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Write On! Features: From Fact to Fiction – The Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction by Mark Butterworth

by Mark Butterworth

One of the most appealing and enduring literary genres is historical fiction. Readers enjoy the drama of stories that are set in a recognisable context, time and place, with dramatic characters who play out the events. But it is a truth, (almost) universally accepted, that there is a lot of debate as to what constitutes ‘historical fiction.’ Opinions are formed by reference to how far back a story should be set (50 years or more is often cited), the historical accuracy of the events and the characters portrayed.

Most people would agree that Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall relates to people known in history and, even though the story includes many completely fictional characters and events, it’s clearly masterful historical fiction. But an adventure, romance and intrigue series of stories such as the gripping Poldark saga probably would not in my view qualify as historical fiction, as the link with true events (the perils of tin mining and smuggling in the 18th and 19th centuries) although very enjoyable to read, is too tenuous.

Writing about events and relationships so long ago requires thorough research by the author with more than a touch of care to make sure the source material used is reliable and verified. Sometimes the  only ‘facts’ available are those interpreted by another writer many years (or centuries!) after the events, giving questionable credibility to the history behind the fiction. It’s my view that the longer the period of time that has passed, the greater the distance the writer should stand back from the historical ‘facts’ and rely on creative story telling.

My first two books published were non-fiction business books where factual accuracy is all; there can be no room for errors or assumptions. But my debut novel, The Pearl River, is based on true events, experienced by a squadron of Spitfires operating in Singapore and Hong Kong in the late 1940s. It’s a story of two pilots and their relationship with the mysterious and beautiful Hannah Shaw. The characters are entirely fictional, but I was able to stay close to the actual events as my father served as a pilot with the squadron at the time and I inherited a box full of photographs, newspaper cuttings and letters upon which to build the story. Contemporary newspaper reports are an excellent source, but even these should be treated with care, as those in my box from the days after the main action in Hong Kong were inaccurate, as my father’s notations on the cuttings proved, where he made factual corrections to the reports.

To give the true sense of place, it’s important that the author knows or visits the locations where a novel is featured, whenever possible. For The Pearl River, I’d travelled to both Singapore and Hong Kong half a dozen times and believe my feel for these places lends authenticity to the book.

An author must allow for changing norms and cultures; the attitudes towards the colonial position of Great Britain are very different nowadays and the challenge for an author arises as to whether you use the language and idioms of the day, or ‘translate’ to modern, acceptable English. For me, something is lost in the tone of the book if colloquialisms and phraseology of current times are used in a historical context. For example, the modern greeting of, “Hi, y’alright?” instead of, “Good morning” would look very false for a story set in Victorian times, or even in the 1940s and 50s, where my books are set. There is also the sensitive issue of period dialogue, where use of inflections and terminology of the place and time can bring criticism; for example, when citing a British diner in a Chinese restaurant in the 1940s who may have said to a waiter, “Come here, boy,” not meaning any prejudicial inference. This would not be the case these days. The decision on which  terminology to use rests with the author.

For the sequel, The Berlin Assignment, a Cold War thriller set in 1952, there’s no shortage of documentation, images and artifacts from the period. Although I’d already visited Berlin three times before starting the book, I felt it was important to go again, walking the streets my characters walk and absorb the atmosphere of that strangely alluring city.  I was also able to visit museums in what was the Russian sector of East Berlin and take a guided tour of the now disused Templehof airport, so redolent of the pre-war rise of the Nazis and post-war tension between the superpowers. Part of the fun of writing historical fiction is that you get to travel!

The internet, of course, is an excellent way to search for details of the history of the period of time or the events being used as the backdrop to the story. We all know of the warnings about the accuracy, or otherwise, of Wikipedia, but I find it’s a very helpful tool and starting point to direct your research to other, possibly more creditable sources.

Perhaps my favourite aspect of research is speaking to the people who were there, if you can, assuming the time period is within say, 50 years. Sometimes sources can provide historical accuracy to such matters as police procedures, military structures, colonial government practices or medical matters. For both of my 1940s and 50s books, meeting with ex-RAF servicemen was hugely valuable, as they related the culture and behavioural norms between officers and other ranks. I also had help from archivists and historians from the RAF Museum at Hendon and the Imperial War Museum Duxford, as well as other museums.

If a historical fiction novel slavishly cites true events, it soon tips the balance to become that awkward format of a non-fiction book that is overlaid with a narration by a fictional character. To be avoided! (A good friend of mine publishes non-fiction military books and stays true to the task.) It would be easy to ‘glamourise’ the text with hearsay or creative writing, enhancing the personal characteristics of the players in the history in an attempt to sensationalise the text.

But it’s also within the author’s gift to create a few ‘facts’ of one’s own, so long as they remain in context and are reasonable interpretations of what was likely to happen. Again, the time distance is important here. Who’s to say Queen Boadicea didn’t live a peaceful life, fell into an unrequited love affair with a Roman General, felt rejected and this drove the rebellion by the Iceni tribe? The love affair is fiction. The rise of the Iceni tribe is historical. Now I think of it, it would make a great story! One of our greatest naval history authors is Patrick O’Brian (the Captain Jack Aubrey series, set in the time of Nelson and the Napoleonic wars), where the technical details of the ships, sails and crew are brilliantly detailed, but the storylines are fictional, and all the better for it. O’Brian is said to have based Aubrey on at least two real-life naval commanders, thereby keeping the historical fiction integrity.

Certain periods in history have strong followings and your readers may have a very detailed knowledge of the time and the main characters. I believe an author can engage with readers with new perspectives, intriguing viewpoints and exciting actions and events in the history. Writing is, of course, great fun and an author should also get pleasure from reading his or her own work, and asking the question: “Will my readers find this story as exciting and gripping as I do?” It’s our job to overcome the challenges and write engaging historical fiction that absorbs readers and feeds their own imaginations.


Mark Butterworth has had two non-fiction business books published and his debut historical fiction novel, The Pearl River, featuring Adam Devon, was published in 2023 by Troubador. Its sequel, The Berlin Assignment was published by The Book Guild in February 2024. He’s also written a modern romance, The Ffryes Affair, to be published later this year and is currently writing the third in the Adam Devon trilogy. Mark was born in London and now lives in Chelmsford, Essex. He has two grown-up daughters and a Springer Spaniel called Arthur.

Connect with Mark at his website:


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It's a truth (almost) universally accepted, that there's a lot of debate as to what constitutes 'historical fiction.'