Historical Accuracy and My Approach to History

last updated: 10 October 2017 (approximate reading time: 5 minutes; 879 words)

In August 2017, I posted a first chapter from a possible future book. You can read that chapter by following this link.

I had some questions about historical accuracy and my approach to the concept. My comments about this topic are set out in this note.

I also have some more general comments with are set out in a separate note.

An Approach to Accuracy

This might seems odd, but I don’t need to be historically accurate. What I need to do is convince the reader that I am being historically accurate. As long as the reader is convinced—and is not pulled out of the story by some minor detail—then my job is done.

Seriously, I could have Henry VIII talking with aliens. Provided I can convince the reader—within the context of the story—that this is true, then the facts don’t matter. Clearly, if I’m putting forward Henry VIII and aliens as a matter of historical truth, that would be a different matter. But here I’m talking about fiction.

There is, of course, another angle here. If I’m totally and completely historically accurate, but the reader doesn’t believe that I’m being accurate, then that accuracy is irrelevant.

Whether I choose to be accurate or not, all that matters is the reader’s opinion, and nothing else.

If Facts Don’t Matter…

If facts don’t matter, then what is my approach?

In short—having set out why facts don’t matter—my aim is to be as close to historically accurate as possible.

There are several reasons here:

  • First, and most obviously, truth is easier than a lie. By staying with the facts, I don’t have to remember where I have deviated from the facts.
  • If a reader is skeptical, then they can learn the facts. If, however, a reader is skeptical and I haven’t stayed with the facts, then the lack of factual accuracy will reinforce that skepticism.
  • Lastly, staying with a framework of facts, tends to make fiction more real.

Although I aim to get things “right,” there is a balance—I’m often trying to resolve two diametrically opposing forces. There’s the factual matter of historical accuracy, but then there’s the difficulty that the book is being written—and will be read—in the twenty-first century.

This has led to a slight tension where I’m using historical place names and historical spellings of place names (because, you know, history…) but modern language and in particular, modern spellings (in order that readers can understand what I’ve written). So there’s Holbourn (as it was, but which we now call Holborn), there’s Red Lyon (rather than Red Lion), and there’s Leicester Fields (instead of Leicester Square).

Getting Locations Right

For the locations, I live in London so I can walk the streets (and indeed, I have done and continue to do so). Many—perhaps most—of the streets still exist in one form or another, although some names have changed. However, it is a challenge to know definitively what existed in 1740.

Much of the architecture has changed, the function of buildings has changed (particularly with the separation of residential and business districts). The streets themselves have changed—every street has sidewalks and there is a consistent asphalt surface (except in the few areas where cobbles/setts remain).

The other challenge is knowing exactly when each street was built and when each subsequent change was made. One basic source for this information is maps and here I have two main sources:

  • John Rocque’s map of the Cities of London and Westminster and the Borough of Southwark, which was published 1746.
  • Richard Horwood’s survey which was undertaken between 1792 and 1799, and then updated by William Faden in 1813. This shows an increase in the size of the docks, and the growth of Westminster.

If you want to see some of these maps of the London of my story, head to: locatinglondon.org. The 1746 edition (the edition selector is to the top-left of the map) shows the Rocque map with the streets at the time of the extract.

Words and Language

Another challenge is to try to use words that would have been in use in 1740 and which still make sense today.

A starting point for this is the Oxford English Dictionary, which will often suggest the origin of a word. Next stop is Shakespeare. If Shakespeare mentions a word, and it’s still around today, then it is was fairly likely to be around in 1740.

But perhaps the best source is Samuel Johnson’s dictionary which was published in 1755. And also useful is the Etymology Dictionary.

These sources will tell me not only if a word was in use, but if its understanding has changed, and also whether its spelling has changed. If there has been a change, then I’m back to contemplating what the reader will believe.

What Did London Look Like?

Clearly, in 1740 there were no cameras, so I can’t check out Flickr or YouTube to see London. However, there were many artists working in London. One in particular has been especially useful for me: William Hogarth.

Hogarth painted and engraved many scenes reflecting all levels of society including many images where he took a moral position (for instance, highlighting the effects of alcohol or the prevalence of prostitution).

With all these resources to hand, then I get writing.

Filed under

Category: writing
Tags: historical series