Monday, 4 February 2013

Writing About History

This morning Henry has been telling us all he knows about Star Wars. Isn’t that history now? I seem to recall the films came out in the nineteen seventies. Henry is now two years old, but when he gets to my age the world will have moved on and the events of today will be ancient history.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I have an interest in history and I’ve tried my hand at writing stories set in past times. I don’t claim to have got everything historically totally accurate – we’re all prone to oversights - but I do claim to have put in many hours of research before I began those novels. And I do make an attempt to create a believable historical atmosphere.

I quickly lose interest in a novel when I detect that the writer has made little effort to pay respect to recorded historical fact. Why do writers stray away from historical accuracy? Is it because they are so used to Hollywood movies, like the silly Braveheart film, where any pretence to the truth of history was thrown out of the window? Or is it a matter of the writer being too lazy to do the barest amount of research?

A few years ago, a publisher asked me to proof-read a novel set in eleventh century England. It was so wide of the mark that it could have been a comedy script, except that it wasn’t intended to be comedy. The writer really believed that Anglo-Saxon people lived in huge stone-built Norman castle keeps shortly after the Norman invasion (even the Normans took some years to get those castles up and running and lived in wooden structures in the meantime). I think she must have been watching Errol Flynn in that old Robin Hood film. When I pointed out some of the more basic errors (there were many) the author threw her rattle out of the cot and promptly had her contract terminated.

I was recently grateful to Kath, another writer of historical fiction, who pointed me towards a very useful book called Medieval Underpants. It says all there is to say on the matter of historical accuracy.

Which brings me back to the future, when Henry will be my age. Life will be very different then and the things we take for granted today will be history. I wonder if the family videos we have stored on our computer will remind him of what today’s way of life is really like. I think about that when he wanders into the study, climbs onto my knee and says, “See Henry.”


  1. Glad you enjoyed Medieval Underpants! I get annoyed too if there's an obvious anachronism but it's so easy to do if you aren't careful. I nearly had my 1840s child cuddle a teddy bear once...

    The Star Wars prequel trilogy came out in the 2000s - your little Henry might have been talking about those films, which aren't so ancient history.

  2. You're right, Kath. He might have seen the later films elsewhere.
    We only have the 1970s videos. Henry picks up the boxes, brings them to me so he can, "See Star Wars." But the moment the film starts he runs to the kitchen and shuts the door because it frightens him. I think I've missed something somewhere along the line.

  3. I read the other day that more Star Wars films are to be made, soon. You'll soon get to know the plots and characters!

  4. We shall be taught, Kath, and woe betide us if we do not remember who each character is!