Do you need historical knowledge to write a historical fiction?  Do you need historical knowledge to write a historical fiction?  

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hustoncmk's profile pic

hustoncmk | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Assistant Educator

Posted on

Definitely yes!  If you do not know the historical facts and cannot incorporate many of these into the novel, then it is hard for the reader to believe the novel.  If factually incorrect details are included, for example a gun that was not invented until WWI is included in a novel set during the Civil War, students who are familiar with military weapons will question many other facts in the novel. They may become more focused on finding faults in the novel than in the plot of the novel.

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scarletpimpernel | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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How can a work be considered historical fiction if it is historically inaccurate?  So, yes, you certainly need an excellent grasp of history in order to write effective historical fiction.  One reason for this is that if an author or publisher bills a work as historical fiction, history buffs and experts will be extremely critical in their readings of the work and will point out any historical inaccuracies.  While one can certainly interpret parts of history by attaching positive or negative connotations to those historical events, he should not label a book as being historical when it is clear that there are inaccuracies.

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teachertaylor | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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I agree with the above posts, that yes, a writer needs to know (and understand) history before writing historical fiction.  However, there are some writers who attempt to "create" history for figures who are largely unknown as a way to give those figures "voices."  I'm thinking in particular of I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Conde.  Tituba was one of the first women to be accused and put on trial during the Salem witch trials, yet much of her history is unknown.  Conde takes the historical facts that are known about Tituba's life and builds a fictional life for Tituba around those facts.  The novel is still considered historical fiction, but Conde has invented much of it.

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brettd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In a word, yes, you do need historical knowledge to write historical fiction, otherwise it is simply fiction.  I like to read fiction, and it can be important, but without knowledge of the historical time frame and context of a story, it is impossible for the author to make it accurate, which is in fact dangerous to the teaching and learning of history.  It's already hard enough for me to go to the movies and see history so often butchered, I do prefer my historical fiction to actually be historically accurate.

kapokkid's profile pic

kapokkid | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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In my opinion, it would be massively beneficial to any writer to know a great deal about the period they are attempting to fictionalize.  But, if the author is completely honest about their lack of knowledge and isn't trying to pawn off their historical fiction as accurate, etc., they really don't have to have any particular knowledge of the period or the subject.  It is fiction after all!

In some ways it also depends on the audience the writer is trying to reach.  If it is a knowledgable audience that will be frustrated by errors in portrayal of that time or that person (that aren't just artistic interpretations) it would obviously be worthwhile to know much more about the subject.  If the audience is ignorant of that period of history, again, it would be less necessary to amass a great deal of knowledge about it.

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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All artists create their own rules as they are all “artists of a floating world,” as Ishiguro would put it.  There are no steadfast rules regarding how art is to be created.  I would say that there are some distinctions and benefits to those who do understand historical background when constructing a historical novel.  Part of what makes the genre so powerful and compelling is that it combines literary precision with a feel of historical accuracy.  There are times when there can be historical inaccuracies, but to possess an overall understanding of the time period, the implications it held for characters pitted in it, as well as understanding how the history impacted these individuals is what makes historical fiction such a strong genre.  I think that some level of historical background and research should be evident in a historical fictitious work.  There are no strict rules, but the work gains more credibility when it possesses this historical understanding.  While artists do create their own rules, this one seems to be something that should be followed in order to make the work more substantive, more believable for the audience and more of a work that has broad appeal to readers of both history and literature.

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clairewait | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Most definitely, yes.  However, you may or may not need to do research in order to gain this knowledge.  There are several authors writing books about previous decades that they lived through - which could today be considered "historical fiction."  Because the work is based on a real-life experience, the "facts" might be told as interpreted by the author at the time he or she experienced them.

I think any work of literature, fiction or non-fiction, will not be taken seriously unless the author has knowledge of whatever subject he or she is writing about.  This is why some of the best books are written from personal experience.  We are all experts on the story of our own lives... and as we age, our lives become history.

pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

Of course you need historical knowledge to write historical fiction.  Otherwise, the fiction becomes speculation without any basis in the facts.

If you are going to write good historical fiction, you have to have a good grip on the major events of the time period you are writing about.  Just as importantly, though, you need to have a thorough knowledge of everyday life and attitudes of the sort that would apply to the characters you are writing about.

Of course, you could write entertaining "historical" fiction without this sort of a background (without knowing the details of life).  However, this would not be real historical fiction in my mind.  To me, historical fiction has to be as true as possible to the way things were in the time you are writing about.  In order to do that, you have to know how things were.

epollock's profile pic

epollock | (Level 3) Valedictorian

Posted on

Yes you do need the historical knowledge so that you can place your plot around real events. If you were to read The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, you would find that everything in the novel happened in real life except for the fictional characters of the plot.

lit24's profile pic

lit24 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Valedictorian

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An historical novel is an imaginative re-creation of the history of a nation. Without an accurate and thorough knowledge of the historical background of  a nation it would be impossible to write an historical novel of that country. The chronological facts form the back bone of the historical novel and form the foundation on which the plot of the historical novel rests.

Having said that, what is more important is the sensitive and imaginative way in which the historical novelist interprets his historical facts. For instance, 1857 is an important date in Indian history. In this year the Indian troops who were under the command and control of their British rulers rebelled against them and almost succeeded in driving them out of India. The British historian terms this event as 'The Sepoy Rebellion' whereas the Indian historian calls this event as 'The First War of Indian Independence.'  Similarly, the terms 'terrorist' and 'freedom fighter' are actually two sides of the same coin.

It is for the historical novelist to successfully negotiate these differences.

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