Posts Tagged research for historical fiction

Using real people in historical fiction – how much can you invent?

I’ve had this question from M:

I’m writing a historical novel set in Australia in 1872. The fictional events are based on real events or phenomena. A few characters are based on real people, who I’ve researched. One is Thursday October Christian the second, grandson of Fletcher Christian, of the Bounty Mutiny fame. During his life he held positions of responsibility on Pitcairn Island. He is making a cameo appearance, greeting characters as they arrive in a ship.

My problem is this. There is very little information on him, so I am wondering how to describe him. There is information on his father, who was a colourful character, so I would like to model TOC 2nd on him. But what would you do?

No matter what you write, there’s one thing you must assume. Whatever you fudge, whatever you’re inaccurate about, will be found out.

Partly this is sod’s law. Your book will find the one reader who knows this obscure thing. But actually, it’s more than that. If you’re writing about a particular time, or a particular geographical place, or a particular exciting profession, you’ll attract readers who love that special story world. They’ll be geeks for it. If they spot something inaccurate, they might shrug and forgive you – or they might lose confidence in you altogether.

So even though we’re making things up, we have to be as respectful of reality as possible.

Also, we need to be careful about sources. Wiki is a good start, but it’s not necessarily the oracle. Double-check anything you find there. You might even have to be wary of experts. I’ve just seen a post on Facebook from a writer friend who’s researching Jane Austen’s plotting methods. She says: ‘A historian states something I know to be wrong, but it’s so often repeated that it’s now taken as fact.’

I know. That way madness lies.

But when, like M, you’ve done all the research possible and haven’t found what you need, what are your options? How many liberties can you take?

M is caught in a classic historical fiction conundrum: how strictly should she stick to the facts if she’s fictionalising?


First, is there a danger of libel? Not in M’s case. She’d like to use TOC 2nd because of the historical timing, and model his personality on his father, who seems interesting and memorable for readers. Both guys are long dead, so there’s no legal repercussion. And it sounds like the portrayal would be harmless and even a bit flattering.

How big is their role?

More importantly, this character’s role is incidental. You’d need to worry more if he had a more major role – and if he did, you’d probably find it easier to invent your own character so they can do all the things you need them to do – and speak as you need them to. But in M’s case, there’s probably little harm in splicing the personality of one TOC to the personage of the other. But M knows it’s not accurate.

More research you can do

That’s where I’d do some more research. Find out how much these particular facts matter.

How protective are historians about fictional portrayals of this character? How protective are his actual descendants or his cheerleaders who are alive today? (You’d be surprised who has cheerleaders, at least in the UK. Go to any tiny town and you’ll find there’s a local historical celebrity who invented pencil lead or washing powder.) I’d look for past instances where a portrayal of this guy might have rubbed people wrong.

It’s the same principle for writing stories about issues and cultures beyond our own lived experience. We might use sensitivity readers or specialist beta readers to ensure we’re accurate, authentic and respectful. So look for common misrepresentations and misconceptions.

You might find there are things you simply can’t do. Perhaps because of facts you’ve found. Perhaps out of good manners. Whatever you have to change, it’s not a setback. Constraints often give us much better ideas because they force us to be more inventive. I learned this while ghostwriting – many dead ends eventually became surprising breakthroughs. You might even find that a trivial moment becomes a pivotal character scene.

Not a setback after all

For instance, if M finds she must make her TOC bland and colourless, she could use her own disappointment. She could transfer the anticlimax to some of the characters and have them discuss their expectations. (‘Really? He was descended from Fletcher Christian? I hardly noticed him.’) Choose some characters who need to show their colours in some way – with a humorous bonding moment, or a falling-out (‘I hate the way you’re so judgemental’), or some other moment that drives the narrative onwards. Something new might develop because they talk about this. A straw might break a camel’s back.

You have remained accurate – and you’ve also found a way to advance the plot or character development. (Big hint: if the incident doesn’t drive the narrative onwards in some way, it shouldn’t be in the book at all. Maybe that’s the revelation – you needed to learn it isn’t interesting enough.)

On the other hand, you might find no problems with your plan. The chances are you’re safe to discreetly invent whatever feels true to the situation. If you feel the need to clarify, you could include an afternote that explains your sources and any assumptions you’ve made.

Also, remember that you’re writing fiction. The reader expects fiction; if you’re hamstrung by history and reality, they expect you to find ingenious ways around it. That’s what you do; you make it up while being faithful to what’s known. It’s what fiction writers of all hues do – we write convincing stories with a combination of research, empathy, respect and understanding of human nature.

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

, , , , , , , , , ,