What are you willing to fudge in historical fiction?

Authors Boyd and Beth Morrison have written a novel together – imagine all that sibling rivalry emerging in the process! Boyd Morrison is a best-selling author. Beth Morrison is Senior Curator of Manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum and an expert medievalist. Together they’ve written The Lawless Land, the first in a Templar-Knight adventure series. I’m delighted to welcome them to the blog.

Choosing your battles: What are you willing to fudge in historical fiction?

When we were developing the plot for The Lawless Land, we knew that we wanted to continue Boyd’s passion for creating fast-paced stories with rich and interesting characters. And the reason we chose the fascinating setting of Europe in the 14th century, when it was recovering from the Black Death and suffering a war between England and France, was because we knew Beth’s background as an expert medievalist would lend a unique authenticity to the novel.

The key was balancing the tradeoff between telling an exciting story and portraying the medieval period accurately. 

Although for the most part there was no conflict between those two goals—and often the setting and time gave us fun ideas for the story—in a few instances, we had to choose between them. 

For example, at one point we had a high-ranking noblewoman traveling without a female attendant, which Beth pointed out would have been extremely unusual and noteworthy in the Middle Ages. But instead of simply ignoring that fact, we came up with the idea that she could tell everyone the fabrication that her attendant had died along the way. It added an intriguing period-appropriate detail at the same time that it created a crucial plot point.

But since we’re writing fiction, when it came down to it, the story came first. We wrote The Lawless Land to entertain readers. If we had to fudge some details to create a better tale, then that’s what we did. In another case, the main character participates in a tournament, and although the portion called the melee traditionally took place as a finale, we needed that scene to set the stage, so we just went ahead and changed the normal order of the tournament events.

Because Beth is an authority on that era, we knew when we were fudging. If we had been starting from scratch without that historical background, we might not have even known if we were getting something wrong. Many times the two of us would have long conversations about whether adhering to the period accuracy was worth changing the plot to fit it. Every time we altered something from how life really was in that time period, it was an active choice.

We also decided not to get mired in the details. We certainly didn’t want to whitewash what life was like back then, but we also didn’t wallow in the fact that the smells must have been nauseating much of the time, fleas and other pests were ever present, and even rudimentary plumbing was lacking. Adventurous storytelling actually has its roots in the beloved romances of the Middle Ages, like tales of Tristan and Isolde or King Arthur’s valiant knights. Medieval fiction focused primarily on the thrilling parts of the story, and we tried to follow in that tradition.

Instead of extreme historical accuracy, we thought historical credibility was more important. That’s why we included an afterword at the end of the book to discuss what was real and what we had changed for the novel.

And if you’re a writer, don’t sweat it if you get something wrong. It happens. Whole YouTube channels are made to point out mistakes in insanely popular movies. The takeaway is that if you’ve written a story that readers love, it doesn’t matter if you get everything exactly right.

We found that the use of historical detail broke down into four main categories. Knowing which category a particular element of our story fit into helped us decide how to handle it in the book.

1) Details that we knew were correct about the era – 

We tried to get these right when they didn’t impact the story. They build credibility that we know the specifics about the era and give readers a sense of place and time in a setting that they might not be familiar with. To research the locations in the book, we traveled to England, France, and Italy to see cathedrals, palaces, and monasteries that have changed very little since 1351, when our novel takes place. That allowed us to create fun scenes that actually took advantage of the many real places in the book that readers can still visit today.

2) Details that readers think are correct because that’s the way they’ve always been portrayed in popular culture, but are actually incorrect –

These are tricky because they’ve been drilled into the brains of us over many years of consuming books, movies, and TV shows about the medieval era. We feature a jousting tournament in The Lawless Land, and a small detail is that in 1351, the rail separating the horsemen wasn’t yet in use, so readers may think we got it wrong. However, in this case it actually added tension to our scene to keep it period accurate, so readers will have to trust us that our description is correct. That’s why building credibility with the reader is so important.

3) Details where we had no historical information or conflicting details from historical records–

Despite Beth’s vast expertise, all of the nonfiction books we read, and the wealth of online resources at our disposal, there are details that are simply not known about the medieval period. We included a scene where King Edward III knighted a number of his men upon landing in France during his invasion, but we couldn’t find any details about how it was conducted or where exactly it took place. So we made it up. This is fiction, after all!

4) Details that we changed to make a better story –

Sometimes we just had to alter a detail to make a fun story, which was always the goal. In a scene at Mont-Saint-Michel in France, we describe a cart pulled by a windlass that was used to haul supplies up the steep sides of the monastery. There is actually a windlass-pulled cart at the monastery that readers can still see there today, but it wasn’t actually installed until the 18th century. We decided that having our characters use it in an exciting action sequence was too good of an opportunity to pass up. And who knows? Maybe there really was a cart back in the 14th century and we just haven’t heard about it.

So if you’re writing fiction, try to get the details right, especially when they can contribute to the overall atmosphere and don’t impact the plot, but feel free to change things when you need to in order to make a better story. Your readers will thank and, if necessary, forgive you.

Thank you, Beth and Boyd. What an interesting look at accuracy and authenticity in historical fiction. Next time, I’d love to hear about your writing process.

The Lawless Land by Boyd + Beth Morrison ~~ The Road to Canterbury, 1351.

The Pestilence has ravaged England. Fields and villages lie abandoned but for crows and corpses. Roads and highways are unpatrolled but for marauders and murderers. In these dark and dangerous times, the wise keep to themselves.

But disgraced Knight Gerard Fox cannot afford to be wise. He has been robbed of his ancestral home, his family name tarnished. To regain his lands and redeem his honour, he sets forth to petition the one man who can restore them.

Fate places Fox on the wrong road at the wrong time. Riding deep into the wild woods, he hurtles towards a chance encounter. It will entangle him with an enigmatic woman, a relic of incalculable value and a dark family secret. It will lead him far from home and set him on a collision course with one of the most ambitious and dangerous men in Europe—a man on the cusp of seizing Christendom’s highest office.

And now, Fox is the only one standing in his way.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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15 Responses

  1. Hi Mary, Boyd and Beth – great post – and fascinating to see how you combined your twin skills into writing one novel. I totally endorse your 4 categories of historical detail – and agree with the way you have tackled the first 3, though I would have been rather more wary of using something 4 centuries too early, but appreciate why you made that decision.

  2. I have to disagree with the rather cavalier approach that if a pesky but accurate historical detail interferes with the plot–and the emphasis is on action and fast-paced, etc.,–then you either omit or change it to suit the tale you are telling. I’ve encountered that trope all too often and unlike the majority of readers, it bothers me to the point that I toss the book in an increasingly large DNF pile.

    Good and careful writers of historical fiction can manage an exciting and enticing tale within the framework of historical accuracy without having to resort to flummery.

    1. Hi Maggie – many thanks for your comment. In my own humble opinion, there are facts that I would be comfortable fudging and others not. The big stuff, definitely not. But whether a day was sunny or raining or as Theresa Hupp said, whether the was an actual jail in a particular town at a precise date – I can play (fudge) that sort of detail. My approach, of course, wouldn’t work for everyone! Lots of authors use their Author Note to explain adjustments they’ve made and the rationale for doing so.

  3. This is a great post Mary! It is such a relevant topic, and the authors involved are just the two to write it. Many thanks for this.

    1. Imagine having a sibling with just the right expertise to work with you on a writing project! Hmmmm – I do have a brother who majored in History and can pull out the most amazing historical details at the drop of a hat. Possibilities indeed.

  4. Sometimes we fudge because we don’t know the answer and can’t find it through research. Sometimes we fudge because readers expect certain Hollywood-ized tropes. I am fudging in my current work-in-progress by putting a jail in town about 10 years before one was built. But I need a place to keep the accused, and readers probably expect there to be a jail.

  5. Thanks to everyone for these great comments! I love that our post has generated such a lively discussion. I can definitely see the point of view for those who would prefer historical facts not to be altered. As the thriller author of our duo, I’m the one who pushed for fudging the (very few) historical details we changed to suit the story. We view our book as an adventure story that takes place in the Middle Ages, and many adventure stories written in the medieval era tended to exaggerate some of their details as well, so we felt we were carrying on that tradition!

    Since I come from a science background, I can have the same kind of feeling about scientific or engineering facts. For example, I know that scuba air tanks are not explosive (I’m a certified diver and have been diving many times), but I still pump my fist at the ending of Jaws when he blows up the shark with a well-placed bullet. And I’m always interested to find out what’s true and what’s not when real-life stories are modified to make a more engaging tale. I just like a good story that I can get lost in, and I hope THE LAWLESS LAND does that for our readers.

    1. Many thanks, Boyd. You and Beth are welcome back on the blog anytime. I hope The Lawless Land is a great success.

    2. From my perspective, it’s great to see people concerned with authenticity, as I am a historian by training. Boyd and I definitely wanted to incorporate as much real detail from the fourteenth century as we could, so that the story has a strong feeling of historical realism. But I have always told Boyd that as long as we are making conscious choices all along the way, I am happy to fudge history a bit on occasion for specific purposes. For those who haven’t read the book yet, you’ll find that I added an Afterword that makes clear which aspects were altered for dramatic purposes, so I feel we aren’t cheating the reader. I also hope that there is enough historical detail of interest in the novel that it encourages people to become interested in and read more about the era.

      1. Many thanks for your comment, Beth. The words that resonate for me are “conscious choices”. I’m looking forward to reading The Lawless Land.

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