Historical novels: that marvelous blend of fact and fiction

by Stephanie Cowell

It was a rather terrifying moment in my writing life. I had been asked to read from my novel about Mozart at a scholarly conference: the Mozart Society of America Even a prominent scholar from the Mozarteum in Salzburg was attending. Here were a group of people who had dedicated their lives to studying aspects of Mozart’s life and music. (One or two were so scholarly that I have no idea what they were saying!) I got up rather tremulously and decided to be honest. I told them, “Thank you for all your hard work. I take your work, mix it with a little imagination and turn it into fiction.” And to great surprise, they loved the scenes I read.

So is what the historical novelist writes fact or fiction? “Both,” I say. “In a sensitive, creative, respectful and sometimes daring combination.”

Many years ago, I had dinner in Oxford with the great Elizabethan scholar Dr. A.L. Rowse. There I confessed to him that I wanted to write Elizabethan historical fiction but felt shy about making up dialogue. His eyes widened and he said, “But of course you have to make it up!” That was my blessing to go forward and I was happy to dedicate one of my novels to him.

“How much is real? What is true?” I always hear these questions when I speak about my novels. I try to give an overall view. I say, “We can’t know what great people said behind the closed bedroom door,” and they all nod modestly in agreement. Behind closed bedroom doors – oh, of course not!

“But what is historical fiction?” people also ask and I reply, “It’s fiction based on history.” More, it is a dramatic piece and must tell an interesting, hopefully gripping story. To do that it must have a plot and dramatic highlights; it must not be repetitive or meander. Real lives do both. You must trim and shape real life into fictional form.

Shakespeare wrote historical fiction in his history plays. Some people have never forgiven him for making Richard III an evil guy, but Shakespeare was writing under the reign of the granddaughter of the man who dethroned Richard, so he shaped his character to something that would please her. He also has Henry V cry passionately before the Battle of Agincourt, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends!” In real life Henry might have said, “My boots hurt,” but it would not be as memorable and not nearly as stirring.

We find facts in history books; we find living truth in historical fiction. And if a reader is introduced to an area of the past or a great historical figure she loves through fiction, she can always turn back to the work of historians. Nothing makes me happier as an author than to hear that I have made some part of history as real to readers as if they were transported to that time. I wanted to live then as well. It is because I love some periods of the past and certain people who lived within them so much that I became a writer.

About the author: Historical novelist Stephanie Cowell is the author of Nicholas Cooke, The Physician of London, The Players: a novel of the young Shakespeare, Marrying Mozart and Claude & Camille: a novel of Monet. She is the recipient of the American Book Award. Her work has been translated into nine languages. Her website is http://www.stephaniecowell.com.



  • Janet Oakley

    Stephanie, I love your description of historical fiction “It is fiction based on  history.”  I try my very best to use my historian skills to bring to a life a period in time and how my characters
    might live it, but there is imagination at play.

    I’d be a bit scared too talking to a group of experts in the field. I”ve just recently got into martime history and have a talk at a maritime historical society. It was wonderful to be accepted.  There’s fiction in there somewhere eventually. My historical novel is another matter. I’ll have to face up against foresters and park people.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Stephanie-Cowell/636823890 Stephanie Cowell

       I was pretty scared at the conference. One of the greatest Mozart scholars in the world was there, whose book “The Mozart Compendium”, with comments on every one of Mozart’s work, has been my basic reference and study book for the past several years. He is, however, one very nice man.

  • Lynn Cullen

    Great article, Stephanie!  It was an excellent pep talk for those of us who are writing about the human condition through the lens of a famous person’s life.

  • Tracy Barrett

    Great article, Stephanie! I’ve found that scholars are usually more forgiving of errors than the passionate amateur–the person whose hobby is medieval armor or ancient Greek burial customs or whatever. I look forward to reading your work!

  • Mastersdiane

    Stephanie, loved your article and wish we had more time to meet like the old days last year.  let me know.