Truth in Historical Story-Telling by Tara Cowan

Tara Cowan, author of Southern Rain, has been writing novels since she was seventeen. We connected through Instagram where she is @teaandrebellion – now that tells you something about her interests, doesn’t it? Tara is also an attorney and lives in Tennessee.


We’re all troubled by historical inaccuracy, aren’t we?  A wrong date, a poor retelling of events, a word from the wrong era, a fashion choice three decades too soon… All of these can snap us right out of the world we are trying to create.  I’ll call these “easy fixes” that can be prevented with historical vetting and a great deal of research (even though there’s nothing easy about that at all!).

But you can get all of that right, and still there is a deeper level of accuracy for which we need to strive: our characters’ beliefs about moral or social issues of their era.  For me, this has become one of my greatest struggles as a writer and reader of Historical Fiction.

So much of what our historical characters do or believe can be mind-boggling or even morally wrong to modern eyes.  Slavery is the obvious example from my novel, Southern Rain, and, of course, it takes everything within the modern author not to be heavy-handed with the message, “This is an affront to human dignity!”  But would my Civil War era characters have thought so?  Perhaps on some deep, primal level they would have known it within themselves, but would they have said it?  Unless they were staunch abolitionists, unfortunately, no. If you look at writings from the time, you see a very broad spectrum of beliefs relating to slavery, ranging from “necessary evil” to “positive good” to “bad for the economy” and “a danger to the balance of power.”  You’re wanting so badly for someone to just say that it was demoralizing and inhuman. And you can find those beliefs, but not as often as you would wish, and largely only among staunch moral abolitionists who were considered by their peers a bit radical at the time.  And so you, as the writer, are faced with a choice: tell the story like it would have been or sugar-coat the past?

That seems easy to answer, but it isn’t always.  We fear that the reader will dislike our characters if their beliefs are outdated or wrong.  That if our characters feel indifference on a subject about which they should feel strongly, our readers will turn against them.  The idea also presents itself that our readers will think that our historical characters’ beliefs are our beliefs.  Sometimes we just want to give our characters a break already in what could be a really punishing world.

Think about Lydia Bennett of Pride and Prejudice.  She is engraved on our memories as a flighty girl because everyone in the Regency Era would have said so.  A more modern pen might have taken a more sympathetic look at the full picture (she was young, her father was absent-minded, her mother was driving her to be married, etc.) and ultimately ended on a more forgiving note that really wouldn’t have been accurate to the Regency Era.  Things like this happen all the time in otherwise great books: the characters aren’t as shocked as they would’ve been, the characters don’t take something seriously enough…

I think a lot about a book by Tamera Alexander titled Beyond This Moment. (Spoiler Alert!) The Reconstruction Era heroine gets pregnant, as they would have said then, “out of wedlock.”  And she pays for it over and over and over.  Even in a succeeding book the townspeople haven’t fully forgiven her. When I read the book as a teenager, I hated that town so much.  I thought the author had drawn them too starchy and the repercussions too dramatically to put a nice, happy-ending bow on the story.  Now, of course, I realize that she was just being truthful, and my hat is off to her for that!

I see writers struggling all the time with the choice between sticking with the rules of an era on the one hand and giving their stories a more modern twist on the other. The bold Victorian woman who swears off corsets and goes to college has become so common in literature that the proper, buttoned-up Victorian woman seems to be the anomaly.  And those stories can be great– many of them currently fill my shelves!  However, I do believe we need to be very careful to frame those stories in an accurate way when we’re pushing the boundaries of history.  We need to tell those fabulous stories of women who had amazing scholastic or professional accomplishments because they did exist. We also need to remember that only an extremely small percentage of women was able to go to college in the Nineteenth Century because they were prevented from doing so.

We can make a person a man or woman of his or her time and still give them break-out moments. An example from one of my earlier manuscripts is a perfect Antebellum wife who, for an entire novel, allows her husband’s word to be law in their household.  Then he goes too far, in her estimation, and she absolutely fillets him. Do I think there was precisely that sort of drama in Victorian marriages?  Oh, yes, most definitely.  And I think that female character was quite strong in her own way for taking a look at the rules in place and concocting subtle ways to get around them, as women have done for centuries (even if she wasn’t ready to throw her corset out the window!).

For the most part, I try to stick to accuracies, however distasteful or foreign, of the era without imbuing the story with modern morality and ideas.  In Southern Rain, my otherwise-delightful male lead feels very hurt when his wife says that she wishes she could have the vote so that he would not speak for the both of them.  To us, she’s doing nothing more than wishing to exercise what ought to be her rights.  But to a Victorian husband, that would have been painful to hear, since voting went to the heart of his Victorian head-of-household rights and duties. If he were a modern man, it would have been out of character, but I had to do it.

I fear making it seem like it would have been easy if all of my characters think it’s great that a Nineteenth Century heroine wants to enter what was considered to be the masculine realm.  I fear trivializing the struggle of the enslaved by making all of my characters abolitionists.  We’re missing a great opportunity if we gloss over moral dilemmas because we’re afraid to tell it like it was.  What better opportunity to show that women are equal than to tell the truth of what happens when they are not treated equally under the law?  What better way to highlight the injustice of what the enslaved faced than to be honest about how people felt about them?

One of the best examples of a book which accomplishes this is America’s First Daughter, by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie.  The book follows the life of Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, Martha, and the authors mention something in the notes about not deviating from what she really would have felt.  She defended her father on matters no one would defend today, while also growing blazingly angry with him on others of which we would have been more forgiving. We see her caught up in Revolutionary fervor in the belief that slavery must and shall end, we see her slap a slave in anger, we see her changing towards complacency when slavery became an economic necessity, and eventually, we see her fighting for abolition as First Lady of Virginia against all odds.  The alternations in her feelings ring so true when you look at the nuances of things that humans do and feel over the course of their lives.  We wrestle with the moral questions of our day, and so should our characters. 

We shouldn’t be afraid to tell it like it was.  For just a moment, you might be overwhelmed, thinking: I can’t do this. I can’t portray characters who have such odd beliefs!  But you’ll be surprised to find how much is similar in humans across the ages.  We can write characters whom we like, and even admire, who hold beliefs that wouldn’t wash in the modern era.  And we’re missing a great opportunity for exploring the complexities of human nature if we make everyone just as he or she should be. And our readers are very sharp! They know that they are reading a work of both fiction and history, and they know when something rings true.  Readers of Historical Fiction want accuracy, and they want to be transported to another time and place and maybe learn something along the way.  Otherwise, we might as well be writing modern books.  And I, for one, can attest to the joy that Historical Fiction has brought me over the years!  So dig in, find the truth, and tell it boldly!  Happy writing (and reading)!

Many thanks, Tara. Best wishes for Southern Rain and the series that follows. Love the idea of breakout moments.

Southern Rain by Tara Cowan

Charleston, Modern Day:
Adeline Miller, a preservationist, gets a call from a Charleston psychiatrist who wants her to restore his Battery Street mansion to its former glory. Thinking this might be her big break, she relocates to Charleston, moves into the third floor of the mansion, and gets to work. As she begins to discover secrets from the past about the family who once lived there, her future begins to get a lot more complicated than she ever expected.

Charleston, 1859:
Shannon Ravenel, the daughter of wealthy rice planter King Ravenel, is destined to marry into South Carolina’s elite planting class. That conclusion is thrown into question when her brother brings home his friend from the Naval Academy, Massachusetts-bred John Thomas Haley. Love aside, can a planter’s daughter and an abolitionist’s son forge a future in a nation that is ripping apart at the seams, or does fate have other plans for both?


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

Brother Dave Strikes Again

Edge of Eternity by Ken FollettMy older brother Dave has a passion for history and a keen eye for historical accuracy. In 2013 he read and critiqued the first two of Ken Follett‘s trilogy about the 20th century: Fall of Giants and Winter of the World. These reviews continue to generate interest with readers. Follett’s third novel is out – Edge of Eternity – and, once again, Dave has a few comments about historical accuracy and perspective.

“Did you enjoy the books,” I asked when we spoke on the phone. Here’s his response.

Dave: I have read all three books of Ken Follett’s trilogy over the past year and a half and enjoyed reading each of them. I must admit I liked the first two, Fall of Giants and Winter of the World, better than the third, Edge of Eternity. At over 1000 pages, it was a long read! However, Ken Follett’s treatment of the book’s major theme of the quest for freedom and equality, for both American blacks and the citizens of the former Soviet bloc East Germany, were well handled. He brought these lofty concepts down to a very human level, through the eyes of his characters. Follett covered every emotion, from deep despair to jubilation, in his telling of this story.

As a side note, it’s sobering to realize that major events like freedom rides in the American south, the Cuban missle crisis, and the building of the Berlin Wall, are now considered part of history. I vividly recall visiting Florida as a youngster in the late 1950’s and seeing the sign “Whites Only” in a laundromat. Now the American President is a black man. I remember the tensions caused by the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, and was emotionally moved watching scenes of the Wall being knocked down by Berliners in 1989. Most of us who are “boomers” have seen some amazing changes in the world over the years, many of them for the good. Hopefully this will continue.

And now for Dave’s thoughts on historical accuracy.

I recently read Edge of Eternity by Ken Follett, the last volume of his trilogy spanning the 20th Century. The first two were Fall of Giants and Winter of the World. Edge of Eternity‘s Chapter 41 – Flower – 1968 deals with the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive in February of that year. In this chapter, journalist and Vietnam War veteran Jasper Murray discusses the Tet Offensive with his editorial staff colleagues for the TV news show This Day. Called the “astonishing Vietcong operation” (p. 710), Murray states the objectives of the VC with Tet were to “demonstrate their power and reach and thereby to demoralize the South Vietnamese regime, our (US) troops, and the American people. And they have succeeded (p. 711).” In addition, Murray feels that the US military and the Johnson administration were lying to the American people about the war’s progress. The Vietcong’s success during Tet laid bare the lie.

Even 40 years on since the end of the Vietnam War, controversy still reigns. Viewpoints about the war are often the result of political or moral stance, rather than what actually happened. I have put together the following critique of Jasper’s argument.

1. Tet was not solely a Vietcong operation. It was carried out by both North Vietnamese regular troops, called the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN), and the Vietcong, the military arm of the South Vietnam-based National Liberation Front. Both had a central command structure that was controlled by the North Vietnamese communist regime of Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi.

The VC specialized in guerrilla tactics that included hit-and-run ambushes, bombings of public and government buildings, mines, booby traps, and executions of local government officials, police, doctors, teachers, professionals and anyone else who they felt supported the South Vietnamese regime. These tactics were not new; they had been developed over the previous 40 years in conflicts such as Ireland, China, Greece, and Algeria.

Tet in 1968 was really the first time PAVN and the VC attempted a full-out military assault on cities and military bases in South Vietnam. Using the Ho Chi Minh Trail which ran from North Vietnam south along the western border of South Vietnam, and the tunnel network through the South, PAVN and VC forces struck simultaneously at more than 100 centres in the South. PAVN mainly concentrated on targets in the northern part, and the VC mainly in the southern part of South Vietnam.

2. Did, as Jasper Murray claims, the military and the Johnson administration lie to the American people about Vietnam? Those who believe that are really saying that all those in authority routinely lie in order to maintain their power. This is both cynical and simplistic. In a western democracy such as the United States there are legislative checks and balances in place, as well as a robust press. Those who lie get found out and punished. Richard Nixon’s Watergate experience is a good case in point.

Until the Tet offensive, the American public was at best luke-warm in their support of US involvement in Vietnam. The Johnson administration and the military leadership knew this and therefore tried to put the best public relations “spin” on the supposed progress in the war. This despite their on-the-ground troops and intelligence sources warning for months before Tet of a huge build-up of enemy troops and material that were moving down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. When the Tet Offensive began, American chief of staff in Vietnam, General Westmoreland, reportedly angrily exclaimed to his headquarters staff that he was being told “what I want to hear, not what I ought to hear” about the war’s progress.

3.  Was the Tet Offensive a victory for the VC, PAVN, and the Hanoi regime? Militarily, no. After initial successes, particularly in Saigon and Hue, PAVN and VC forces were driven out by the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies. Later in the spring, the siege of Khe Shan, the US military base near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) border with North Vietnam, was lifted by American forces.

In addition, while as Jasper Murray indicates, the exact number of VC and PAVN casualties can be debated, their losses were significant. So much so that the VC largely ceased to be an effective fighting force after Tet. From 1968 on, PAVN increasingly assumed the leadership and combat role in South Vietnam. However PAVN was so weakened by the Tet Offensive, they were not able to mount another major offensive for 7 years, in the spring of 1975. Despite at least 15 years of US technical, financial, and logistical assistance, the South Vietnamese Army crumbled in face of the onslaught. By that point, the US had lost its appetite to intervene, and so the Saigon regime of South Vietnam fell to PAVN forces.

4. Politically, however, Tet was a major victory for the Hanoi regime. Its initial success seriously damaged the reputation of the South Vietnamese regime among its civilian population. Tet showed the regime and its army could not effectively protect its citizens from attack.

More tellingly, the Tet Offensive tipped American public opinion against the war. Influential publications such as Time magazine and the New York Times, and respected news anchors such as CBS’s Walter Cronkite, became increasingly critical of US involvement in Vietnam. Shortly after Tet, the US initiated peace talks in Paris. They also began to ratchet back their direct military involvement, and encourage a “Vietnamization” of the war, which ultimately proved unsuccessful. In this respect, Jasper Murray was right. Hanoi, through its initial success with Tet, had won the psychological battle for Vietnam.

Many thanks for your thoughtful comments, Dave. You can review historical fiction any time on A Writer of History!

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available in paperback from Amazon and in e-book formats from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is available in paperback from Amazon (USCanada and elsewhere), and in e-book formats from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and on iTunes.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

Winter of the World – a challenge to historical accuracy

Winter of the World by Ken FollettAs I mentioned in Tuesday’s post, accuracy is a difficult challenge for writers of historical fiction. Today my brother Dave Bingham casts a keen eye on Ken Follett’s Winter of the World. Dave studied history at university and has an amazing ability to recall and make sense of historical facts. 

As part of the American delegation, Woody Dewer attends the San Francisco Conference in late 1945 that created the United Nations. At the beginning of the conference, the Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov objects to Canada and Australia having separate representation and voting rights from Britain. After all they were part of the British Empire and this would amount to giving Britain 3 votes. Molotov adds that if Canada and Australia were given separate votes, Ukraine and Belarus should also. Ken Follett makes no comment about Molotov’s arguement, either by himself, or through Woody, or indeed through the real life Canadian delegate, Lester Pearson.

As I am not as familiar with Australia’s history, I will keep my remarks mainly to Canada’s international status in 1945. At Confederation in 1867, Canada became a self governing nation within the British Empire. At the time, this autonomy was limited in areas of foreign policy and judicial matters. Britain had the final say in those important areas. At the outbreak of World War I, Canada’s participation was automatic. If Britain was at war, Canada was as well, as was Australia.

Canada’s international position was significantly changed by the end of World War I. Due to its army’s  victory at Vimy Ridge, and its ultimate sacrifice of 60,000 war dead, Canada had separate representation at the Treaty of Versailles conference in 1919 that formally ended the war, and had a separate seat on the League of Nations. In the 1920’s Canada more fully developed its own foreign policy. A notable example was the Chanak Crisis in 1922, when Canada did not automatically support Britain and France in their dispute with Turkey over control of the Dardanelles Straits.

The Statute of Westminster, 1931, gave Canada and the other British Dominions, including Australia, full legal autonomy. This meant that among other powers, Canada could set its own foreign policy. Shortly afterwards, Canada established its first embassy, in Washington. At the outbreak of World War II, Canada declared war against Nazi Germany fully a week after Britain and France.

By the end of World War II, Canada had the third largest military force among the Western Allies, after the United States and Britain. Canada’s contribution was significant to victory in Europe. The First Canadian Army was credited with the liberation of Holland in May, 1945.

By 1945, Canada was fully qualified to sit as a delegate at the San Francisco Conference and participate in the formation of the United Nations. I am sure Molotov, as the Soviet Foreign Minister would have been fully briefed as to the position of Canada and the other delegates. To compare Canada and Australia to Ukraine and Belarus, who at the time were vassal states of what was later called the “Evil Empire”, was just blowing smoke.

And that is that! We are a small country but one of great pride. As Canadians we value our separation from Britain, just as we value our distinctiveness from our wonderful neighbour to the south. 

With great thanks to my brother, Dave, for his contributions.