In May I had the pleasure of interviewing Edward Rutherfurd during the launch of his latest novel, PARIS. In preparation, not only did I read PARIS, but I also trolled the internet for perspectives on Rutherfurd’s writing and, of course, visited his website for biographical information and other tidbits.
One page on the website caught my eye: Rules for Writing Historical Novels. Here they are:
- Don’t invent history. (You can add characters and incidents as long as they fit in with known historical events.)
- Try to be fair. (There’s always more than one side to history.)
- You can leave doubt about what happened. (History is full of uncertainties.)
- Keep the chronology as accurate as possible. (Don’t mess with the timeline.)
- You can leave things out. (Readers don’t have patience for every detail.)
- Complete historical truth is unknowable.
And the seventh rule: “How to test if you’ve done a decent job? Take the manuscript to a good historian of the period. Ask: “If one of your students wants to read this, would you say, “All right, it won’t mislead you.’ ” If the answer is yes, then it’s OK. If not, then it isn’t.”
For writers of historical fiction, Rutherfurd’s rules offer straightforward advice. For readers, these rules seem to represent a sound balance between enjoyment and learning.