Ethics: Rules for Writing Historical Novels

These are my seven guidelines.

1. Don't invent history. You can add people to a scene; and of course you are free to invent incidents of the kind that might have occurred, so long as they slot into the overall pattern of known events. In War and Peace, Tolstoy's use of Pierre during the occupation of Moscow, when Pierre observes the scene and plans, but fails to assassinate Napoleon, is a perfect example of how this can be done. Tolstoy also sets the record straight about how Moscow caught fire.

2. Try to be fair. The people on both sides of every conflict are still human. You will distort history (and probably write a lousy story) if they are merely heroes or villains. If your medieval Crusaders are good guys and the Saracens are bad guys, then it's clear you have no idea of the history of the Crusades. Being fair does not mean failing to make moral judgements. Quite the reverse. But it is by understanding, not by over-simplifying human nature that a novelist may be able to contribute something to the necessary vigilance of a free society.

3. You can leave doubt about what happened. Usually it's best if the storyline itself is clear, but there well may be doubt about the nature of historical events. These can remain. Sometimes different characters in the story may each have a different take on events, and thus reflect those uncertainties. Occasionally, you may even want to put a brief note in the Preface.

4. Keep the chronology as accurate as possible. Sometimes events are so untidy that it's very hard to keep a consistent storyline running through them; but once you alter dates, you'll soon be distorting history.

5. You can leave things out. You cannot recreate every detail of the past. Stories are actually guided by a series of signposts anyway, like scenes in a movie. Just keep the signposts accurate.

6. Complete historical truth is unknowable. At the end of the day, the novel is a construct - as is a biography or a work of narrative history, for that matter. All you can do is use the best modern scholarship available. The next generation will probably laugh at your efforts anyway.

7. 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.

Did You Know?
The first motorist to be fined for speeding in the UK was Walter Arnold in 1896. He was driving 8 miles per hour. At the time the speed limit for motor vehicles was 2 miles per hour!