Historical Realism – Guest Post by Jaq D Hawkins…

Among my favourite genres I read for my own pleasure is Historical Fiction. What makes Historical Fiction of interest to me as a reader is the opportunity to learn about a period of history by living it through a character’s eyes. The story must be well written to be enjoyed and the characters, fictional though they are, are what will make the story work. However, accuracy in the historical backdrop is essential to me.

Some allowances for Alternative History are a different matter. We know that airships have never frequented the skies and putting them into a Steampunk story adds a Fantasy element. However, the other details of the story are what will make the story ring true. I don’t want my history whitewashed or romanticised, I want as much realism as can be mustered.

Like most authors, I periodically have a look at any new reviews of my books to see what people have to say. So, imagine my surprise when I looked and saw a genuine one star review on my first Steampunk book, which has otherwise had some very good reviews! Of course I read to see why this person didn’t like it… then I had to laugh.

The basis of her objections were moralistic. The main characters in the story are airship pirates. Not the most salubrious of individuals.

Yes, I can see how someone might object to characters of low morals. They should choose their reading accordingly, perhaps leaning towards adventure stories with grand heroes of impeccable conduct.

Among this reader’s objections were opium use and the one character who always has a bottle of rum in his hand. The thing is, there is no point in writing a story in a historical setting and then glossing over the facts of the period. Opium use was rife in Victorian England and the premise of the story is centered around an opium heist.

I did extensive historical research for the background of this story. The fact is, opium was not only used by the criminal classes in Victorian England. Queen Victoria herself imbibed. People out in the fens (East Anglia) gave it to children to keep them quiet. They tended to eat it rather than smoke it. Most businesses, especially pubs, had a few poppies growing outside their front doors. This is a matter of historical record, however any of us might feel about it.

As for pirates drinking rum, well, sailors of all persuasions were known for liking their rum. The character in question, Mister Bale, is an absolute scalleywag, it’s true. And that’s what made him worth writing about. He will be returning in a sequel in the near future.

There was a further objection about the behaviour of a farm girl who was a bit of a wanton. Now think about this. A prim and proper young lady of impeccable breeding wouldn’t have fit into the society of pirate miscreants, would she?

Luckily someone else commented on this review and directed the reader towards some YA Romance more to her taste. Historical accuracy may or may not have been applied. Too often in that genre, it isn’t.

I’ve used this as an example of something important to me as a reader; historical research in Historical Fiction. While we do tend to have idealistic perceptions of certain historical periods like Victorian England, Celtic Britain and Ancient Egypt, it is still possible to write a good story that retains accuracy while providing the enjoyment of the best of what the period has to offer. Sometimes the worst of what the times had to offer can actually make for a better story, providing the conflict or obstacles that will take a protagonist through his or her journey. Reading Dickens, for example, often involves being taken through the squalor of Victorian life for the poorer classes.

There are certain authors that I know I can always trust to do their research. Some of them are Historians, but doing research doesn’t require a degree. Details like what metals were used for spoons and forks among the poorer classes who couldn’t afford silver in the nineteenth century give a story that touch of realism that makes the fictional characters bloom into life. Following the historical events of a period create a believable backdrop for a fictionalised series of events among a small group of characters.

When I was around nine years old, a teacher gave me a book to read that sparked my interest in Historical Fiction. It was called The Adventures of Cannoles. I don’t remember the author. It’s so far out of print now that even Google can’t find anything on it, but it was set in Revolutionary America. Cannoles was a man involved in Paul Revere’s famous ride. He was just a side character to Paul Revere’s story, but this story was about this man’s part behind the scenes.

It was fascinating. It was also historically accurate and I learned something about the period that history classes failed to grab my interest to learn. It was, effectively, an adventure story set into a historical backdrop.

The enjoyment of such stories stayed with me and even today I seek out well written Historical Fiction, but the details have to be well researched to provide that enjoyment. I love a good Fantasy story as well, but I read that genre with different expectations. Alternative History, like Steampunk, allows for some Fantasy or science fiction elements to infiltrate a historical setting but even then, the historical details of the period make the difference between a light fantasy and an immersive historical experience.

I, personally, will always prefer the latter.

Jaq D Hawkins

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24 thoughts on “Historical Realism – Guest Post by Jaq D Hawkins…

  1. Doing research for my historical novel set in Roman Britain was quite difficult. I found. There was a lot about the Britains who took on the Roman ways, but less so for those who objected to the way the Romans marched in, took over and tried to impose their way of life. (Rather similar to we Brits in the Victorian era, I think!)
    Then I had a lot of research for the follow-up book, following a descendant of the protagonist from the Roman book. this is set in the time of the Danelaw. I’ve written 5 fantasy books, and they were much easier as I could make up my own world. However, there is still research needed, even for that. Meticulous research is so important to give realism to the people and places you are writing about.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You would think there would be loads of information on the Romans, but as you found, details can lead you into all sorts of rabbit holes before you find what you’re looking for!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love it! I had a similar review on Norse Hearts. Well written, Jaq! I won’t re-hash the point you made very well. Historical fiction cannot be held to today’s moral standards. Also being ‘fiction’ gives us a little leeway to be creative since none of us really know everything of any time period before us. I enjoyed your logic and humor. Thank you!

    Liked by 5 people

  3. Historical fiction is astonishingly difficult for historians to write, because the kind of detail needed for good novel writing differs from what non-fiction history usually looks for and can readily get from archival sources. One example I can think of that works well is George McDonald Fraser’s ‘Flashman’ series, purporting to be memoirs of a Victorian era officer. The fact that the very first was actually mistaken for the real thing – this despite the lead character being the bully from ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ – speaks volumes for Fraser’s abilities. They were, of course, quite at odds morally with the 1970s, when they first appeared, and all the more so today. But the past is, as they say, very much a foreign land.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Excellent points. One Historian whom I think does very well is Christian Jacq, who is an Egyptologist and writes HF set in Ancient Egypt. Also Charlton Daines who is an academic and writes Victorian era HF.

      Liked by 1 person

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