Historical accuracy in novels

Image by Michael Drummond from Pixabay

When I was learning how to write, fiction and non-fiction, I was taught to always ensure that my facts were correct, as there will always be someone who knows, and there will always be someone who complains if there’s a mistake.

When I was training to be a broadcast journalist, I was taught to always check any facts or historical details to ensure that they were correct.

I’ve been writing for a long time, since 1985. And I have always been meticulous in checking my facts and historical accuracy.

When I wrote a major article for an American publication (Spa magazine), they had a whole member of staff dedicated to calling the writers and checking every single fact.

When I wrote an article for a special interest title in the UK, I very quickly learnt to make it clear when I was interviewing a so-called “expert”, and I firmly and clearly put any errors in the experts’ own mouths from then on.

I’ve been editing since 1997, and a lot of my assignments ask me to ensure accuracy in facts. I’ve been proofreading since 2011, and assignments there also require me to check facts.

Two years ago, I started to edit and proofread historical novels from a publisher of pulp e-fiction. One of the requirements was that I check historical accuracy.

I edited very many of these books, and threw a lot back for being historically inaccurate.

When I had the chance to ghostwrite for the publisher instead, I jumped at the prospect. Now was my opportunity to “show them how it’s done”, so to speak. (I’m such a snob! 😃)

I’ve been ghostwriting historical novels since 2020, and my assignments so far have both asked me to ensure historical accuracy. One of the beta-readers flagged something as inaccurate when, in fact, I was quite correct. That’s how precise my own research is.

After Christmas, we binge-watched Bridgerton on NetFlix, and I had to forget about everything I have ever learnt, over 35 years, regarding ensuring historical accuracy.

We enjoyed the story, and we understood, for example, the colour-neutrality aspect of the cast (although the series itself did, in fact, make reference to this topic).

We also understood that though wisteria, for example, did not arrive in the UK until 3 years after when this instalment of the story was set (1813), it might be difficult to find historic houses in the UK, for locations, that don’t have wisteria clambering all over the front facade.

And we thoroughly enjoyed the series, we really did.

But earlier this week, I saw this article in The Guardian in which the author herself refers to the “accuracy police”. It’s even in the headline. And it made me wonder if historical accuracy, or indeed any kind of accuracy, is now going the same way that grammar seems to be.

When I was starting out, it was much harder than it is today to check such things. But now, with the internet, it is so much easier. And I, personally, think there’s no excuse for shoddy or non-existent research.

Over to you …

What do you think?

Am I, and others like me, being too pernickety? Do readers actually still care whether or not a novel, or a television programme, is historically accurate? Are authors who are not bothered about such things being lazy? Does it matter? Am I wasting my time checking such things? Or is it still important?

Discuss below.

Thank you.

3 thoughts on “Historical accuracy in novels

  1. I had a dilemma in my new novel, because I mentioned my characters meeting at protests and one of them ending up in jail for his part in a campaign of terror against employees of huntingdon life sciences. That happened in the late 80s, but in my head, my characters are in their 30s. When I first put that in, the dates matched, but then time passed, I was distracted by proper work, and by the time I was ready to publish, they’d be in their 40s. I changed the copy, to put them in their 40s, but it just didn’t feel right for this single woman to be in her 40s. So I changed it back. And anyone who’s pedantic might point out that the campaign of terror took place 30 years ago, but hey, I’ll cope. It’s fiction. I’m pretending they did it again 10 years later! Gotta post a link now, haven’t I really. http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B08S982M5L

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