Historical fiction is a literary genre in which the plot takes place in a setting located in the past. Historical fiction is an umbrella term; though it is commonly used as a synonym for describing the historical novel. Historical fiction also occurs in other narrative formats – the performing and visual arts like theatre, opera, cinema, and television, as well as video games and graphic novels.
An essential element of historical fiction is that it is set in the past and pays attention to the manners, social conditions and other details of the period depicted. Historical fiction writers frequently choose to explore notable historical figures in these settings, allowing readers to better understand how these individuals might have responded to their environments. Some subgenres such as alternate history and historical fantasy insert speculative or ahistorical elements into a novel.
Works of historical fiction are sometimes criticized for lack of authenticity because of readerly or genre expectations for accurate period details. This tension between historical authenticity, or historicity, and fiction frequently becomes a point of comment for readers and popular critics, while scholarly criticism frequently goes beyond this commentary, investigating the genre for its other thematic and critical interests.
When Wolf Hall won the Booker prize some commentators suggested that the term “historical fiction” was itself becoming a thing of the past. So many novels these days are set prior to the author’s lifetime that to label a novel “historical” is almost as meaningless as to call it “literary”.
1. Small details matter more than large ones.
The art of fiction is, in large part, the art of small-scale illusions. Focus on the things that set the period and the character – the snap of a fan, the recoil of a rifle, the sound of the hurdy-gurdy playing in the street. In this quote from The Mistletoe Bride by Kate Moss we are whisked immediately back to the 15th or 16th century with the mention of the lute, viol, and citole, the title of the story tells us it is set at Christmas and the drinking and goose fat glistening on merry faces lets us know everyone is feasting.
‘It is my wedding day. I should be happy, and I am.
I am happy, yet I confess I am anxious too. My father’s friends of wild. Their cups clashing against one another and goose fat glistening on their cheeks and their voices raised. There has been so much wine drunk they are no longer themselves. There is lawlessness in a glint of their eyes, but they are not so far gone us to forget their breeding and manners. Their good cheer echoes around the old oak hall, so loud I can no longer hear the lute or viol, or citole s set out for our entertainment.’
2. Period characters require more than period clothes.
Similarly, just as the exterior world requires research to establish believable, small details, the interior world of a character requires research as well. Good historical stories promise to not only transport readers to a historical setting but to reveal the interior life (the mind, heart and aspirations) of a character. For me, some of the large questions here had to do with interior perceptions: You need to find out how people viewed love and romance in your chosen period. What do your characters expect or want from life.
3. Use common names, not technical ones.
It’s all very well knowing the technical terms for the clothes and accoutrements of the past but if your reader is going to have to Google everything you mention it will spoil the story for them. Remember you’re writing a story to entertain not a history textbook. Let your characters engage with both historical details and their place in society. Not only have them interact with the politics or religion of the day – but allow them full use of their senses to recreate their environment, the smells, sounds and feel of their surroundings is just as important as having them know who was King at that time.
4. Immerse yourself in the culture.
To write historical fiction of any kind – short stories or not – you need to be able to close your eyes and have the past blaze up around you. Always remember research takes time. Research is an investment; you draw on it when you need to. Use it like capital and keep most of it in the bank. Historical accuracy is like quicksand. Stay too long in the same place and it will suck you down and there will be no movement, no dynamism to the story. Too much attention to factual detail is undoubtedly an impediment to literary art. Adam Foulds’s The Quickening Maze is described on the Booker prize website as “historically accurate but beautifully imagined”, as if “historically accurate” implied a literary problem. In some respects it does. Ask a historical author: how do you stop that facts getting in the way of the story? And the novelist, driven by his or her imagination, will offer a wealth of answers. The historian will assure you that the facts are the story.
5. Find experts.
Have fun with research, but do your homework. Use reference books, watch films, read novels of the period. Make sure you’re comfortable with all aspects of the time from politics to illnesses, from food to fashion, from local geography to language (even if you choose not to use it.) Hand in hand with double-checking comes evaluating your sources. If something seems a bit improbable or sketchy, it probably is. Look for another source to back it up. Use the internet wisely. We are so blessed nowadays with the amount of information at our fingertips, the access we have to old maps and stats is amazing. But ALWAYS triple check your facts, be aware of false information and never rely solely on Wikipedia! Use a good mix of primary and secondary sources for both perspective and immediacy and double-check everything. Bad mistakes will reflect on your work even if it is the fault of your source.
6. Historical facts are not the storyline.
Anyone who has tried to make a story out of historical narrative will know it’s impossible. History is the context out of which fiction grows. Fiction is the examination of the human heart as individual characters move through scenes that test – or perhaps change – their souls. History is just the backdrop. Of course, if you’re writing about a real historical person it is necessary to stick to the facts.
Today, we are so accustomed to the picture of the suppression of the Highlands by the British Army painted in these novels that we are hardly surprised by it. However, when I looked at the records in the Scottish National Archive for this article I found the pastiche of brutality in the films and TV shows suddenly and shapely transformed from fiction to fact and the true horror of what took place became fresh and alive once more.
I have chosen some examples from the records of the Fraser Clan to illustrate what happened as there is currently so much interest in it due to the success of the Starz Outlander TV series.
I am sure that if I had been alive at that time I would not have been a Jacobite. But that does not mean I condone what took place in 1746. Neither, I’m glad to say did some of the people involved in it at the time as these accounts of the death of Charles Fraser, the Younger of Inverallochy show. The most basic record reads;
“Aged 20 years. Killed at Culloden on 17 April 1746. While lying grievously wounded on Culloden battlefield was shot in cold blood at the order of Cumberland or General Hawley. The future General Wolfe had previously refused to act as executioner. In the Muster Roll, there is a suggestion (false) that he was not killed but escaped to Sweden.”
In A Short but Genuine Account of Prince Charlie’s Wanderings from Culloden to his meeting with Miss Flora MacDonald, by Edward Bourk the story is further elaborated.
‘But soon after, the enemy appearing behind us, about four thousand of our men were with difficulty got together and advanced, and the rest awakened by the noise of canon, which surely put them into confusion. After engaging briskly there came up between six and seven hundred Frazers commanded by Colonel Charles Frazer, younger, of Inverallachie, who were attacked before they could form a line of battle, and had the misfortune of having their Colonel wounded, who next day was murdered in cold blood, the fate of many others’. (folio 327).
In Lyon in Mourning, Vol. III a collection of stories, speeches, and reports by Robert Forbes the following version taken from Bourk in person in 1747 expands the previous versions.
‘The Duke himself (Cumberland) rode over the field and happened to observe a wounded Highlander, a mere youth, resting on his elbow to gaze at him. He turned to one of his staff and ordered him to “shoot that insolent scoundrel.’ The officer, Colonel Wolfe (later General) flatly refused, declaring that his commission was at the service of His Royal Highness, but he would never consent to become an executioner. The other officers of his suite, to their credit, followed the noble example of the future Hero of Louisburg and Quebec, but Cumberland, not to be baulked of his prey, ordered a common soldier to do the odious work, which he did without demur. The young victim was Charles Fraser, younger of Inverallochy, an officer in Lord Lovat’s Regiment.’
The story of Ensign, Alexander Fraser prisoner 950 and his comrades from Lord Lovat’s Regiment is no less disturbing. He was shot through the thigh or (knee) at Culloden and ‘carried off in the heat of the action to a park wall pointing towards the house of Culloden.
‘‘A short time after the battle he and 18 other wounded officers who had made their escape to a small plantation of wood near to where Fraser was lying. He was taken prisoner and carried with the others to Culloden House, where he lay for two days without his wounds being dressed.’ ‘On 19 April 1746, Fraser along with 18 other prisoners that were held in Culloden House were put in carts to be taken, so they thought, to Inverness to have their wounds treated. The carts stopped at a park dyke some distance from Culloden House. The whole of them were taken out and placed against a dyke. The soldiers immediately drew up opposite them. They levelled their guns and fired among them. Fraser fell with the rest. ‘
‘The soldiers were ordered by their officers to go among the dead and ‘knock out the brains’ of such that were not quite dead. Observing signs of life in John Fraser one of the soldiers, using his gun butt, struck on the face dashed out one of his eyes, beat down his nose flat and shattered his cheek and left him for dead.’ ‘Lord Boyd riding out with his servant espied some life in Fraser as he had crawled away from the dead. Lord Boyd asked him who he was. Fraser told him he was an officer in the Master of Lovat’s corps. He was offered money but Fraser said he had no use for it and asked to be carried to a certain cottar house where he said he would be concealed and taken care of. Lord Boyd did as asked. Fraser was put in a corn kiln where he remained for three months. He was able to walk with the aid of crutches’.
The Duke of Cumberland’s callousness and willingness to engage in what we would call war crimes today won him the soubriquet ‘the butcher.’
The Scottish History Society has published, in three well-documented volumes, “Prisoners of the ’45”, a list of 3,470 people known to have been taken into custody after Culloden. The list includes men, women and children combatants and supporters alike. It was decided by the Privy Council in London that the prisoners should be tried in England and not Scotland which was a breach of the Treaty of Union and on 10th June, the prisoners held at Inverness were loaded onto seven leaky ships named Margaret & Mary , Thane of Fife, Jane of Leith, Jane of Alloway, Dolphin, and the Alexander & James and transported to England. They eventually landed at Tilbury Fort or were kept in prison ships on the Thames. Accounts show that the prisoners held at Tilbury were selected for trial on the basis ‘lotting.’ This was a process in which 19 white slips and 1 black slip of paper where placed in a hat and the prisoners were invited to draw lots to see who would go before the Commission.
Records show that one hundred and twenty prisoners were executed: four of them, peers of the realm, were executed on Tower Hill including the 80-year-old Lord Lovat, who was the last person to be beheaded in public in England, beheading being a privilege of their rank.
The others such as Francis Townley, Esquire, Colonel of the Manchester regiment who suffered the barbaric ritual of hanging, drawing, and quartering after his claim to be a French Officer was rejected by the court on the evidence of Samuel Maddock, an ensign in the same regiment, who, to save his own life, turned king’s evidence against his former comrades.
Of the remainder 936 were transported to the colonies, to be sold to the highest bidder: 222 were banished, being allowed to choose their country of exile: 1,287 were released or exchanged: others died, escaped, or were pardoned and there were nearly 700 whose fates could not be traced.
After the defeat of the Jacobite army, the British government started the systematic dismantling of the ancient social and military culture of the Highland clans. The wearing of Highland garb, particularly tartan plaid, was banned, and the semi-feudal bond of military service to the Clan chief was removed. But despite the widespread and systematic oppression, it was the peace between Great Britain and France in 1748 that finally finished off the 1745 rebellion. Without the hope of French money and support the Stuart cause was lost.
This did not stop the reckless Bonnie Prince from trying again. It seems that he turned up in London in 1750, probably in disguise once more as he was what we might call, ‘Britain’s Most Wanted’ at the time and tried to drum up support for another rising. Luckily, this madcap scheme to kidnap or kill King George II in St. James’s Palace on 10 November 1752 petered out through lack of support and money. But the British Government kept their eye on the conspirators through a spy in the Princes’s camp known only by his nom de guerre of “Pickle”, who kept his employers informed of every Jacobite movement that came to his notice for years.
Voltaire, the great rationalist, was always falling in love and had numerous love affairs. His love life began with great passion when he was just seventeen years old.
‘Voltaire in Love‘ is perhaps the best known work about his love life. It is a popular history of the sixteen-year relationship between Voltaire and the Émilie, the Marquise du Châtelet. I wrote about Emilie last month, she was a great physicist who died tragically young giving birth to her lover’s child (not Voltaire’s their affair was long since over). The book was written by Nancy Mitford and first published in 1957. As well as telling the story of Voltaire’s love for Emilie it explores the French Enlightenment.
A musical featuring the music of Leonard Bernstein with contributions from the greatest lyricists of the 20th century, Stephen Sondheim to Dorothy Parker, is an outrageous musical satire that tells the story of Voltaire’s character, the naïve Candide, who is banished for romancing the Baron’s daughter only to be plagued by a series of absurd hardships that challenge his optimistic outlook of life and love. Candide will leave you enchanted. As you will see from the letter below the story is somewhat based on his own experience.
In my novel Sinclair, Voltaire (1694-1778), the French philosopher is one of my eponymous hero’s favourite authors. He takes a copy of Candide to India with him and loses it when the ship goes down but once he’s established himself in Tooley Street he’s quick to buy himself another copy.
“Knowing there was no going back, he made himself comfortable. He lit his lamp, took out a battered copy of ‘Candide’, his favourite book, and checked the hour with his treasured pocket watch. Like the book, it was French, and the most beautiful thing he had ever owned. He cradled it in his palm. The warmth of its golden body reminded him of the smoothness of a woman’s skin; its pearly white face was elegantly marked with Roman numerals; and the back, the part that he loved most of all, was made of cobalt blue enamel and shimmered like the silk of Iona McNeal’s ballgown the night they had danced at the Edinburgh Assembly Rooms. He turned it in his hand and kissed it then he put it back in his waistcoat pocket and started to read.
He chose the scene where Candide, the hero of the story, and his professor friend, Dr Pangloss, are nearly drowned in Lisbon harbour along with a sailor called Jacques. Candide and Pangloss survive, but Jacques dies attempting to save a fellow sailor. To explain how this is all part of God’s harmonious plan, Pangloss says that Lisbon harbour was created specifically so that Jacques could drown there and fulfil God’s divine plan for him. This was an idea so preposterous, like so many in the book, that it made Sinclair laugh out loud.”
Voltaire was incarcerated in the local prison for his own good to keep him away from the girl he had fallen in love with,Olympe Dunove. Olympe’s mother and the French ambassador disapproved of their relationship. Such was the power of French aristocrats before the Revolution. Shortly after he wrote the letter below, he managed to escape by climbing out of the window.
Voltaire to Olympe Dunover, written in 1713 while in prison in the Hague.
“I am a prisoner here in the name of the King; they can take my life, but not the love that I feel for you. Yes, my adorable mistress, to-night I shall see you, and if I had to put my head on the block to do it.
For heaven’s sake, do not speak to me in such disastrous terms as you write; you must live and be cautious; beware of madame your mother as of your worst enemy. What do I say? Beware of everybody; trust no one; keep yourself in readiness, as soon as the moon is visible; I shall leave the hotel incognito, take a carriage or a chaise, we shall drive like the wind to Sheveningen; I shall take paper and ink with me; we shall write our letters.
If you love me, reassure yourself; and call all your strength and presence of mind to your aid; do not let your mother notice anything, try to have your pictures, and be assured that the menace of the greatest tortures will not prevent me to serve you. No, nothing has the power to part me from you; our love is based upon virtue, and will last as long as our lives. Adieu, there is nothing that I will not brave for your sake; you deserve much more than that. Adieu, my dear heart!”
According to Victor Hugo: “To name Voltaire is to characterize the entire eighteenth century.” Goethe regarded Voltaire to be the greatest literary figure in modern times, and possibly of all times. According to Diderot, Voltaire’s influence on posterity would extend far into the future.
Napoleon commented that till he was sixteen he “would have fought for Rousseau against the friends of Voltaire, today it is the opposite…The more I read Voltaire the more I love him. He is a man always reasonable, never a charlatan, never a fanatic.”
Frederick the Great commented on his good fortune for having lived in the age of Voltaire.
Catherine the Great had been reading Voltaire for sixteen years prior to becoming Empress of Russia in 1762. In October 1763, she began a correspondence with the philosopher that continued till his death. The content of these letters has been described as being akin to a student writing to a teacher.Upon Voltaire’s death, the Empress purchased his library, which was then transported and placed in The Hermitage.
In England, Voltaire’s views influenced Godwin, Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, Bentham, Byron, and Shelley. Macaulay made note of the fear that Voltaire’s very name incited in tyrants and fanatics. Voltaire was a man of reason and passion just like my character Sinclair. You can read about his escapades in my novel – see below.
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.42 Also available on:
White skin was a must for the most fashionable boys and girls about town in the 18th century. What we would call a healthy sun kissed complexion was a sure sign of being a peasant labouring on the land and not the sign of a lady or gentleman of leisure and so was to be avoided if one could afford it.
Although the 18th century is known as the Age of Enlightenment, most fashionable men and women poisoned themselves with make-up. Unbeknown to these fashionistas the lead based powder they were using to show their class and their wealth contributed to much of the poor health they suffered. It inflamed the eyes, attacked the enamel on the teeth and changed the texture of the skin causing it to blacken; it also made the hair fall out and it became fashionable to shave the front hairline to disguise its worst effects.
Both men and women of fashion applied bright pink rouge in circles and triangles to their powdery white faces in the form of Spanish wool; this was a pad of hair rather like a pan scourer impregnated with pink coloured lead. Lips were painted to appear small with the same pink powder or with carmine [a bright-red pigment obtained from the aluminium salt of carminic acid] to give a bee-sting effect.
Hair was powdered with the same lead based concoction and some women also powdered their shoulders and breasts. A pure white breasts was the vogue and was accentuated by painting veins onto it with blue paint making the bosom a toxic one. The eyes and eyelashes were mostly ignored.
To make white lead powder it was necessary to take plates of lead, and cover them with vinegar in a bowl. The bowl was left in a heap of horse manure – the manure gave off a slow gentle heat as it rotted (if you’ve kept a compost heap you’ll know what I mean). Three weeks later the lead is soft enough to be beaten to a powder and mixed with perfume and dye.
Maria Gunning, Countess of Coventry was the 18th century equivalent of Angelina Jolie; a celebrity who caused men to faint in awe of her beauty.Her beauty regime led to her nasty demise; the same toxic make-up is said to have killed well-known actress Kitty Fisher. Maria entered the social whirl of the Georgian Court in December 1750; within a year, her sister Elizabeth had married the Duke of Hamilton and in March 1752, Maria married the 6th Earl of Coventry and became the Countess of Coventry. For their honeymoon, the Earl and Countess travelled around Europe accompanied by Lady Petersham, but neither lady enjoyed it much, especially Maria who particularly disliked Paris. The Countess’s ignorance of the French language and her husband’s decision not to allow her to wear red powder as make-up (which was fashionable in Paris at the time) intensified her dislike of the city and the trip. On one occasion, her husband saw her arrive at dinner with powder on her face and tried to rub it off with his handkerchief but it was no use she was a make-up addict and it killed her.
Kitty Fisher by Nathaniel Hone
Dressing one’s hair was time consuming and expensive and had to last as long as possible. Rich women rarely wore whole wigs, instead, they hired professional hairdressers (coiffures) who added false hair to their natural hair to big it up and then they added padding, powder, and ornaments, as a women’s hair was supposed to remain “natural” and not have the obvious artificiality of men’s wigs.
Styles sometimes lasted several weeks or months, which could make sleeping difficult, sometimes a wooden block was used as a headrest instead of a pillow to prolong its life. Long scratching sticks were needed when hair became infested with lice. The fashion in France, where all fashions began and were the most extreme, led many men and women to shave their heads for ease and comfort preferring to wear nothing but wigs in public.
Men in particular needed wigs for work and business. There was the Campaign Wig, worn by military men, vicars, lawyers and just about everyone who held a profession or public office needed a wig so the trade was huge and most towns had a thriving trade in wig making. Highly fashionable fops, known as The Macaronis chose elaborate high wigs, sometimes worn up to 18 inches high, they carried men’s fashions and men’s cosmetics to a new extreme. Town and Country Magazine 1764 described them: “They make a most ridiculous figure… it is a puzzle to determine the thing’s sex.”
As the century progressed hair styles and wigs got simpler. The most popular became the Tie Wig where the hair was drawn back from the face and tied at the back of the head with a black ribbon; the tied hair was called a ‘queue’, meaning tail. Men were always clean shaven; beards and moustaches were unpopular, except with the military.
Illustration: Maria Gunning Countess of Coventry, National Trust.
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.29 Also available on:
The wreck of the ‘Sherwell‘ in my new novel Sinclair is based loosely on the wreck of the East Indiaman the Halsewell a ship captained by a man called Richard Pierce; Captain Richards in my story. The Halsewell left Gravesend docks on the first day of January 1786 with a manifest of 240 people and was wrecked six days later of the Dorset coast with the loss of over 170 lives. The tragedy shocked the nation to its core and the ship’s captain became a national hero with stories and eulogies appearing in the London press and magazines like The Gentleman and The European praising his self-sacrifice. The ship was not the first to go down and it certainly was not the last but this wreck in particular captured the nation’s imagination.
Built by Wells of Blackwall in 1778 the 758 ton ship was on route to Madras armed with 12 cannon and carrying a cargo of 53 chests of small arms, 25 tons of copper plate, 500 tons of lead for shot, and general merchandise including pitch, grindstones, tar, chains and bellows but the main consignment was the men of the 2nd Battalion and the 42nd Regiment of the East India Company’s army who were being sent to replace men lost in Company’s war with the last mogul emperor with any clout, Hydra Ali, three years earlier.
In addition to these soldiers the Haleswell has civilian passengers, including three female members of the captain’s family; his daughters Eliza and Mary-Ann; and two nieces Amy and Mary Pau;, there was also a Miss Elizabeth Blackburn,a Miss Mary Haggard, a Miss Ann Mansell on board along with Mr John Shultz. The first mate, Thomas Burston, was a member of the captain’s family too.
All the women died along with 170 others including the captain and the first mate. Accounts given by two surviving officers Meriton and Rogers said that Pierce heroically remained with the women as they faced death.
The storm that night was one of the worst in living memory and the ship broke up within a couple of hours, smashed to matchwood on the rocky Dorset coast. The survivors were rescued by quarry men who lowered ropes down the cliffs and hauled them up to safety. For their efforts they were rewarded with 50 guineas. The survivors, who were mainly the ship’s crew, had to walk all the way back to London through snow and rain, and there was no reward for them. In fact the crew were lambasted in some sections of the London press and in an epic poem for failing to do their duty on that fateful night and it soon became a commonly held view that the reason for the disaster was the lax attitude of the crew and their failure to follow their captain’s orders.
The legacy of that fateful night was used to strengthen the hand of the Navy and commercial ship owners when it came to disciplining their crews. They used the tragedy to enforce strict discipline on board ships allowing mariners no defence when they found themselves serving under brutal officers.
You can read my fictionalised account of the disaster and its aftermath in Sinclair.
 A circumstantial narrative of the loss of the Halsewell, East-Indiaman .Henry Meriton (second mate of the Halsewell.), John Rogers (third mate of the Halsewell. ) http://www.responsites.co.uk/halsewell/
 The Ship Wreck of the Haleswell, Evan Thomas, 1787.
See also: Shipwreck in Art and Literature: Images and Interpretations from Antiquity edited by Carl Thompson
Illustration: The Loss of an East Indiaman (formerly Loss of a Man of War), depicting the shipwreck of the Halsewell East Indiaman on 6 January 1786, off the Isle of Purbeck, Dorset, England. Painted by Joseph Mallord William Turner circa 1818, watercolour on paper, 280 x 395 mm; Collection of trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford, England