Posted On October 11, 2017 by Print This Post

Are You a Researcher or a Storyteller? Finding the Balance in Historical Fiction – by KA Servian

Please welcome author KA Servian.

Research is an essential part of writing. Fiction or non-fiction, contemporary or historical, at some stage in the process every writer needs to refer to books and/or the internet to find out something they don’t know off the top of their head.

When writing historical fiction chances are that unless you have a PhD in your chosen time period, research will play a significant part of your writing process. If you’re going to convince readers that your characters are living and breathing in the past, you must know everything from major events of the period right down to the minutiae of daily life. Who was king/queen? What wars were in progress? What did people eat? How did they speak? What did they wear? How did they wash – did they wash? What were their beliefs and customs? The list is endless.

Having spent hours unearthing all these fascinating facts you want to include them all in your book – right? But you’re writing a fictional novel, not a textbook. How do you decide what to include and what to leave out? If you put everything in you will undoubtedly slow the plot down to a snail’s pace and bore your readers into a coma. If you don’t include enough or your detail is inaccurate, you run the risk of leaving your readers unconvinced, sniggering at your ignorance or just totally confused. How do you find the right balance?

To portray the intricacies of daily life in the past, a good place to start is reading contemporary novels written during your time period. Riding in a carriage, cooking on an open fire and having a stand-up wash were part of everyday life for these writers and they included them in the same matter of fact way modern writers refer to riding in a car or using a cell phone. Try taking the same approach with your every day historical details. Treat them as commonplace occurrences that are there as a backdrop, but do not need particular attention drawn to them. For example, it is unnecessary to go into exhaustive explanations about the many layers of clothing your characters wore just because it’s interesting, but to mention something in passing about what your character is wearing particularly if it is relevant to the character and/or the story adds context, texture and depth to your novel.

Language has developed over the centuries and the way we speak today is not the same as in the past. But anyone who has read Shakespeare knows that to write dialogue in a way that is completely authentic to a period would make it near-on impossible for most modern readers to understand. The answer is balance. Do your research and read contemporary accounts, but then use your common sense and temper your writing so that you give an authentic ‘feel’ to your dialogue without making it unintelligible. If you want to include a few words that have fallen out of common usage but you feel add authenticity, add an appendix to help your readers keep up.

Character behaviour is a tricky area that requires your close attention. Be very careful not to make your characters modern people in historical costumes walking around criticising the backward views of those around them. People in the past did not share our attitudes about love, marriage, racial and sexual equality and gender roles. If your character is a Victorian woman pushing against the misogynistic attitudes of the men in her life, take the time to read the feminist literature of the period. How did these women feel and what did they do to make their voices heard? Make sure that your character’s behaviour is appropriate for her place in society and her level of education. Depending on your period, novels such as Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice are good points of reference for interesting female characters. The heroines in these works are feisty and fun to read, but they operate within the context of their respective periods and do not overstep the bounds of acceptable behaviour.

So are you a researcher or a storyteller? I believe that, as historical novelists, we are first and foremost storytellers. The trials and triumphs of our characters must be the driving force of our writing. Having said that, I don’t want to downplay the importance of research. An essential tool, it allows us to build a believable world within which the story plays out. But be careful; research is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Don’t let your desire to prove how much you know override the plot.

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Bio: After a twenty-plus-year career in the applied arts industry, including owning her own fashion and jewellery labels, Kathy decided to turn her creative skills to writing fiction.

Her first novel, Peak Hill, was a finalist in the Romance Writers of New Zealand Pacific Hearts Full Manuscript contest in 2016.

Kathy now squeezes full-time study for an advanced diploma in applied writing in around writing novels and short stories, teaching sewing and pattern making and being a wife and mother.

K A Servian on the web: Website | Facebook | Twitter |

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8 Responses to “Are You a Researcher or a Storyteller? Finding the Balance in Historical Fiction – by KA Servian”

  1. Thanks so much for joining us today. I was very intrigued by your topic. Boy, can I relate – once I start digging into research, all is lost. I lose track of time, other commitments AND whatever I was writing.

    Fear of inaccuracy is the main thing that keeps me from attempting to write historical fiction. Well, that plus it’s not a genre I want to write about. I do enjoy reading it, but I’m not as compulsive about historicals as I am about contemporary romance.

    One of the things I’ve heard people grumble out is the use of words that weren’t in common usage at the time. I would find that tricky if I was writing historicals – it must be hard to get into the dialect when you have to keep fact-checking every word out of your characters’ mouths.

    I have come across some interesting websites since I started reading historicals (I’m relatively new to historical romance) – one of my favorites is Two Nerdy History Girls:
    http://twonerdyhistorygirls.blogspot.com/

    I think that’s a good option – if you discover too many random facts to put in your book, put them in a blog post instead! No sense wasting all that research. 🙂

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | October 12, 2017, 11:43 am
  2. Kathy – as a fellow Advanced Diploma in Applied Writing student, also writing historical fiction I can certainly relate to what you’re saying. I’m so appreciative of our conversations around this. How to avoid disappearing down the rabbit hole of research? Fascinating but whoa –

    As story-tellers, we are always writing fiction, not history. As John Truby says: “You use the past as a pair of glasses through which the audience can see itself more clearly today.’ Unobtrusive authenticity. I’m still working on it!

    Posted by Trish Fenton | October 15, 2017, 2:31 pm
  3. One of the problems of 20th Century historical fiction is that there is much more information available, and if you don’t get the dates right, people will know. For instance, you can’t describe Pearl Harbor as taking place on any date other than 7 December 1941! One way I’ve been able to use some of the many factoids I find is in conversation, say, around the dinner table. That being said, it’s hard knowing what needs to stay, because it provides some context, and knowing what to toss. Saving info for a blog, a story behind the history, is a goal for another time!

    Posted by Janice Laird | October 15, 2017, 3:12 pm
  4. I totally agree Kathy. It’s always annoyed me if a story is not authentic and if I find a fact wrong – it can undermine the whole story.

    Even though my genre is children’s writing, research is just as important-if not more so. Someone once told me you need to know the era in which you are writing in like you would your own child. That way the setting, characters and world you are creating will naturally come out in your writing.

    Posted by Jenny Healey | October 15, 2017, 11:28 pm

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