Getting It Right in Historical Novels

Years ago, I wrote history books and I tried to make them lively.

My philosophy was this: if history books are boring, nobody will read them. If they’re lively, maybe more historical buildings would be preserved instead of torn down.

Now I write historical novels and looking back, writing those history books was easier.

In a novel, you must have a story. In a romance novel, it has to be a love story with a happy ending. If you put that story in a historical setting, purists flay you if you get one fact wrong, even if your story is good.

Readers of non-fiction are more forgiving.

Misinformation gets thrown around a lot, requiring the researcher to delve deep, find the original source, determine if it is credible, then see who copied the source. Stories get carried from one book to another. Shoddy research sometimes becomes so deeply lodged that when the real fact emerges, nobody believes it.

Fake history may come from someone’s faulty memory or from a generally good historian relying on a source that passed on unreliable information. In a novel, it is sometimes necessary to fudge a fact, but if you do, you have to tell your readers what you did in a Note or Acknowledgment.

Or you should.

Here’s what I did. In Shadow of the Fox, my early California historical, I knew carriages weren’t present before a certain date, but I put one in earlier (and told the reader at the end of the book). Same with the hotel. The first fancy hotel in Los Angeles came in the 1850s, but I needed it in 1846 so I imagined one. Pico House, a very grand edifice indeed, wasn’t built until a few years after statehood.

I’m reasonably comfortable in California’s rancho period (think Zorro). Not so in Regency England, the other period I write in. Society was rigid. My characters are not. There were rules for everything and I know only a few. When my heroine in Scandal’s Child attended a funeral, it was a huge mistake. Ladies did not attend funerals. Of course, my heroine wasn’t a “lady” then so maybe I squeaked by. Readers didn’t note it in reviews. Purists probably curled their lips in disgust.

In my history books, I try to find three credible sources that agree before I claim something as fact. In my novels, the story comes first (and my apology comes after).

My second Regency, Scandal’s Bride, will be out July 10 and I’ve tried to be careful, but my characters are not proper (scandalous, actually), so I’m formulating my apology in advance.
I sincerely hope you’ll like it.

Pamela Gibson


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1 Response to Getting It Right in Historical Novels

  1. sueberger3 says:

    I am writing a Victorian time travel right now which requires the heroine and hero to get married in Buckingham palace is royal chapel in 1840. Unfortunately the chapel didn’t exist in 1840 it was something else until 1844 but I can’t figure out what it was. Some sources say it was Nash’s conservatory but that can’t be right. Because Nash is conservatory was moved to Kensington Gardens. And it was a separate building. So I need to have this happened and I’m just going to go with describing the chapel briefly it existed in 1840 for it and hope readers wlll forgive. I do plan to leave in N out in the book explaining what I did.

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