Rules for Historical Fiction – Edward Rutherfurd

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:

  1. Don’t invent history. (You can add characters and incidents as long as they fit in with known historical events.)
  2. Try to be fair. (There’s always more than one side to history.)
  3. You can leave doubt about what happened. (History is full of uncertainties.)
  4. Keep the chronology as accurate as possible. (Don’t mess with the timeline.)
  5. You can leave things out. (Readers don’t have patience for every detail.)
  6. 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.