so I made Henry the dominant speaker.

  • Writing about real people can be subjective

Even the most enigmatic figures of history had certain characteristics that are common knowledge, but that doesn’t mean that these characteristics can’t be open to interpretation. If there’s one thing I have learnt from my History degree, it’s that every point of view is valid – as long as it can be backed up with evidence! Creating an opposing argument is the entire point of revisionist history, and I find it very interesting when an author incorporates these arguments into their novels. Philippa Gregory made a fascinating interpretation in The White Queen, by suggesting that Richard III did not murder his nephews, as is commonly assumed.

  • Well-researched fiction inspires the reader to learn more

Historical fiction often only provides a mere glimpse of the time period in which it is based, but this makes it an ideal foundation for further reading. I find that well researched stories can immerse the reader in the world of an historical novel so completely, that a desire to learn more becomes inevitable. This was the case for me with the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. Her detailed overview of the 18th century Jacobite Rebellion left me in no doubt that she has researched the hell out of these books, formed her own interpretations, and was passionate about the period in which she was writing.

  • Historical knowledge helps with world-building

Knowledge is important for creating a convincing interpretation of history, but more importantly it conveys a real passion for the world of the story. Writers make a habit of knowing their topic inside and out, so much so that they acquire more research than is actually needed in order to write their novel. I feel like a student all over again in my attempts to adhere to this habit, but I can definitely see the logic behind it. My favourite historical novels are often so good because the author’s enthusiasm is tangible on every page. They create whole worlds in their head, world’s long since passed, and make them as real to their readers as modern day. Not an easy feat! It’s safe to say I have a challenge ahead of me.

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One thought on “How Important is Research in Historical Fiction?

  1. Great post, and good luck with researching that novel! 🙂
    I think historical fiction is so fascinating just because it’s based on fact, yet authors all have such different interpretations of the same events. I know I’ve read books where a historical figure has been presented in such a light that’s I’ve really disliked them as a character, yet I’ve liked them in another author’s book, even though they do the exact same things. I think as long as events are historically accurate in terms of the facts (where it happened, who was there etc.) it is pretty subjective, and I think you can learn so much from reading different interpretations. I definitely always go and look up the historical figures when i’ve read a book to check out how much of it is actually true, or known to be true, so it really is a genre that inspires me to learn more! 🙂

    Like

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