Fantasy & Romance writing in a historical setting …

Or, When Wikepedia Just Isn't Quite Enough

It's not for the faint-hearted, and there's a lot more to it than cranking up your favorite search engine or camping out at the local library.

To read more about this time-consuming but rewarding process, check out this article, originally printed in the kick-off issue (Fall, 1998) of Phantastes online magazine, written by Moira Allen.

During an ask-the-author email chat, I was asked what percentage of a historical novel should be based on actual history.

I think that depends on the genre.

For instance, in the typical historical romance, which is usually set during the reign of So-And-So, I would estimate that less than 2% of the book represents "actual" history. King (or Queen) So-And-So might be mentioned in passing to provide the period setting, or might show up in a couple of scenes as a minor character, but that's about it. And that's fine as far as it goes, because that's all the typical romance reader seems to expect. I've been thrown out of a story because of such details as the hero and his friend donning plate armor to protect themselves from a crossbow sniper—the crossbow was developed specifically to pierce plate. But, by and large, most historical romance novels I've read recently seem to handle the (reduced) level of detail fairly well.

Speculative historical fiction probably requires a greater amount of "actual" history than does historical romance, perhaps as much as 25%? I'm guessing a bit, here, because I cannot recall the last time I read something in that genre. But, as I understand it, speculative historical fiction takes a historical event and asks "What if?" What if Lincoln had not been assassinated? Or JFK? What if Germany and Japan had won WWII? What if the Romans had perfected the steam engine? It seems to me that the amount of actual history required for the novel's setup and background would depend on the nature of the topic being explored.

And, last but certainly not least, we have historical fiction. From what I have observed, the historical content varies widely, depending on the authenticity of the core characters. Parke Godwin, one of my favorite authors of historical fiction, has written very convincing historical accounts of King Arthur and Robin Hood. Although I haven't yet read his account of King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, I would imagine it contains a much higher percentage of "actual" history than either his Arthur or Robin Hood novels (which can be alternatively classified as "Fantasy with a historical setting"), both of whom are figures of disputed origin. And yet, when I read Godwin's work, I feel thoroughly immersed in the period regardless of who he's focusing on.

Reader immersion is the trick, in fact, whichever "flavor" of historical fiction you write. Much of this can be accomplished by deft selection and handling of viewpoint characters. Sometimes that can backfire! For example, in Dawnflight, Arthur is a Romanized Celt, but Gyan, who is Pictish, sees him only as belonging to the hated race that tried half a millennium before to conquer her people: Roman. Evidently, this impression is conveyed so strongly that most readers see Arthur as purely Roman too, as evidenced by several of the book's reviews.

I was also asked to what lengths I go to determine whether or not research details are actually true, and whether I would recommend finding three corroborating sources for such items of historic representation.

For me, this depends on a lot of factors, including, but not limited to, time, availability of period sources, confidence level in said sources, relative importance of the detail in question to the overall story, etc.

As far as corroborating sources go, in addition to the above-mentioned factors, it also depends on the general knowledge-base of the readership. There are a LOT of armchair American Civil War enthusiasts but considerably fewer people who have even heard of the Picts, let alone know who they were, where they lived, when they flourished, etc. Although I believe in upholding the historical integrity of my work to the greatest extent possible, I have to confess it can be a temptation to fudge on details once in a while!

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Revised 14 March 2013