How to Use Historical Facts in a Novel (News about Chapter 6)

Good news: I have finished chapter 6!

I had dreaded editing this chapter because I had to straighten out a peculiar flaw: babbling.

I had babbled for 3 pages about a real historical event. The problem was that the event had no impact on the story. So I had to cut a lot of text. Writers hate to do that.

However, for the benefit of the novel, I braved the task. I even enjoyed it when I noticed the result would be really good – once I had managed to handle the historic event properly.

Every writer of a historical novel needs to add historical events to his/her story. You cannot write a historical novel without a historical background (without that, you actually write Fantasy novels).

Dangers of (over)doing research

To make correct use of a historical event, writers do research. Good knowledge of history helps to straighten the plot, gives credibility to its characters and brings a story to life .

But there also is danger in doing research:

  • You lose yourself in doing research and neglect your novel.
  • You become too scrupulous about historic events and get caught in Writer’s Block.
  • You overindulge in using historical facts in your novel and bore your readers.

Example of overindulging in historical detail:

„Oh, make haste,“ Lady Aurelia called out to her abigail.“Help me to get dressed. Lord Charmford will be here any minute.”

The abigail hurried to Lady Aurelia’s side. With quick fingers she fastened the ribbons of my ladie’s stays, which raised the shape of Lady Aurelia breasts, tightened the midriff, supported the back, improved posture to help her stand straight, with the shoulders down and back, and only slightly narrow at the waist, creating a ‘V’ shaped upper torso, over which the outer garment would be worn. Usually, Lady Aurelia wore ‘jumps’ of quilted linen instead of stays. But these were for informal situations, as jumps were only partially boned, did little for one’s posture, but did add some support.

The abigail knew well that Lady Aurelia hated wearing stays, even well-fitting ones which were quite comfortable and did not restrict breathing. But a jump would not do when Lord Charmford came to visit – and possibly to propose! -, evens if jumps were considered undergarments, and would be seen only under very limited circumstances. Stays were a literal symbol of a woman’s uprightness and virtue.

This is, of course, an exaggeration, but I think I made my point.

How to use historic events in a novel

Here are three rules for using history in your novel:

  • The historic event/background information has to have an impact on your story or the characters, such as:
    – drive the story-line,
    – add to a dramatic/comical scene,
    – explain why a character acts in a certain way .
  • If possible, refer to a historical event rather than to describe it. Elaborate descriptions should be left to historians.
  • If you need to give a lot of information on a historical event, do it in a dialogue or a scene where your characters play their parts in the historical event. If the historical event is an integral part of the story, e.g. when you write a novel about the battle of Waterloo, tell the historical information from the point of view of your characters.

A master of using history in a Regency novel is, of course, Georgette Heyer. Take a leaf out of her book, metaphorically speaking, and study her elegantly written novels carefully. You will notice that she interspersed historical facts so cleverly one hardly notices them. Yet, they create the unique style of her novels.

Here is an example from “Venetia”*, chapter 1, a scene with heroine Venetia and her brother Aubrey. They have just had breakfast:

(Aubrey) had risen, and walked over to the window with his awkward, dragging step. “It’s too hot to go out at all, I think, but I will – Oh, I most certainly will, and at once! M’dear, both your suitors are come to pay us a morning-visit!”

“Oh, no!” exclaimed Venetia imploringly. “Not again!”

“Riding up the avenue,” he assured her. “Oswald is looking as sulky as a bear, too.”

“Now, Aubrey, pray don’t say so! It is his gloomy look. He is brooding over nameless crimes, I daresay, and only think how disheartening to have his dark thoughts mistaken for a fit of the sulks!”

“What nameless crimes?”

“My dear, how should I know – or he either? Poor boy! it is all Byron’s fault! Oswald can’t decide whether it is his lordship whom he resembles or his lordship’s Corsair. In either event it is very disturbing for poor Lady Denny. She is persuaded he is suffering from a disorder of the blood, and has been begging him to take James’s Powders.

“Byron!” Aubrey ejaculated, with one of his impatient shrugs. “I don’t know how you can read such stuff!”

“Of course you don’t, love – and I must own I wish Oswald had found himself unable to do so. I wonder what excuse Edward will offer us for this visit? Surely there cannot have been another Royal marriage, or General Election?”

“Or that he should think we care for such trash.” Aubrey turned away from the window. “Are you going to marry him?” he asked.

In this short extract, we find 5 clever references to:

  • The poet Lord Byron, “mad, bad and dangerous to know” as well as famed and famous for his many scandals.
  • Byron’s famous poem “The Corsair”, one of the gloomy works he wrote while being involved in several ill-fated love affairs. The poem was published in 1814.
  • Dr James’s Fever Powder, claimed to cure fevers and various other maladies, from gout and scurvy to distemper in cattle. It had a long tradition of usage, from its introduction in 1746 well into the 20th century.**
  • “another Royal marriage” – there had been 3 in 1818: Prince William, Duke of Clarence; Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn; and Prince Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge. The last of the bachelor sons of George III married in August 1818, so indeed there couldn’t be another Royal Marriage.
  • A “General Election” – the General Election of August 1818, were the Tories under the Earl of Liverpool retained a majority.

The reader can infer from the historical facts given when the novel takes place and what the literary taste and their (dis)interest in politics and society news of the characters are. Nevertheless, it still is a lively and entertaining scene, written as dialogue. Chapeau, Mrs Heyer!


* Heyer, Georgette: Venetia; Arrow Books, reissued 1998; first published by William Heinmann Ltd 1958.

One thought on “How to Use Historical Facts in a Novel (News about Chapter 6)

  1. You have hit my vice on the head.
    I get so excited in finding things out that I want to share all I’ve discovered. Experience helps with inserting things more seamlessly and showing not telling.

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