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.