Historical Accuracy in Novels

By Peter Leavell

Herodotus’s Third Law—for every historian, there is an equal and opposite historian.

There’s no record that Herodotus wrote such sage wisdom, but I’m sure I’ll come across it soon.

How important are historical facts in novels?

Two extremes:

Tossing history through a black hole because the past doesn’t fit your plot.

You can’t simply disregard history as some sort of nuisance just because it doesn’t fit the plot. For goodness sake, if Henry VIII switches on the light, you’re in the wrong genre. When Genghis Khan paused at the taco shack on Tuesday to get his salsa fix, you did it all wrong. And Susan B. Anthony didn’t squeeze into skinny jeans, did she?

Stymied completely by making sure every nuance, every word, every fire lit actually happened.

I know a writer who started looking for small Nebraska town’s train schedules from 1905 to accurately portray historical fact, aka, the train will pull in on such and such a time. She started at age 26 and I met her at age 45. And she’d just found her holy grail! She actually found a brochure—copied into the internet—and saw the train arrives in that small town at 4:37PM. She could finally move on with her manuscript…until I asked if the train was late that day. She went into concussion.

Tips on historical accuracy:

History is the pathway from which all we know has come. Explanations for who we are and why we do what we do can be found by studying the past. Staying true to events, known events chronicled by participants, is important, because misrepresentation of the past might change how we proceed with out future. However, the leeway the writer has is picking who to listen to when those chronicles differ. How many stories have been written of John F. Kennedy’s assassination? Everyone picks a specific eye witness chronicler and runs with a fresh version of the story. If you chose to write that the FBI was behind the assassination, then the reader will come away with possible undeserved distaste for the FBI. Be careful.

Don’t lose the main plot in details, ever. John F. Kennedy’s death is sometimes overlooked by the thrilling theories behind the assassination. A man dying is the heart of the story. An important man. The characters need to be drawn back periodically to the main point, like a ship orbiting earth’s gravity.

The political setting of every historical novel is important. A story with John F. Kennedy would miss so much if the writer didn’t research détente, mutually assured destruction, and Catholic phobias of the day. Those tidbits draw out how we came to be the way we are today. Historical romance that incorporates the free spirited heart of the cowboy fenced in by closing ranges and barbed wire adds a new level of emotional tension. How characters reacted to those political tensions can be found in diaries and interviews. You must use your imagination to picture what your characters might do under those circumstances and overlay them into the character.

Instruments used in the past give the story verisimilitude. Knowing they had electricity in the 1960’s can add a nice little historical element. Is the story lost if you can’t find out if electricity existed in the ‘60’s? No. Imagination and writer’s tricks can solve the problem. But before my dad strangles me about ‘did you have electricity when you were a kid, dad?’ we must admit that root beer in the 1960’s was probably more amazing than today. But characters don’t say, ‘oh my, this root beer is far better than they will have in 1999.’ They simply like what they like.

Peter Leavell
Peter Leavell, a 2007 graduate of Boise State University with a degree in history, was the 2011 winner of Christian Writers Guild’s Operation First Novel contest, and 2013 Christian Retailing’s Best award for First-Time Author. Peter and his family live in Boise, Idaho. Learn more about Peter’s books, research, and family adventures at www.peterleavell.com.