Cindy Vallar

Author, Editor, & Workshop Presenter
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX  76244-0425

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Historical Fiction vs. History

Book and rose
Rest In Peace
Clive Cussler
1932 - 2020

Historical Novel Society

Read reviews of the latest historical novels!


Historical Novel Society UK  Conference
11-13 September 2020
Durham University
Durham, UK

Military Writers Society of America
17 September 2020
New London, Connecticut

Historical Novel Society Conference
24-26 June 2021
San Antonio, Texas

2020 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction Shortlist

Geoffrey Bilson Award
for Historical Fiction for Young People

The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis

History and historical fiction are necessarily not the same thing. The purpose of history is to narrate events as accurately as one can. The purpose of historical fiction is to enable a reader through the perspective of characters in the story to feel that she or he is present at the events. Such a goal obviously requires some modification of the events. - Andrew M. Greeley

The place where the novel differs from the straight history is in the extent to which the "web of imaginative construction" is indeed imagined, or made up, if you will. The historian will tell you that Caesar traveled to Gaul. The novelist will tell you what he (most likely) ate, drank, thought, and felt along the way.... On the pages of A General History [of the Pyrates] the reader will see the bare bones of the story, the "certain fixed points" which I have used as a skeleton for this book. With this outline I have done what the novelist can do and the historian cannot, fictionalized the historical events and, I hope, come somewhat close to the truth of these three remarkable people. - James L. Nelson

I read a manuscript recently in which a seduction scene was brought to a frustrating halt as the author carefully enumerated the articles of clothing the hero was removing from his mistress, the fabrics they were made of and how they were worn. The promise of illicit sex on a beach sadly translated into a V & A catalogue entry. Historical novelists must remember they are novelists first and foremost, for whom history serves merely as a prop, a source of plots and characters and intriguing curiosities. If the past is another country, historical novelists are not so much the tour guides as the PR people who create the alluring adverts which beckon us in. We need to do the research in order to thoroughly immerse ourselves in the lives and times of our characters, in order to avoid merely writing modern novels in period dress, or -- and there should be a special circle of hell for this -- novels which patronise people from societies we perceive as more primitive than our own. But we must never become slaves to it, we must be prepared to jettison, disorder, conflate, to play as fast and loose with the facts as we need to to create good fiction. - Sarah Bower, Co-ordinating Editor (UK), Historical Novels Review

History strives for reality, for what is provable, documentable. Historical fiction should strive for the story that underlies reality and thus become an imagained reality. -- David Nevin in A Note on Methods and Sources in 1812

Father Greeley's clarification between these two terms appears in the Author's Note of Irish Love, one of his Nuala Anne McGrail stories. James L. Nelson defines the difference in the Historical Note for The Only Life That Mattered. Sarah Bower, in her farewell Letter from the Editor column, shows how history can interfere with the story. History and fiction often conflict with each other, even while they complement each other. I believe historical fiction is a stepping stone to history, for the historical events recounted in a novel can, and do, lead readers to discover the truth behind the fiction. I also believe reading historical fiction provides us with a deeper understanding of our past.

I attended many history lectures in high school and college, but rarely did the instructor present the course material in a way that fascinated me and begged me to learn more about the time period. On the other hand, historical novels did just that! As a child, my mom recommended I read one of her favorite children's stories, Snow Treasure by Marie McSwigan. It tells the story of how Norwegian children smuggled gold bullion past the Nazis to a freighter bound for Baltimore. Snow Treasure introduced me to World War II, and in high school I read several of Leon Uris' novels. Mila 18 and QB VII  led me to learn more about the Uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Holocaust.

Over the years many historical novels spurred me to study the history behind the novels. Those listed below evoked a strong desire in me to learn more about the historical events around which the author crafted his/her story.

The Snow Mountain by Catherine Gavin
Romanov Dynasty & Russian Revolution

A Woman Called Moses by Marcy Heidish
Harriet Tubman & Underground Railroad

Angel in the Rigging by Erika Nau
U.S.S. Constitution & War of 1812

Woman with a Sword by Hollister Noble
Anna Ella Carroll & American Civil War

Captain Blood by Rafael Sabtini
Jacobite Uprisings & Piracy

Ride the Wind by Lucia St. Clair Robson
Cynthia Ann Parker & Comanches

Trinity by Leon Uris
Ireland's Great Potato Famine & the Easter Rebellion of 1916

Over the years I also read many historical romances, but my favorite novels are always those that emphasize the history over the romance. It is why I describe The Scottish Thistle and my works-in-progress as historical novels intertwined with love stories. Both are key elements of my stories, but the reader encounters far more history than is commonly found in historical romances. While nurturing the love between the hero and heroine is an important theme in my books, they sometimes spend long passages of time apart or do things contrary to the normal roles of men and women in formula romance. For example, the Rising of 1745 separates Rory and Duncan for much of the time in the The Scottish Thistle. Alexine, the heroine in The Rebel and the Spy, exhibits many traits expected of a young woman living in New Orleans around 1812. Her brother, who raised her, is a sailor, privateer, and smuggler. Lucas, the hero, soon discovers that Alexine has many other traits society would frown on if they knew the truth.

When I write my stories, I strive to make history, time, and place come alive for readers so they feel as if they stand in the midst of the battle or feel the roll of a ship's deck beneath their feet. To achieve this sometimes requires modifications to history. Whenever I do alter historical details, I make note of them in the Author's Note at the end of the story.

Alan Gold, an Australian author of historical novels, echoed my feelings in the Author's Note of The Pirate Queen, recounts the exploits of Irish pirate and chieftain Grace O'Malley and her momentous meeting with another extraordinary woman of her day, Elizabeth I of England.

When creating a fictional work based on real characters, a novelist is often torn between real-life events and the needs of the narrative. In the case of Grace O'Malley, so little is known of her that liberties could be taken without too much risk of offence. Nonetheless, this is a work of fiction and so I have altered and omitted certain minor details of Grace's life for the sake of the plot, and ask any scholar with knowledge of Grace and her circumstances to please forgive me.
Some authors and readers take exception to such changes, but I make the changes so that history doesn't take precedence over the story. If I wished to do the opposite, I would write nonfiction rather than fiction.

To learn more about Historical Fiction, I invite you to read the following articles and visit the web sites that specialize in the intertwining of history and fiction. If you're interested in writing historical fiction, check out my suggestions for writers. Here's my print resources list from my Researching and Writing Historical Fiction Workshop.


Keepers from my Collection of Historical Fiction

The Iron Rose
by Marsha Canham
The Only Life That Mattered
by James L. Nelson
Dragonfly in Amber, Outlander, & Voyager
by Diana Gabaldon
Lady of the Glen
by Jennifer Roberson
The Pirate Queen 
by Alan Gold
Scaramouche & Captain Blood
by Rafael Sabatini
The Hammer of God
by James Hunter
The Deadly Lady of Madagascar 
by Frank G. Slaughter
The Stricklands
by Edwin Lanham
by LaVyrle Spencer
Bowdrie & Bowdrie's Law
by Louis L'Amour
Children of the Mist, The Clansman, 
Gold for Prince Charlie, Macgregor's
Gathering,  & The Wallace
by Nigel Tranter
There Is a Wideness
by Mark McAllister
Voyage of Plunder
by Michele Torrey
Angel in the Rigging 
by Erika Nau
Island Harp 
by Jeanne Williams


Online Articles on Historical Fiction vs. History

50 of the Best Historical Fiction Authors Writing Today by Ann Foster, BookRiot 16 November 2018.
7 Elements of Historical Fiction by M. K. Tod, Inside Historical Fiction 24 March 2015
10 Absolutely Incredible Women in Historical Fiction by Alex Myers, Huffington Post 10 April 2014
10 Thoughts on the Purpose of Historical Fiction by M. K. Tod, Inside Historical Fiction 14 April 2015
300: Separating Fact from Fiction
by Dr. Kaveh Farrok
20 Things about Vikings that Make Zero Sense Historically by Natasha B, The 20 January 2020
2018 Readers Survey compiled by M. K. Tod

Accuracy vs. Authenticity: 5 Tips for Writing Immersive Historical Fiction by Andrew Noakes, The Creative Penn 26 September 2018
The Agonising by J. D. Davies, J. D. Davies 27 August 2018
Ali Smith Wins Baileys Prize -- Historical Fiction is on the Up by Sally O'Reilly, The Conversation 4 June 2015

Animating History: the Challenges of Writing an Historical Novel about Josephine
by Sandra Gulland, author of the Josephine B. Trilogy
Art in Historical Fiction Interview: Michael Dean by Stephanie Renee Dos Santos, Historical Novel Society 14 June 2014.
Art in Historical Fiction Interview: Susan Vreeland by Stephanie Renee Dos Santos, Historical Novel Society 31 May 2014.
The Art of Historical Fiction by Andrew Pepper, Culture 3 November 2012.
Authentic Profanity: An Author's Guide to Swearing in Historical Fiction by Tim Hodkinson, The History Quill 7 February 2020
Authors Are Readers Too by M. K. Tod, A Writer of History 19 June 2015.

Bartering with the Facts: How a Novelist Solves a Historical Problem by Samantha Harvey, Publishers Weekly 16 November 2018.
Beautiful Lies: Facts vs. Story in Secret History Fiction by David Mack, LOCUS 2 February 2018.
The Beginning of Medieval Historical Fiction: Ten Novels from the 19th Century, 4 March 2015.

Blending Fiction and History: What Works? What Doesn't?
by Paula L. Fleming, author
Book Winner Hilary Mantel on Historical Fiction by Hilary Mantel, The Guardian 17 October 2009.
Booth Library Professor Discovers History through a Novel, Journal Gazette & Times-Courier 15 July 2013.
But a Fable Agreed Upon: The Problem of Truth in History and Fiction
by Richard Lee, speech given to the Romantic Novelists' Association at their annual conference in 2000

Can the Language of Historical Fiction Ever be "Authentic"? by Dr. John Yeoman, Clio's Children 24 June 2010
Captain Blood: The History behind the Novel
by Cindy Vallar, March-April 2009
The Case for Author Notes in Historical Fiction by Cindy Vallar,  Solander May 2011
Characteristics of a Historical Fiction Novel by Judi Brown HubPages 20 August 2015
Criticism of Naval Historical Fiction: a Guide for New Authors by J. D. Davies, Gentlemen and Tarpaulins 30 June 2014

The Dead Are Real by Larissa MacFarquhar, The New Yorker 15 October 2012
Defining the Genre: What are the Rules for Historical Fiction
by Sarah Johnson, Assistant Professor, Eastern Illinois University, part of a panel discussion on historical fiction at the Associated Writing Programs annual conference, March 2002
Dipping Into History by Terry Whalin, The Writing Life
Do It Yourself Historical Fiction by Steven Leibo, Director of the International Studies Program at Russell Sage College
Donít Shoot Holes in Your Credibility by John Rains, 21 August 2003

"Editorial: Black Sails, Historical Accuracy, and the Pirate Genre in Hollywood," by David Fictum, Colonies, Ships, and Pirates 7 February 2016.
Edutainment: Is there a role for popular culture in education? by Malcolm Jack, The Independent 15 January 2010
Edward Bulwer Lytton on the Historical Novel
excerpts from The Monthly Chronicle March-June 1838

Face to Face with History by Suzannah Lipscomb, History Today June 2016 (66:6)
Fashion Hits and Misses from YA Historical Fiction Book Covers (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4) by Laura Perenic, The YALSA Hub 26 February, 1 April, 15 April, and 6 May 2014
Favourite Historical Research Resources by K. M. Pohlkamp, A Writer of History, 14 May 2020
Film Meets Fact -- Why Is Historical Accuracy Important? by Sam Wallace, Nouse 13 January 2016
The Five Top Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction (And How to Overcome Them) by Andrew Noakes, The Historical Quill 2 August 2019
5 Writing Tips from Mary Sharratt, PW Tip Sheet, 5 October 2012
Front Row Antonia Fraser, Margaret MacMillan, Philippa Gregory, Hilary Mantel, Sarah Dunant, and Tristram Hunt discuss the best ways of exploring the past with host Mark Lawson, who examines the differences between fact and fiction writing when recounting our heritage, 12 August 2009.

Guardian Books podcast: Historical fiction with Kate Grenville, Clarke Clark, and Hilary Mantel presented by Claire Armitstead,17 February 2012.
A Guide to the Best Historical Novels and Tales
by Jonathan Nield

He Disagreed with the History, but He Liked the Story by William Rainbolt, author
Hilary Mantel on the Secrets of Successful Historical Fiction by Rob Attar, History Extra 22 May 2019
The Historian (Historical Fiction issue), Spring 2013
Historians and Novelists Fight Turf Wars -- Let's Flip the Narrative by Christopher Kremmer, The Conversation 15 June 2015
Historical Fact, Historical Fiction by David O. Stewart, Publishers Weekly 262:45 (9 November 2015), 64. (online version)
Historical Fiction -- How, What, When & Why? by Triskele Books, Writers & Artists: The Insider Guide to the Media 2019
Historical Fiction Blurs Facts and Entertainment by Carrie Ruth Moore, Daily Trojan 23 January 2013
Historical Fiction or Fictionalized History? Problems for Writers of Historical Novels for Young Adults by Joanne Brown, ALAN Review, Fall 1998 (vol. 26, #1)
A Historical Fiction Roundtable (Penguin Books UK podcast featuring Harry Sidebottom, Karen Maitland, Stewart Binns, Kate Williams, and A. L. Berridge -- July 2011)
Historical Fiction: Who Rules, Researcher or Story-teller? by Caro Clarke, columnist
Historical Fiction Reader Survey by Mary Tod
HISTORICAL Romance vs. Historical ROMANCE by Kalen Hughes, History Hoydens 21 June 2010
Historical Texts as Literature? We Do Well to Praise EP Thompson by Ann Curthoys, The Conversation 11 June 2015
History through Fiction by Ira Socolo, 22 January 2010
How Archival Fiction Upends Our View of History by Lucy Ives, The New Yorker, 20 May 2016.
How Historical Fiction Went Highbrow by Jay Parini, Atlantic Magazine May 2009
How the Historical Novel Has Changed! by Catherine Savage Brosman, Chronicles 27 June 2018
How to Do Research for Historical Fiction: Balancing Fact and Fiction by Writer's Relief Staff, 3 March 2010

Is Hilary Mantel's View of Historical Fiction out of Date? by Clair Armitstead, The Guardian 4 April 2017
Is Historical Fiction an Effective Tool or a Genre Fraught with Bias and Exaggeration? by Abigail Dotterer, The College Reporter 9 September 2018

James L. Nelson Returns to Maritime Fiction and Discusses the Current State of Publishing by George Jepson, Quarterdeck, April 2013 (see pages 5-9)

Keeping Historical Figures Real by Mary Sheeran, A Writer of History, 2 April 2020

A Literary Tour of Historical Y.A. by Jen Doll, the Atlantic Wire, 10 January 2013
Looking Back -- 13 Insights on Historical Fiction by M. K. Tod, A Writer of History 13 February 2018

Making Historical Characters Your Own by David B. Coe, Magical Words, 15 March 2010

The Master of Historical Fiction by Allan Massie, Standpoint April 2010
Matters of Fact: Seven Keys to Writing Historical Fiction by Jamie Hannigan, MovieMaker 4 August 2017
My Annoyance with Historical Fiction
by Carrie Lofty, 26 March 2007

On the Frontier: The Intriguing Dance of History and Fiction by Tom Griffiths, The Conversation, 9 June 2015
Outlander: 10 Things That Are Historically Accurate (And 10 Things That Aren't) by Alyssa Avina, ScreenRant 24 April 2019

A Passion for the Past: 2011's Best Historical Fiction an interview with Sharon Penman on All Things Considered, 24 December 2011
Preface (to the Historical Nights Entertainment) by Rafael Sabatini

Prithee, How Should I Tackle Historical Fiction, Fair Lady? by Nicola Morgan, Help! I Need a Publisher! 15 January 2010
Publishing Revolution: Historical Fiction Evolves in Digital Age by Robin Maxwell, The Huffington Post 10 February 2010

The Real Vikings: The Early Medieval World Behind the Historical Drama by Howard Williams, HistoryExtra
Research Flaws in Romance Novels by Anne M. Marble,, 2001

The Research Monster -- or -- Down the Rabbit Hole by Janis Susan, Ladies of Mystery 12 July 2018.
A Research Primer for Historical Fiction Writers
by Erika Dreifus,, 2004
"A rising tide raises all ships . . . " by Linda Collision, Quarterdeck, December 2012 (scroll down to page 10)
Roger Hudson Discusses Plausibility in Historical Fiction by Julie Lomoe, Musings Mysterioso, 12 March 2010

Seven Rules for Writing Historical Fiction by Elizabeth Crook, novelist
Sir Joseph Banks and the Aubrey/Maturin Novels of Patrick O'Brian by Jeremy Strong, Corilis 3:2 , 2012

Ten Rules for Writing Fiction The Guardian, 19 February 2010. (part two is here)
Ten Rules for Writing Fiction by Rose Tremain, Go Into the Story, 26 March 2010
Ten Themes Shared by Historical Fiction and Science Fiction by Annalee Newitz,, 17 November 2011
Those Pesky Little Rivet Counters
by Anne Gilbert, 16 February 2009
Thoughts on Accuracy in Historical Fiction by Lynne Connolly, 22 March 2009
Top Tips on Writing Historical Fiction from Historical Novelists by Andrew Noakes, The History Quill 23 August 2019
Treading warily through history by Tessa Harris, Huff Post Books 14 February 2013
The True History Behind the 1917 Movie by Meilan Solly, Smithsonian Magazine 20 December 2019
The True Story behind the Harriet Tubman Movie by Meilan Solly
, 30 Ocotber 2019
The True Story of "Operation Finale" by Patrick Sauer, 28 August 2018

The True Story of the Battle of Midway by Meilan Solly, 28 November 2019
The Truth Is Better Than Fiction: Accuracy in Historical Fiction by Kristen McQuinn, Book Riot 19 March 2018
Tyburn Academy: The Role of the Historical Novel in the Classroom by Conor O'Donnell 9 April 2019

The Uncertainties of Writing a Historical Novel by James Champ, The National 12 October 2010

What Django Unchained Got Wrong: A Review from National Museum of African American History and Culture Director Lonnie Bunch, Around the Mall 14 January 2013

What Do Authors of Historical Fiction Owe to History? by D. B. Jackson, A Dribble of Ink 18 June 2012
What's Fact and What's Fiction in Harriet by Rachelle Hamptom, Slate 31 October 2019
When a Spiffy Literary Vehicle Turns out to be a Book of Lemons by Trace Edward Zaber

Why & How I Teach with Historical Fiction by Tarry Lindquist, National Elementary Social Studies Teacher of the Year
Why Historical Fiction Is Important for 21st-Century Kids by Ellen Klages, Brightly 2019
Why Historical Fiction Will Never Go Away by Justin O'Donnell, Publishers Weekly, 9 September 2016
Why I Became a Historical Novelist
by Hilary Mantel, The Guardian 3 June 2017
Why Is Christian Historical Fiction So Popular? by Mike Duran, April 2012

Why Is Holocaust Fiction Still So Popular? by JTA and Emily Burack, Haaretz 29 April 2019
Writing Backward: Modern Models in Historical Fiction by Anne Scott Macleod, Horn Book Magazine, January/February 1998
Writing Historical Fiction by John Gorman

Back to learning more about historical fiction

Sites devoted to Historical Fiction

A - B

Antique Words

Baroque Explorations

Bygone Days
C - E

Carla Nayland Historical Fiction
Caz's Reading Room
Christian Historical Fiction

Circa: A Journal of Historical Fiction
The Copperfield Review
Cowboy Kisses

A Darn Good Read
Discovering Diamonds

Enchanted by Josephine
English Historical Fiction Authors

F - G

Favorite Pastimes or Favorite Pastimes
Forthcoming Historical Novels

Getting Medieval
Grace Elliot
H - Historical Fiction

Hearts Through History
Herstory Novels
Historic Naval Fiction
Historical Belles and Beaus
Historical Blogs: Fiction & Fact
Historical Boys
Historical Britain Blog
Historical Fiction
HF Bloggers Round Table
HF Community at

Historical Fiction Connection
Historical Fiction Daily
Historical Fiction eBooks
Historical Fiction for Children
Historical Fiction Forums

Historical Fiction Notebook
Historical Fiction Reader
Historical Fiction Reviews
Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

HF Writers E-mail Group

Historical G - R

  Historical Novels Review blog
Historical Novels Review Online

Historical Readings & Reviews
Historical Romance Club

Historical Romance UK

Historical Saga Novels
Historical Tapestry
Historical Writers' Association
Historical S - Z

Historically Obsessed
Historically Off Center with Nan Hawthorne
Historically Speaking
History and Women
History from a Woman's Perspective
The History Girls
The History Quill
History Undressed
I - L

Inside Historical Fiction

Let Them Read Books
Lighting Up Britainís Dark Ages

Living the History: Elizabeth Chadwick
M - O

Magic of History
Myths, Legends, Books & Coffee Pots

Novel PASTimes

Of Ages Past
P - R

Paradox: Historical & Speculative Fiction
Passages to the Past
Past and Present Reads
Past Times Books

Reading, Raving, & Ranting by a HF Author
Reading the Ages
Reading the Past
Reading, Writing, Working, Playing
The Riddle of Writing
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry:
Judging the Authenticity of Historical Fiction
Royalty Free Fiction

S - T

Scottish Romance and HF
Sepia Tinted Windows
Sir Read-A-Lot

Speak Its Name
Sunflowers and Romance

Tales of the Blue and the Gray
Thatís All She Read
Two Nerdy History Girls

U - V

Unabridged Chick
Unusual Historicals Blog

W - Z

Word Wenches
A Writer of History
Writing Historical Fiction: Digital Age Advice
Writing Historical Novels
Writing History/Writing Fiction

Writing the Renaissance

Yesterday Revisited

Back to learning more about historical fiction


Suggestions for Writers

  1. Language is one of the most important tools writers use. Its importance in historical fiction is paramount. Avoid using modern terms, especially when a character speaks or thinks. Choose words your characters would be familiar with in his or her time period, rather than relying on a comparison or descriptor you would use. If your character has a specialized trade, such a seaman or lawyer, learn that profession's specific vocabulary so your character comes across as actually being what he or she professes to be.
  2. History doesn't just mean the events that occurred in any given age. It also involves culture, clothing, food, and every other aspect of life during that time period.
  3. Don't rely on the "facts" you uncover while reading a historical novel. Use what you learn about the historical period or event as a stepping stone to discover the truth behind the fiction. The facts within a story may not be accurate. Use original resources or trustworthy secondary resources to gather information.
  4. Today, we often tend toward using words that don't offend others. When writing historical fiction it's okay to use politically incorrect words common to the times in which your story unfolds. Don't overload characters' dialogues and thoughts with them. Rather pepper the story where they are most appropriate to provide the flavor a reader needs to be in that time period.

© 2003-2010 Cindy Vallar

About Me
Appearances & Book Signings
Editing Services
E-Books Historical Fiction vs. History My Excerpts: Novels My Excerpts: Short Stories
My Other Writings My Reviews Pirates & Privateers Recommended Books to Read
Research: Favorite Links Research: My Resources Scotland: Clan Cameron Scotland: Highlands Workshop Photos
Scotland: Thistle's Scotland 1 Scotland: Thistle's Scotland 2 Web Rings & Memberships Website Awards
Workshops Contact Me Sign My Guestbook Subscribe to my T&P Newsletter