10 June 2022

Historical Mystery Revisited

With the release of my latest book, I thought it might be time to revisit my first SleuthSayers article – Writing the Historical Mystery. Since the article aired in September 2016, I have had five historical mystery novels and fifteen historical mystery short stories published.

Accuracy vs. Fiction

Joseph Pulitzer wrote on his newsroom wall – “Accuracy, Accuracy, Accuracy.” Excellent advise for journalists but fiction writers are not journalists and we do not write history books. Historical accuracy is important in the historical mystery but is it more important than your story? I say no.

When we write historical fiction we are writing FICTION. I have a degree in European and Asian History and have had historical articles published in academic journals.

In writing academic historical articles, I strive to be as accurate as humanly possible. Nearly all history graduate students take a class in HISTORIOGRAPHY, the study of historical writing. They know unless you are an eye-witness to an historical event – and that’s one person’s subjective observation – then you must rely on first hand accounts of other contemporary witnesses or second hand accounts complied by other historians. So why worry if you get a minor detail wrong in your historical fiction as I did when I had a character wearing a Banlon shirt several years before Banlon was introduced? Oh, yes. Someone caught me and I had to miss recess that day. Same thing happened when I put a Parker T-ball jotter in a private eye's hand a few years before Parker distributed the pen. Wrong. An easy fix.

Historians in critically-acclaimed history books also get things wrong. Ever read history books of the Napoleonic Wars? British Historians and French Historians paint nearly opposite histories of the same period. It’s almost funny.

Back to my first statement - when we write historical fiction we are writing FICTION – I have fudged on historical accuracy to write a better story because, in my opinion, historical fiction is like someone’s name. John Smith is a SMITH, part of the SMITH family, not the JOHN family. Historical Fiction is FICTION and fiction outranks history, otherwise you’re writing a history book.

“ … fairness is not the historical novelist’s first duty,” the great historical fiction writer Bernard Cornwell pens in his notes at the end of Sword Song (2008). He is correct, of course. The duty of an historical novelist is to entertain, to elicit emotion in the reader and if mistakes of fact are made (from errors in research, by omission or by design), well, it happens.

Fiction writers make up stuff. We make up characters and events, sometimes with an historical backdrop.

Artistic license was taken when I wrote my latest, Hardscrabble Private Eye. I'm not a reporter, I'm a fiction writer.

A novel set in 1935 New Orleans. A tale of buried treasures. Diamonds. Rubies. Emeralds. A priceless stolen book. A tale of treachery with alluring femme fatales, gangsters, Mafiosi, gunfights, tommy guns peppering the night and a private eye harscrabbled in the middle.

That's all for now.


  1. Nice article. It is said that history is written by the winner. And, as you said, the facts are also perceived differently by different cultures. For my 9 Tales of the Golden Triangle, my Chinese historian neighbor did some research for me in Mandarin, and some of the Chinese facts are different from the Anglo facts. Makes for interesting writing.

  2. Absolutely - the British and Chinese views of the Opium Wars are completely opposite. And minor historical inaccuracies are forgiveable. Granted, Genghis Khan shouldn't be wearing a Rolex, but... Unless he's time-traveling. And then, fiction is fiction!

  3. I had a reader point out that a car I described in a historical novel was not produced in the year I claimed. Did my mistake change the course of the novel? Nope. Did it irritate a reader (and perhaps others who never said anything) to the point of them wondering what else I got wrong in the book? Perhaps. Did I lose them as a future reader? Who knows. Unless I really need to be loose with facts for purposes of story, I try hard to avoid avoidable errors.

  4. Thanks for the comments. Eve – Genghis Khan did not wear a Rolex, that was Kubla Khan. Genghis wore a Seiko.


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