Saturday 8 February 2014

The single most important thing in historical fiction

The other day I asked the following question on Twitter:

"What is the single most important thing in a historical fiction novel?"

It seemed to provoke quite a bit of interest. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it garnered more direct replies than any other tweet I've sent out into my own small dusty corner of the Twittersphere.

The responses fell into a few broad categories that I have classified as:       
  • Accuracy
  • Plot
  • Holism
  • Characters
  • Immersion

I have reproduced people's comments here in full, leaving their Twitter name. Thanks to everyone who contributed. (Anyone who would like to have their real name added to their quote, please let me know.)


Making sure there are no major gaffes or anachronisms is certainly at the top of some readers’ agenda.

@tattooed_mummy no one wears a watch! Glaring historical inaccuracies. It needn't be perfect, but obvious modern speech distracts.

@happyandbashful Getting the facts broadly accurate. Eg someone should have impressed on Schiller that Liz 1 and Mary Queen of Scots never met


Story got a few mentions in some of the other categories too. It should be no surprise that the story of a novel is important! No…really? Duh!

@word_seeker Story. Historical elements add depth and characters need a landscape, but neither work w/o good plot.

@Randleog As in all fiction, it has to be the story.


Holism is defined as “the theory that parts of a whole are in intimate interconnection, such that they cannot exist independently of the whole, or cannot be understood without reference to the whole, which is thus regarded as greater than the sum of its parts”.

I have added all comments here that seemed to say that everything, or the interplay between elements, was all important.

‏@mrgolder1974 A great plot, great characters and big picture historical accuracy (i.e Bernard Cornwell).

@morgan_pryce A gripping story and characters that make the reader want to enter & explore this new/foreign world.

@CathHanley Time and place being integral to the plot, not just tacked on to it

@CarmenCromer As a reader, not feeling like you're enduring (second-hand) all the in-depth background research the author did.

@PaulMMCooper The setting and period of a historical novel has to compliment the story being told, and vice versa.


A few people mentioned characters as the thing that makes them want to read historical fiction.

‏@tattooed_mummy believable characters.

@Historylecturer Some characters it is a pleasure to spend time with.

@larapawson The speech of the characters. If that doesn't sound *real* (not that anything sounds -- or is? -- *real*), you're buggered.


Total immersion in a different time and place is very important. You could argue that some of these comments could have been placed under a different category, but hey - it's my blog, so tough!

@paulaerwe Immersiveness. A story that feels so real it's like you've literally got your boots on the ground!

‏@tobyclements1 Full on immersion in the period, but that comes from everything else - plot, character etc - doesn't it?

‏@Lee_Gregory18 Allowing you to escape from the present day and live every sight, smell and moment in the past!

Finally, they say never to judge a book by its cover. Well, some would disagree. To be exact, @counternotions , who said “The cover” was the single most important thing for a historical novel. When pushed on this, they said: “If you can't choose a book by its cover…! On a serious note, visual trumps analytical, even when the chooser is not aware.” An interesting point that shouldn’t be overlooked, particularly in this brave new world of author-publishing.

Thanks again to everyone who responded with comments. I'll be doing some more of these "Question of the Day" tweets and blogs in the future.


  1. Hi Matthew
    Interesting post and I have been enjoying browsing your blog. We appear to have set our books in exactly the same period and feature many of the same people and events (well, Bede does that to us 7th century types. We also seem to be sat a very similar stage in the process, first novel complete and looking for an agent and sequel under way. I'll keep my fingers crossed about your hunt for an agent if you keep your fingers crossed about mine(!)

    1. You'll cross yours if I cross mine? Sounds like an offer I could never refuse! ;-)

      Everything is crossed for both of us.

      There does seem to be a lot of overlap in our different novels, but I have a feeling the style and content will be pretty different. Hope we both get into print so that we can compare them. :-)

  2. yes, I suspect so from the brief extract that you posted. Like Cornwell, you seem to be strong on the battle descriptions whereas I have never been in a fight in my life and feel I would be both derivative and ignorant if I even began to try and describe a battle! I also have major characters from the Welsh/Brythonic side of the fence as well as Anglians, so the 'them and us' thing keeps getting turned around.
    I'm looking forward to reading your novels. I'm sure they will get into print.

  3. Great post, Matthew. Speaking of book covers and the thought about "they say never to judge a book by its cover. Well, some would disagree. To be exact, @counternotions, who said “The cover” was the single most important thing for a historical novel." I'm working with a designer on mine now, and I want to be certain I'm true to the time period and place. I think those knowledgeable of the Third Crusade would balk at a cover of a knight in armour that would've been appropriate for the European battlefield in the 14th century, rather than in the Holy Land in the 1190s. :)

    Have you included a historical note at the end of your book? I'm working on mine now and debating its length, what to include, etc.

    1. Thanks, Char.

      It is interesting to what extent some people really care about the historical accuracy of the things portrayed on a cover. I see that many mainstream traditionally published books don't really seem to care and are much more concerned about evoking a feeling for the type of book and the time as perceived by the general populous. I would tend to agree with that idea. An attractive, exciting and enticing cover that is not 100% accurate historically would be better than one that is bland but perfectly in keeping with the time.

      Of course, the best thing would be to have a cover that is great and historically accurate!

      I have included a historical note at the end of the book. I have tried to keep it succinct and I just mention the main facts. It is about 3 or 4 pages long.

  4. Great stuff. And thanks for the follow.

  5. I'd have to say major gaffes would be top of my list. Wearing clothes that weren't around for another 200 years, that kind of thing!!!