Monday, April 22, 2013

Historical Fiction: Accuracy or Readability, by Paula Rose

Since this blog was set up to include information and my thoughts on writing, I’m posting about that today. Hoping to mix it up a bit, I’m taking a look at the juxtaposition which occurs when writers of historical fiction or fiction which requires historical knowledge have to choose between…

Historical Fiction: Accuracy vs. Readability

Several years ago, I joined the American Christian Fiction Writers because I knew I needed to communicate with published authors, and writers who want to publish, as a means of visualizing my goal of becoming a published author. A few months later, I joined an on line chat for historical fiction writers and authors. Becoming a member of this group has proven invaluable to me for we affirm and support each other. Since this unique genre requires skills and hours of research, that other fiction does not, having people to discourse with about my craft has bolstered me up. I have spent hours isolated while researching little known facts, and been blessed to share my journey with others who need to hear that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

All of this might sound as boring as dirt to you. However, without checking every conceivable link that could yield information, the author of historical fiction has possibly done a shoddy job making her work a potential target of ridicule. Writing historical fiction is not for the faint of heart.

Both this and last month’s writers loop, focused on several things historical writers deal with. Since I found the discourse stimulating, I hope you will too.

Question: How do you handle it when writing things in a historically accurate manner makes it difficult to read by a modern day reader?


·        There is a fine line between the historical accuracy needed to set the stage and pull your reader into the setting. Write so the reader can see the story unfolding in their minds eye, but refrain from being so accurate that you lose the reader because the story is shrouded in history that it creates a barrier making it impossible for the reader to identify with the characters.

·        When being historically accurate creates a barrier between your reader and your characters, you may have become too historically accurate.

·        If the language is too stilted or obscure it is difficult to read.

·        Having read hundreds of books in my genre, I have gotten a feel for the dialogue of the era and that seems to give me the words. 

·        When looking at the language of a period, for example the 18th century, many wonder about using contractions. Researchers discovered that contractions were used throughout the history of the English language, and are found in the fiction of the mid-18th century.

Question: When does using the terminology of the period make reading what I have written so difficult to read that I might lose my audience?

·        Most people who pick your novel are going to know exactly what these words mean because they read historical fiction.

·        Research your work, and read fictions written in the period your story is set in.

·        Write so that your reader will get lost in the story, merging with the time-period that the story takes place in. However, be careful that there is nothing jarring in the text because that can bring them back to the present.

·        Use enough archaic language so the reader relates to the time-period, and knows that the characters do not talk quite as we do.

·        When using archaic, or a foreign language, one needs to make sure that there is enough context around the word for the reader to be able to figure out the words meaning.

·        Read a book aloud that is set in the same time and location. Then read your text aloud. 


  1. Excellent article, Paula! I promised myself when I finished writing Indian Summer, my historical romance, that I would never write another historical anything. It's exhausting! Of course, I am about halfway through my sequel, Savage Heart. It's taking a long time because it centers around a war, so I have get that as accurately depicted as possible.

    One suggestion that was helpful to me. Find re-enactors in your area (or find a group on line) and ask them some of your all important questions. I had an amazing chat with a gentleman portraying General James Oglethorpe. He didn't break character once, and I spoke to him over an hour. He was fantastic and full of wonderful information.

  2. I'm glad you liked the article, and that you mentioned re-enactors!This unique group of people know a lot and bring the times and history to life in a unique way!