August 6 – 12: “The Historical Thriller: How important is accuracy?”

This week ITW Members D.P. Lyle, Lissa Kessler, R. Thomas Riley, Yvonne Anderson and Karen Maitland as they discuss the historical thriller and ponder the question: “How Important is accuracy?”


D. P. Lyle is the Macavity Award winning and Edgar Award and Scribe Award nominated author of the non-fiction books FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES; FORENSICS & FICTION; MORE FORENSICS & FICTION; and HOWDUNNIT: FORENSICS; the Samantha Cody and Dub Walker Thriller series; and the ROYAL PAINS media tie-in novels. His short story “Even Steven” appears in ITW’s anthology THRILLER 3: LOVE IS MURDER. He has worked with many novelists and with the writers of popular television shows such as Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Peacemakers, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, 1-800-Missing, The Glades, and Pretty Little Liars.

Yvonne Anderson lives in rural Ohio with her husband of 37 years and two of her four grown kids. She also has three grandchildren with two more on the way. Formerly a legal secretary, Yvonne works part time as a Virtual Assistant, but spends most of her time on the planet Gannah researching her books. She’s the contest administrator for Novel Rocket, which was four times named to Writer’s Digest list of the 101 Best Websites for Writers, and shares a few wise words on her personal website.

Karen Maitland’s first medieval thriller, COMPANY OF LIARS, was set at the time of the Black Death in 1348, followed by THE OWL KILLERS and THE GALLOWS CURSE, published by Penguin. Her latest historical thriller is FALCONS OF FIRE AND ICE. Karen is also one of six historical crime writers known as the Medieval Murderers, who together write an annual joint murder-mystery novel, including THE SACRED STONE, HILL OF BONES and THE FIRST MURDER.

Lisa Kessler is an award winning author of dark paranormal fiction. Her debut novel, NIGHT WALKER, won a San Diego Book Award for best Fantasy-Sci-fi-Horror, and was also a double finalist for the Book Seller’s Best for Best Paranormal and Best First Book. Her short stories have been published in print anthologies and magazines, and her vampire story, IMMORTAL BELOVED, was a finalist for a Bram Stoker award. Lisa lives in southern California with her incredibly fun husband and two amazing kids.

R. Thomas Riley is the author of the short story collection THE MONSTER WITHIN IDEA (2009-2011) published by Hugo Nominated Apex Publications and re-released as a Kindle exclusive in 2011. IF GOD DOESN’T SHOW (co-written with John Grover) will be published by Permuted Press and, July 2012. DIAPHANOUS (co-written with Roy C. Booth) is available now. THE DAY LUFBERRY WON IT ALL was adapted to short film by Frosty Moon Omnimedia in 2010.

  1. Posted on behalf of Ivonne Anderson:

    I think most would agree it’s important to maintain historical accuracy in our writing. I say “usually” because, depending on the story, you might want to take deliberate liberties with it, a la “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.”

    In most cases, though, accuracy lends credibility to a story, even if it’s not a historical novel. If a writer is sloppy with factual details, readers who catch the errors will take the whole story less seriously. And you can be fairly certain somebody out there is going to catch them.

    Sometimes it’s fun to skew the facts or speculate on a what-if alternative. But if we choose to go that route, we should make sure we let the readers know that’s our intention. Otherwise, they’ll consider it a farce even when it’s not supposed to be.

    Yvonne Anderson
    Fiction That Takes You Out of This World

  2. Unlike almost any other genre, readers often read historical crime and thrillers both for enjoyment, but also in the expectation they are going to ‘learn’ something about the period. I certainly first got excited about history through reading novels not school history lessons. So as authors I think that does give us a responsibility to research thoroughly and try to get the historical details as accurate as we can, while remembering that the first job of a novelist is not to teach history, but to tell a cracking good story.

    I personally love grubbing around in the dark corners unearthing snippets which are going to make that period come alive for readers, digging up historical details about food, occupations, beliefs and places as well as the broader historical setting.

    But the question of historical accuracy throws up a real dilemma when it comes to historical characters – how accurate should they be? We pretty much know that Vlad the Impaler wasn’t a bunny hugger, but can we be sure about the motives that lay behind his apparent cruelty? After all, some of his countrymen regard him as a hero rather than a villain. And what about the shadow characters of history or even those that just appear as names in town records? Does an author have the right to take a ‘real’ figure about which we know little and make him the murderer in a thriller?

    Authors can, of course, put in their historical notes that the character William in their thriller is recorded as being the priest at St. Mary’s church in 1300 and beyond that little more is known about him. But if they make William a serial poisoner in a novel, whatever they put in the notes, readers are always going to think of him of as a murderer. Is that fair? Does it matter? How accurate can any author ever be about long-dead historical characters, even about the ones we think we know well?

  3. Thriller writers must always shoot for accuracy. The technology, the science, the setting, the organizational structure of various agencies, weapons, aircraft, vehicles, spy toys, and almost anything you can think of must be well researched and presented accurately or the reader will lose his “willing suspension of disbelief.” And that’s the name of the game. Tell an unbelievable story in a believable fashion and load it with thrills. That, along with good writing and storytelling, is what places a book on the bestseller list.

    Since “getting it right” is of paramount importance in writing believable thrillers, your failure to do so can crash your entire story. And nowhere can such lack of attention to detail jump off the page more dramatically than in historical thrillers. You wouldn’t want to use DNA in 1890 as DNA profiling was not developed until 1984. You wouldn’t want to use the word “dude” or “bogus” in a tale set in the medieval period. You wouldn’t want your character performing some surgical procedure that hadn’t yet been invented at the time of your story. These things will pull the reader out of the world you have created faster than a hiccough.

    You have likely spent many hours reading and researching the time period and locale of your story. You have likely lived with your characters and in that world for many months while writing your manuscript. But failure to accurately depict just one or two facts can bring all of this research into question. After all, if one thing is wrong how can the other aspects of the story be trusted? I think the key here is to never assume anything. Always ask questions. And never be afraid to ask the necessary questions.

    Fortunately there are many online sources available for discovering the facts you need. No longer are long hours in the library necessary since most information on virtually any subject can be gleaned by a good Internet search in just a few minutes.

    Experts abound in every field and many can be easily located on the Internet. Once you’ve found the right expert, do not be afraid to ask your questions. Never underestimate the power of the word “writer.” The truth is that people like to talk about what they know so give them the opportunity. Be prepared and ask direct and pointed questions. Know what you need to know and get right to the point so you will not waste his or her time and you will find that most experts in virtually any field will go the extra mile to help you get your story right.

    The bottom line: if the facts in your thriller are wrong, it’s your fault. Don’t let that happen. Dig in and root out what you need to know. It’s actually fun.

  4. Nothing pulls me out of a story more than reading something that I know is incorrect. An author must strive to get the “details” right, especially if they’re writing a historical thriller. A well written historical thriller will transport a reader to that time and place, with just enough detail and knowledge to where a reader may actually learn something they hadn’t known previously. As D.P. Lye pointed out, the days of digging through a dusty library are pretty much gone, and the internet is the place to find out nearly anything you could possibly want to know or learn about a historical era. However, as the author, ultimately, you are the one that is responsible for what ends up in your novel, both the accuracies and the inaccuracies. Keep in mind, just because it’s on the internet, doesn’t make it true 🙂

    I’m currently working on a novel set in the 1940’s that takes place on Ocracoke island. The minor plot points will mention major world events during that time period, while the major plot points will deal with what happens on the island between a group of German spies, Chicago gangsters, and a group of young boys caught in the middle. What happens on the island may be fictional, but I’m using real events from that time period to add authenticity. I’ve done hours and hours of research about the island and the events surrounding it during the war, so I have to get those absolutely right.

    Playing around with historical events has been something that’s always facinated me. The ability as a fiction writer to ask “what if” certain world events had turned out differently is something many readers, myself included, seek out. For a previous novel, I researched historical figure William Quantrill. Much of what I included in the novel is based on historical fact, from the raid on Lawrence, KS, to other things he did for the Confederates. Quantrill eventually ended up in Kentucky where he was mortally wounded in a Union ambush in May 1865, aged 27. For my purposes, I “allowed” him to live past 1865. As a character, it was a fine line between what we know about what he did, and my fictional license, but I think it turned out pretty well.

    In the end, getting the details of the time period is key to showing your readers you know what you’re writing about, or rather, you knew who to talk to, to get it right.

    R. Thomas Riley

  5. Hi Roundtable!

    I really enjoy weaving true history into my paranormals because I think by adding real facts, it makes the paranormal elements feel more real. In the end, I hope it helps the reader to suspend their disbelief because many of the fact and deatils in the story are true.

    My Night Series introduces a new type of immortal called Night Walkers. THey’re descended from the Maya and the original 4 immortal brothers have lived for thousands of years. This backdrop gives me a long timeline of historical events to pull from while I weave my paranormal world into the series.

    Night Walker featured historical flashbacks to the west coast in the 1700’s before San Diego was born and I consulted books and chatted with a Kumeyaay historian to help make the historical facts as real as possible.

    My next release, Night Thief, is a prequel novella that takes place in 1840 in Paris. I really enjoyed weaving in layers of history with the fictional elements. It was an interesting time in French history when they welcomed King Louis Philippe I back to the throne with limited power, and he negotiated with England to bring Napolean’s remains back to France.

    I hope the true history in the stories helps to add to the realism of the paranormal fiction… That’s my goal! 🙂


    1. I don’t like historicals usually because of all the attention given to period details that I don’t care about.if an author is going to use historical detail I like a grain of truth but I don’t mind the author taken lots of liberties with the info, just don’t have someone from the 1800s saying ‘cool’.

      1. Yeah I’m not big on hearing all about the clothes and shoes they’re wearing… For me, it’s more about what’s happening, and how could I give it a paranormal twist. I think tying in real historical events definitely help with realism…

        THanks for commenting Sharon!

        Lisa 🙂

  6. Hello Roundtable,
    Yes, I think you are all absolutely right one wrong detail can really annoy a reader and we must strive to get the details historical details right. I remember being rather disconcerted years ago when reading a medieval novel set in England in which the peasants were digging potatoes.

    I approach my novels from the opposite direction to Lisa, in that I write historical thrillers with the supernatural woven in, because their world in the Middle Ages was woven through with a belief in the supernatural. Again, for me the challenge is also to make those elements authentically historical, reflecting beliefs that they would have had at the time.

    I think D.P. Lyle makes a good point about language. Writing in about the Middle Ages, you have to modernise language otherwise the novel would have to be written in the style of Chaucer, which would need translation. The question is how far do you modernism dialogue? Some modern-sounding words are surprising old, for example ‘sheriff’ and ‘posse’ come from the Middle Ages, but to many readers sound as if they belong in the Wild West.

    But sometimes using the authentic word does not always convey the sense of the emotion behind it. Having a character yelling ‘ningle’ at someone, may be historically accurate as term of insult, but today it doesn’t really convey the sense of hurt and humiliation a person might feel. So for me it’s a delicate balance between not using glaringly modern words like ‘dude’ as D.P. Lyle says, but at the same time making the reader feel this is a character who they can relate to.

  7. DP and Karen are dead-on about dialogue and word choice. Another thing is character names. Those need to fit the era too.

    I like Lisa’s thinking, that weaving actual history into paranormals helps make the stories believable — as well as more interesting! Moreover, some of the old legends and beliefs provide great story fodder.

    In my four-part sci-fi series, Gateway to Gannah (The Story in the Stars [Book 1] and Words in the Wind [Book 2] are currently available, with the next two still in the publishing pipeline), I incorporate a little actual earth history. Mostly, though, I make up my own extraterrestrial history, which is great fun. Sometimes I believe it myself!

    But whether you create fictional backstory or mine the archives for true history, you’re likely to come up with more juicy tidbits than you can use. It’s important to know these facts as we build our story around them, but we should realize the reader doesn’t need every detail. Save the extraneous ones for another book. Or three.

    1. I love it Yvonne!!! I’ve never thought of using history in futuristic Sci-Fi… I bet that makes your sci-fi world more relatable for the reader too! 🙂


  8. I so agree with you Yvonne about ancients myths and legends being such great inspiration for novels. I use them in all of my historical novels. In ‘Falcons of Fire and Ice’ I had great fun weaving in the ancient legend of the draugr or nightstalker and was fasinated when I discovered that people were still recording encounters with them as late as the 19th Century. I couldn’t write without using legend and myth because its as much part of history as clothes and food.

    And I love your idea about inventing a history for your Sci Fi books – that must be huge fun to do. Do you create timelines etc. to keep the details straight between all the novels? What a great job as a writer to create a world’s history. I feel rather envious of all that power.

    1. (Chuckling)… Yes, it’s a power trip to write a world’s history! I create both legends and myth as well as “factual” history. I can’t decide which is more fun.

      Agreed, it can be tricky to keep details straight throughout the series. So far the history hasn’t caused me much confusion (it’s usually other details that I struggle with), but I do keep notes. I’m grateful to my sharp-eyed critique partners, though. Recently they caught me in some errors concerning historical facts that I knew, but for some reason typed wrong. I guess my mind had already moved onto something else and I wasn’t paying attention to what my fingers were typing.

  9. Hi Sharon, you make a really good point about too much historical detail spoiling a good story. There is nothing worse than feeling you are being force-fed a history lesson or the author is trying to cram in everything they learned about the period. The period is just the background setting just as a modern setting would be. It’s like reading a modern crime novel, you don’t want to get destracted from the plot by pages of detail about how they carry our forensic lab tests test-tube by test-tube.

    1. Good point Karen! It’s not just historicals… Some police procedurals can go overboard into DNA testing etc, and the reader is left skimming to get back to the story.

      It’s a thin tightrope we fiction writers walk… 🙂


  10. I was really interested in your comment, R. Thomas, about having written about the ‘real’ historical character, William Quantrill and changing the date and presumably circumstances of his death. I remember reading that ‘The Day of the Jackal’ was intially turned down by publishers because they said everyone knew the French President hadn’t been assassinated. I know ‘what if’ historicals have taken off since then, with ideas like ‘what if Hitler had won the war’ etc. But I just wondered if you’d had any feedback from readers on the idea of changing of Quantrill’s death. As a thriller writer, did you find using a real character as main character constraining or did it help with the plotting and structure?

    1. Karen,

      Thanks for the question. A few readers are avid history buffs, especially for the time period the novel takes place (Civil War era). I received quite a lot of feedback from them regarding the historical facts I used with Quantrill as a character and the liberties I took with his life.

      Allow me to quote from a review, “First and foremost, let me say that layering a story about the conflict between angels, both fallen and otherwise, over the historical backdrop of the American Civil War was genius. The comparison between the two is never mention, but used quite well in subtext. Warring angels referring to each other as brother, the knowledge that their war did nothing more than destroy their home, the fact that the reason for fighting is largely forgotten in the midst of the fight and the humanization of those who are ostensibly the most evil are all used to great effect without smacking the reader in the face with it.”

      I chose that era for those very specific reasons and the above reviewer hit upon it nicely. To be clear, the novel is not about the Civil War, persay, but the time period and the events happening ‘off the page’ are what allowed the story to have a certain historical feel. Quantrill as a historical figure was a quite nasty individual and perpetrated some very heinous acts, along with his Raiders during the Civil War. Those incidents are portrayed accurately in the book, while at the same time, I took certain “liberties” as to the motives for his raids and acts of violence.


  11. Thomas, thank you so much for your reply. It sounds like a really fascinating and original novel. I imagine that the events of the Civil War must be so well known and so many novels written about it, it’s hard to find a new angle, but it sounds as if you’ve certainly succeeded. Fantastic review too.

    A lot of novels and non-fiction had been written about the Black Death in England, but most of them were written from the stand-point of people living in villages and town awaiting the approach of the plague. In ‘Company of Liars’, I set a thriller against a background of travellers shut out of the villages and forced onto the road trying to stay one step ahead of it. I think just by taking a new angle you can get readers to re-examine the issues and problems with fresh eyes. Your idea of the angels sounds a brilliant way to do this.

    Quantrill must have been a really interesting character to work with. The nastier ones always are, aren’t they? Did you feel you understood him better by the end?

    I find one of the most enjoyable parts of writing is to try to get inside the head of a violent or bulling characters to understand their motives and what makes them act the way that they do. I tend to make extensive notes on the backstory of my characters and their early life before their appearance in the novels. Often their motives and deep hang-ups take me by surprise when I’m writing as if the character has suddenly revealed something to me about themselves that I really wasn’t expecting. Do any of you find this?

  12. This is all fascinating.

    However, I have been wondering what the authors above would do, if their research threw up something which went against the grain of accepted belief about the language, education or social customs of the historical era they were writing about?

    I wrote my debut historical novel after discovering that my husband’s Regency ancestor was convicted of Northumberland’s most notorious robbery. Our initial research was done from a genealogical point of view. We tracked down thirty four A3 pages of court case notes from the National Archives and numerous newspaper reports.

    These official court documents were transcripts of the actual language used by dozens of real people involved in the court case. Mostly, the language was bland and uninspiring. There was also the repeated use of the adverb ‘burglariously’ (which I can’t pronounce – never mind expect my readers to use comfortably.) In terms of the language of my novel, I eventually spiced it up and opted for a form of ‘Bygonese’ (a term invented by David Mitchell in the Preface of his book ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.’) Do other authors feel that they have done the same? Sacrificed reality – both the bizarre and the bland – to create their own their own form of English for their historical novels?

    In addition to this, the court case documents revealed that our Regency convict – and his brothers – were literate and drank brandy rather than ale. Because of the controversial nature of Jamie’s conviction, a subscription was raised for his appeal against the death sentence and an eighteen penny pamphlet was written to raise money. This was sold in twelve – yes, twelve – different bookshops across the North East of England in 1810. All of this belies the stereotypical image which history normally presents us with: that the rural population of early nineteenth century England were mostly illiterate ale drinkers.

    I also stumbled across some fascinating information about the Detective service run by Bow Street in London and charged out to wealthy individuals in the provinces. I never realised we had a Detective service as far back as 1810; I had always assumed this was set up, alongside our official police force in 1829 by Sir Robert Peel.

    Apart from the ‘burglariously’ example, when I wrote ‘Catching the Eagle,’ I stuck faithfully to what I had uncovered. This was partly because I have a cupboard-full of evidence to back me up, but also because I am a bloody-minded Yorkshire woman who prefers to call a spade a spade. However, my presentation of the high level of literacy in Regency England, the brandy drinking and the early detectives of the nineteenth century, have all been challenged by skeptical readers on several occasions.

    I am curious about how the authors in this disussion would treat controversial historical evidence if they uncovered it? Present it – warts and all? Tone it down to avoid challenges? Or stick to the conventional way of thinking?

    Karen Charlton

  13. Great stuff, Karen!

    I find this particularly interesting because a writer friend’s current WIP involves the very Bow Street Runners you mentioned.

    In answer to your question about how I’d treat controversial historical evidence, it would probably depend entirely on the story and the controversy. I would think, though, that I would keep my story as factual as possible; it goes against my grain to deliberately perpetuate a myth.

    If the facts of my story contradict the usual viewpoint, I might add an Author’s Note to explain where I’m coming from. People who read historicals are usually interested in history, and some might appreciate having this new perspective opened up for them.

  14. Ah, yes – the importance of ‘Author’s Notes.’ I read a fascinating article recently which strongly recommended including them in the back of historical novels. Apparently, readers love them. I took this advice on board for my second novel – which is a spin-off series about those same Regency detectives. LOL I hope your friend and I don’t flood the market with our early nineteenth century policemen! You will have to ask him/her to get in touch, I would love to compare notes. 🙂

    Best wishes
    Karen Charlton

    1. Thanks, Karen, I’ll give her your email address! But don’t be surprised if you don’t hear from her right away. She and her family are preparing to move, and you probably know what sort of chaos that entails. But when she gets a chance, she might enjoy a virtual visit with you!

  15. Hi Karen,
    The details you uncovered about both about your husband’s ancestor and the regency period are really fascinating. As Yvonne says it is important to help dispel these misconceptions about a period. I love to include details such as someone having a tooth drilled and filled in the Middle Ages, because I have to confess at school I came away with the idea that the only dentistry done in medieval times was to pull teeth out.

    I tend to hold back a little on the language though. It would be correct to use the phrase ‘faster than a speeding bullet’ in the Middle Ages. (Laying aside the fact that this a cliché so, of course, authors would never use it!) But the word ‘bullet’ was in use long before the invention of guns, because it meant any object propelled from a sling or catapult. But even though it would be technically correct, I wouldn’t use it in medieval novel, because I know it would make too many readers think ‘she’s got that wrong.’ It’s not worth putting readers off a book simply for an unimportant word. So, I can understand why you went for different word, Karen.

    Did you feel that in writing about this person you had given him a chance to tell his side of the story after all these years? I write about characters on the margins of society and feel that even though many of my characters are not real figures from history in quite the way yours was, that I am in a sense giving a voice to people who lived and died unremembered. The unknown solider effect.

  16. Yes, very much. Jamie Charlton’s conviction was extremely controversial at the time, and as I hinted above there was huge outcry in Newcastle and the North East which led to a subsciption being raised for his appeal. Because he was an ancestor, it was important on a personal level to tell this story, too – hubby would have pushed for a posthumous pardon if he could have got one!

    However, I also felt as a writer – as you do – that I was giving a voice to a large class of people on the margins of society in the early nineteenth century. Agricultural labourers, like the Charlton brothers, made up the bulk of the working population before the industrial revolution exploded across our nation. Yet, with the possible exception of Thomas Hardy, IMHO most authors tend to ignore them and their lives, except for use as comic relief. It is my experience (and please shoot me down in flames if I have got this wrong) that most novels set in the Regency period use the middle-class or the aristocratic as their main characters, and they are predominantly town dwellers. I feel that the day-to-day triumphs and tragedies of the rural farm workers are poorly represented in literature.

    Your comment about the word bullet was interesting. I recently wrote a scene where shots were fired from pistols at a marauding gang of highway men, and had to later remove the word ‘bullet’ and replace it with ‘ball.’ It is so easy to slip up with a single word, isn’t it? It wasn’t until the final proof-read of my first novel, that I discovered that ‘wallpaper’ and ‘wardrobe’ were not words in common usage in 1810; these were hastily replaced.

  17. One thing is for sure. You did a lot of study on this. It’s either that or you simply have the knowledge. This really is impressive.

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