Researching the Historical Novel - by William Altimari

Historical novels are treated with scorn by all except those who read them. Why? The average historical novel is no more poorly written than the latest pasted up claptrap about the feisty female grammarian-the one with the half-blind cat named Bernie-who solves grisly murders between late night bouts of verb conjugation. Least of all is it any worse than the trendiest "literary" novel, which no one would read except in the hope of being able to drop its name at the latest stale-cheese soirée.

Is it because there are so many historical novels and familiarity breeds contempt? Hardly. Go to the mystery section of Borders and plunge in-you will not come up for air for about a week.

Yet whatever the origin of the absurd prejudices against historical novels, there are genuine problems with the genre. This piece focuses on one-research. Too many novels strangle readers with more data than a hippopotamus could swallow, or else exhibit a hobbyist's tissue-thin historical infatuation that the writer hopes readers will not bother to notice. Both approaches fail. What can we do about it?

Baldly stated, we must hunt down inaccuracy ruthlessly and never pummel the reader into catatonia with the immensity of our knowledge. Research is both the sublime pleasure and the wrenching anxiety of the historical novelist, but it need not be the pit of anguish that some writers make it.

But what exactly is accuracy? In historical fiction, accuracy comes in three flavors, namely, accuracy of detail, accuracy of event, and accuracy of outlook. Accuracy of detail (as well as its absence) is the easiest to detect. Hey, where did Mark Antony get that not-yet-invented Pompeii sword? Accuracy of event means did these events occur, or could they have occurred, at this time and in this context? "Let's give back the Republic to the people," says Marcus Aurelius. Hmmm, sounds fishy. The last-by far the most difficult to get right-is the creation of moralities and philosophies faithful to time and place. "Why must there be slavery?" Spartacus asks. Well, now, what Spartacus would that be, Rome's or Hollywood's?

Bona fide historians make mistakes-lots of them. No one is appalled-at least no one should be-if errors find their way into a work of historiography. However, let a mistake raise its Medusan head in a piece of fiction, and the Error Police narrow their eyes and thumb their blades.

Here are a few tips to keep your readers happy and your conscience clear:

1) Do not simply pick a period you find charming and try to dash off a book about it. You need to have read much over a considerable time and to be saturated with your era or you will not carry discerning readers along with you. Readers are not easily fooled. Also, unless a period touches your heart-which means you are deeply interested in it irrespective of the fact that you would like to write about it-whatever you produce will seem false, because it will be false.

2) Do not expect to have all the knowledge you need before you begin creating. I have been writing for decades and have been studying the ancient Roman army for over thirty years, but I still have to hit the books as I go along. And remember, the need to do "just a little more research" is a great excuse for not doing any writing at all.

3) Do not expect to be perfect. Take the advice of Conan Doyle when he was caught in errors-he cheerily remarked that sometimes a writer simply must be masterful. Intentionally and unintentionally, you will bend the facts to fit the storyteller's needs. Doyle did not worry about it and neither should we.

4) Do not hang glossaries and character lists and other dead albatrosses around your novel's neck. Yes, I know, your favorite writer does that. Well, you are not she. The exception does not disprove the rule. The problem with most genre writers is that they have been trained to think literarily rather than cinematically. We may have to write in lines, but we should think in images. We are wiser if we conceptualize less like Jane Austen and more like Ridley Scott. When was the last time we were enjoying a movie and the director stopped the picture and told us to flip to the back? "Balthor-squire of Sir Thikenskull, finds stolen coronet beneath pile of horse dung." A dramatis personae looks dandy at the beginning of a Shakespeare play and a glossary might minister to our self-esteem, but they have no place in our books. These malignant growths reek of the writer's failure. Historical information and the all-important atmosphere should weave like golden threads through our novels, not be dumped in front of the reader like a load of road apples.

5) How much detail and atmosphere to include is by far our biggest problem (other than how to write a novel at all-which is a much bigger problem). Unfortunately, there is no answer other than trial and error. Our strongest tendency is to use more than we need, so be pitiless with the blue pencil during revision. Most readers (though not all) will be less enraptured by historical minutiae than we are. Include as much as you like in the first draft, but have no hesitation about savagely striking out stuff you might cherish as inspiration from the brow of God but which does not enhance the story or atmosphere. Feel free to hug it to your bosom and weep over it before you drop it to the floor. In the final draft, risk erring on the side of exclusion rather than inclusion. Leave the reader hungering for just a bit more, rather than gagging on too much. The Romans had a saying about a book that stank of too much research cobbled together in the study at the midnight hour. They would say it "smells of the lamp." That is the greatest sin of the historical novelist. We are tellers of tales first and historians second. We should be forever wary of getting the two confused.

6) We must avail ourselves of the knowledge of academics-especially experimental archaeologists-and historical reenactors. Both groups have much to teach about the technicalities of life in earlier times. Along with Americans, the British and the Germans excel in these endeavors, especially the practical testing of reconstructed military equipment. Seek out the results of their activities and researches. Web sites abound. On the other hand, we must not concern ourselves with the literary opinions of historical reenactors or the ivory tower crowd. If they could write novels, they would.

8) Like all writers, historical novelists are prone to despair. We have reason to be. Historical fiction is one of the genres easiest to botch and one of the hardest to write well. Anyone who has undertaken this venture knows this, and anyone who has not dared to does not.

Yet there is also much cause to rejoice. Even mediocre historical novelists do routinely what most historians cannot do ever, namely, write a book that echoes in the soul. Marvelous scholar/writers like Adrian Goldsworthy are all too rare. While the grim tomes of bleary-eyed professors gather dust, novelists bring alive long-dead periods as thrillingly as possible within the constraints of a fictional context. What most pedants fail to realize is that these demands are considerable, the most pressing one of which-on every page-is simply to keep the reader reading. That is where most historians have been floundering since the first one pushed a cut reed into a clay tablet. If our countless hours in libraries have taught us anything, it is that history is far too entertaining to be left to historians.

In a delightful interview with The Historical Novel Society, Steven Pressfield-he of the Spartans and Gates of Fire-happily admitted that there were some things he had to make up. All novelists do, and the more distant the time period, the more that must be invented to make the characters and the story breathe, because they are everything. Without them, there is no novel, no reader, and possibly no future historian inspired by an early fictional encounter with a bygone culture.

A final thought. Many readers-and perhaps even quite a few writers-believe that the purpose of all those facts in a historical novel is to enlighten the reader about a particular historical epoch. Well, that is the purpose, but only a secondary one. The objective of all that information-suitably dressed and coiffed-is the same goal as witty dialogue, lyrical descriptions, or thundering action, namely, to generate emotion. All else is ancillary to that. Historical novels can do many things, and an encouraging number can do them very well indeed, but their primary purpose is to enthrall. Historical delights even of the most compelling kind that fail to support that end must be shorn away without remorse.

Unlike historians, who must be accurate most of the time, novelists are expected to be accurate all of the time and to captivate us as well. That is a tall order. Many of them succeed pretty well. To borrow a line from Raymond Chandler, their prose gets up and walks.

This article is re-used with kind permission from the author, as well as where the article originally appeared.

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