Incorporating Historical Figures Into A Narrative

Blogging has been a little less frequent of late. I’m working hard on A Storm Hits Valparaíso and that’s taking up most of my free time.

If you are after the usual programming, I have a guest post up on Joe Konrath’s blog called I Can’t Afford A Publishing Deal. For the rest of you, it’s been a while since I showed you what I was working on and Sunday seems perfect for that.

Writers of historical fiction face some unique challenges. We must “build” an authentic world as backdrop for the story, in a similar way that science fiction and fantasy writers do, except we don’t start from scratch – we have the historical record to draw from.

This, however, can be both a blessing and a millstone. You get a framework of sorts for your narrative for free, but it can also become a crutch. In fact, that same framework which gave you a leg-up at the start can become limiting and, if you are not careful, suffocating.

Another pitfall which historical writers must navigate is authenticity. Readers of historical fiction are extremely demanding (in the best possible sense). If you have a South American character eating a mango, when they didn’t appear in that continent until the 1850s, they will know.

You must get all these details right. Anachronisms can jerk the reader out of the story as badly as anything else, rendering the contract void between writer and reader where they agree to suspend a certain amount of disbelief as long as you deliver on the story side. If you have something questionable in your narrative, they will start to suspect everything and then you start to lose them.

Some writers prefer to steer clear of famous historical figures. As they are well-known, everyone can approach your story with their own prejudices. Also, the sheer mass of available information can leave you little room to sketch out your own picture and presents difficulties in shoehorning these figures into your own narrative.

Personally, I prefer “discovering” figures who were famous in their day, but are less known now. While I was researching A Storm Hits Valparaíso, I came across the remarkable career of Lord Thomas Cochrane, whom you may have seen in my preview of Chapter 2.

In his heyday, he was the most famous seaman in Britain, and it’s easy to see why. He was a true larger-than-life character, continually involved in the most improbable comic-book adventures, only some of which appear in my book.

In fact, I had to cut some of his escapades as they were stretching the credulity of the reader. There really is no way for the writer to intrude and say: no, this really happened. And there is no way to hang a sign from a character’s neck saying “real historical figure.”

Either it works in the story, or it doesn’t, and sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. I was loathe to chop Cochrane’s adventures altogether though, and was able to work some of them in as back-story through dialogue in the chapter below. That can be a neat solution for all sorts of reasons, not least that you can cover a lot of ground in a short space of time – although you have to handle it delicately so it doesn’t seem you are just dumping info through having one character make a speech.

That wasn’t the trickiest part of this chapter to write, though. It was the exchange in the second half of the chapter (with the clerk) that took innumerable attempts before I was happy with it. It was one of those scenes that is simple to visualize but inexplicably difficult to get down on paper.

As always, none of the below has been edited yet, so I’m sure that there are errors scattered throughout, my commas have gone wandering (as usual), and that it needs a little cleaning up and tightening here and there.

This chapter takes place about a fifth of the way through the book, but I think it works okay as a standalone read. It’s about the tamest adventure he gets up to throughout the novel – you’ll have to wait for the book for the really good stuff – but I think it gives you an insight as to his character.

Chapter Fourteen—The Proctor and the Marshall

The stagecoach driver opened the door. “Lord Cochrane, gentlemen, we have arrived at Falmouth.”

“Excellent work, young man.” Cochrane descended from the carriage, reached into his pocket and took out several coins. “This is what we agreed, and here is a little extra for making good time. Make sure these horses get a good rest before you return to London. That was quite a clip you were going at.”

“Thank you, sir, very generous of you. Thank you, gentlemen.” He nodded at Cochrane’s three companions as they emerged from the carriage. “I’ll fetch your bags.”

“Smith, Jeffries, help the boy.”

The driver climbed on top of the stagecoach and untied the ropes holding the bags. Smith and Jeffries offloaded them to a waiting porter. When finished, the driver clambered back into his seat, doffed his cap, cracked the reins, and trotted away.

“Now lads,” said Cochrane, “let’s find this boat.”

“Sir?” said Lieutenant Bissel. “If you don’t mind me asking, where are we going exactly?”

“The Mediterranean,” said Cochrane, with a mischievous smile.

“But, Captain, sorry to keep pestering you. I thought you didn’t have a command.”

“You’re right Bissel, I don’t.” Cochrane was still smiling.

“Sir, you’re not planning to…” Lieutenant Bissel lowered his voice “…you’re not planning to steal one?”

“Don’t worry, everything is above board. We will be travelling in my private yacht. Look, there she is boys.” Cochrane pointed at a small boat. “The Julie.”


“Bissel, look, all of you, come closer. Now listen, no more Captain, a plain Sir will do, at least until we get onto the boat. I’m travelling as an M.P., not as an officer.” Cochrane looked over the three men. “You Bissel, can be my Permanent Undersecretary.” The other two smirked. “Smith and Jeffries, you can be his Parliamentary Assistants. When we’re at sea, I’ll explain the plan, but I want to get out of the harbor without any fuss. Understood?”

“Aye Captain… I mean, yes, sir.”

Cochrane took one cabin and retired for the night immediately. Bissel, Smith and Jeffries were to share the other, but stayed up on deck drinking rum, mulling over their last battle in The Basque Roads, and despairing at the subsequent court martial.

“We could have ended the war there and then, but Gambier was too afraid to get his hands dirty,” insisted Smith, handing the bottle to his left.

Bissel took a swig. “The Captain had no chance at the trial. Half the judges were Gambier’s friends.”

“Well at least the public are on his side,” said Smith.

“I wonder if he should have held his tongue,” said Jeffries, taking the bottle.

“The Captain would never do that,” said Bissel. “And how is anything supposed to change if everyone holds their tongue?”

“The newspapers have been clamoring for the Admiralty to give him another command, talking up his record,” said Jeffries.

“I don’t know if that will help,” said Bissel.

There was silence until Jeffries turned to Bissel, seeking to change the mood. “You have been with the Captain some time now, Lieutenant, you must have some stories.”

“You can drop the Lieutenant for now.” Bissel looked out to the horizon. “Captain Cochrane is the most able officer I have ever served under. That’s part of the reason I’ve been holding out. I’ve been hoping he would get another command so I could serve under him again.”

“Go on,” said Smith. “Tell us a story.”

“All right.” Bissel cleared his throat. “I remember one time… my word, this is about ten years ago now. He was only twenty-four or twenty-five then, but just as mad. It was his first command, a small brig, the Speedy. We had taken damage from a Spanish frigate that wouldn’t give up the chase. At night we managed to give them the slip. We pulled into a small cove, thinking the Captain was going to order some repairs. Instead, he had half the crew painting the ship.”


“Aye, we had a hole in the stern the size of an ox, but he wanted the ship painted like a Dutch neutral. After a few basic repairs, we hit the open sea, heading straight for Plymouth. Of course, the Spanish frigate appears, bearing down on us, not even bothering with any grape shots, knowing our guns can’t trouble her.”

“She was going to board you?”

“We had neutral colors, but they weren’t taking any chances. But, when she got close, the Captain hoisted the yellow quarantine flag!” The three men laughed. “She couldn’t turn around quick enough!”

“I’d say you got a few funny looks at Plymouth.”

“Certainly did. He flew the Dutch flag the whole way in, to make sure we would have an escort, as he put it, ‘like returning heroes’.”

“Go on, give us another, we still have half a bottle left.”

Bissel smiled. “A few years later, the Captain was given the Pallas, a frigate almost seven hundred ton. She had thirty-eight guns and a crew of over two hundred. They were good days. In just a few weeks we had taken prizes worth over one hundred thousand pounds.” Smith let out a low whistle. “But, on our way home from the Azores, we were surprised by three French. With their larger sail, we knew they could catch up in an instant. It was a dark, heavy sea, a strong starboard wind, and the Captain piled on the sail, but starts tacking, slowing us down. Pretty soon, two of the French were within a half-mile either side, the third a little further off, all preparing to fire. The Captain gave the order: every sail on the Pallas was hauled down.”

“Hauled down?” said Smith. “At that speed?”

“Wait,” said Bissel, smiling. “At the same time, her helm was swung around to take her across the path of the storm.”

“That could snap the ship in two,” said Smith.

“If we were any larger, it would have,” said Bissel. “The French shot past, our hull creaking like it’s going to rip apart. We hoisted sail again, quick smart, speeding off in the opposite direction at thirteen knots. The French took several miles to change course, they were too big to pull that stunt.”

“And you got clean away?” said Jeffries.

“Clean away,” said Bissel.

“A hundred thousand pounds,” said Smith laughing.  “No wonder you are so loyal to the Captain.”

“Well,” said Bissel, “prizes aren’t what they used to be.”

A voice came from behind them, “…and that’s the reason for this mission.” Cochrane had come up on deck as they were talking. The men made to stand, but Cochrane waved them down. “I’m sorry for the subterfuge, but as will become clear, it was necessary. Now that we are safely at sea, it’s time to let you know where we are going: Malta.”


“This is a somewhat unorthodox mission and, as you may have guessed, not one sanctioned by the Admiralty, but you’ll get full pay from my own pocket.” The men looked surprised.

“Let me explain. You may have noticed we haven’t been getting our fair share of booty lately. And it’s not just our crew; every sailor in the Navy will tell you the same thing. I know some like to joke that it’s just the Captain keeping more for himself, but I assure you my share is falling too.”

“Why is that sir?” asked Bissel.

“It’s complicated, but the answer lies in Malta. You see, tradition declares the sharing of prizes we capture is arbitrated by a neutral party, the Prize Court in Malta, presided over by two men, the Marshall and the Proctor. I have information that something is amiss, that these men may be keeping an unfair portion of what is rightfully ours.”

“How can they get away with this?” said Bissel.

“Well the two of them, the Proctor and the Marshall, charge fees for deliberating on each case and for deciding the share each crewman gets. The problem is, their fees for consulting each other have risen sharply. It seems they find it harder and harder to agree, at a great cost to us and every other seaman in Britain.” Cochrane smiled. “I just want to convince them to get along a little better. Do I have your backing?”

“Aye, Captain.”


Cochrane had changed out of his civilian clothes into his full naval uniform, and stood outside the Prize Court in Valetta, alone. There were several Navy vessels in harbor; Cochrane had sent Lieutenant Bissel to inform them of what he was doing, knowing he would have their support if anything went awry. As a precaution, he ordered Smith and Jeffries to stay close to the yacht, in case he needed to leave in a hurry.

He entered the reception of the Court where he saw a clerk behind high counter, making notes in a ledger. Cochrane waited for a moment, and without looking up, the clerk spoke. “Can I help you?”

“Perhaps you can if you get your nose out of that book.”

The clerk looked up, a little embarrassed when he saw the Captain’s insignia. “Apologies, sir. How may I be of service?”

“I need to make an appointment to see the Marshall and the Proctor as a matter of urgency.”

“Of course. The Marshall and the Proctor are meeting each other as we speak, that should take all day. However, they should be free after lunch tomorrow. I’ll make an appointment for you to see Mr. Jackson at two o’clock, and the Marshall at four o’clock.”

Cochrane went to leave but turned back to the clerk. “I’m sorry, I appear to have gotten mixed up. Can you give me those times again?”

“Of course. You are meeting the Proctor at two o’clock and, yes, Mr. Jackson at four o’clock.”

“I thought I was meeting Mr. Jackson at two o’clock.”

“You are.”

“Forgive me. And at four o’clock?”

“Mr. Jackson also.”

“Look, I need to see both the Proctor and the Marshall,” said Cochrane, getting a little annoyed.

“Mr. Jackson is the Proctor and the Marshall.”

“He holds both offices?”

“Yes,” said the clerk, “a suitable replacement for the late Marshall, has not yet been found.”

“And I suppose Mr. Jackson is in charge of finding this replacement.”

“Well, he is the ranking official in the Prize Court.”

“And he can’t see me now because he is busy consulting himself?” Cochrane smiled. “Ingenious. Can you show me where his fees are displayed?”

“I’m not sure we have a copy of the fees here.”

“A copy of the Prize Court’s fees must be publicly displayed by Order of the House of Commons, of which I am a member. I demand to see it.”

“I’m afraid it is under review.”

“Is it now?”

“Yes. In fact, that is why they are meeting today.”

“Let me make sure I’ve got this right. Mr. Jackson has called a meeting with himself to see if he is going to increase the amount he is charging himself for such meetings.”

“If you want to put it like that sir, but I assure you everything is above board.”

“We shall see. Where is this meeting taking place?”

“I’m afraid I’m not aware.

“Where is Mr. Jackson’s office?”

“Which one?” said the clerk.

“Either!” Cochrane thumped his fist on the desk. He noticed the clerk’s eyes flicker to the large wooden doors to his right. Cochrane moved towards the door.

“I’m afraid you cannot enter Mr. Jackson’s office without his permission.”

“Which one?” said Cochrane, smiling. He entered, shutting the door behind him before the clerk could scurry around from behind his desk. Grabbing a chair, he tilted it under the door-handle and looked around. He was in a short corridor, with two doors leading off it, and a smaller door at the very end. The first two doors led to offices and a quick scan of both revealed little. The Proctor and the Marshall agreed on one thing: neatness. Cochrane couldn’t find the list of charges anywhere. The only item of interest was a large scroll which seemed to contain a list of Mr. Jackson’s charges on a recent case. He placed it inside his trousers and went for the last door. To his disappointment, it was just the lavatory. However, on the back of the door, he found a piece of paper pinned up: the list of fees. He stuffed it inside his shirt and closed the door, just as two guards burst into the corridor. The clerk and a small, officious man followed behind. “That’s him, Mr. Jackson.”

Mr. Jackson approached Cochrane, who was restrained by the two guards. “Captain Cochrane, you have been found in contempt of court.”

“Nonsense,” said Cochrane. “How could I have offended the court when it isn’t even in session?”

“Take him away.”

“Can I ask one thing Mr. Jackson?” The guards paused. “Are you giving this order as the Proctor or the Marshall?”

Mr. Jackson stamped his foot. “Take him away!”


Cochrane heard footsteps approaching as he took the package through the small, barred window. He untied the makeshift rope from the iron bar, putting it under his bed along with the package, then grabbed the chair from on top of the bed, replacing it at the desk just as the door creaked open. The guard entered the room, his lamp bouncing shadows on either side. “Lord Cochrane, you are going to get me in trouble with all this behavior.”

“I would never dream of it. I’m sorry if my stumbling around woke you, I couldn’t find my chamber-pot in the dark. I shall endeavor to be quieter. Please accept my apologies.”

“Lord Cochrane, I have even less interest in guarding you than you have in remaining in captivity. All I ask is that you play by the rules. Now, hand over the contraband.” Cochrane said nothing. “Please, I don’t want to subject you to the indignity of a search, hand it over and the matter will be forgotten about.”

“Well, if you must know, it’s merely a bottle of scotch which I intended to share with you, so that we could civilize this unfortunate situation we find ourselves in.”

“Let me see it.” Cochrane reached for the package under the bed, removed the wrapping, and handed it over. The guard took a close look at the label. “This is indeed a fine bottle.” He smiled. “I’ll fetch some glasses.”

Three hours later, the bottle of scotch was empty, and the guard was asleep at his desk. Cochrane removed a loose brick from the wall and took out a hidden file. He worked as noiselessly as possible, constantly fearing the sawing would awaken his guard. He had been secretly filing away for three nights now, but within a half-hour he was done. Taking his bed-sheets, he tore them into long strips, tying them end to end. As he fastened this makeshift rope to the one remaining intact bar, he heard the guard awakening. He couldn’t hide his subterfuge this time. Tossing the rope out the window, Cochrane pulled himself through the gap in the bars.

A shout came from inside his cell. “Cochrane?”

He gave the rope a sharp tug. It seemed like it would hold his weight. Pressing the soles of his feet against the outside wall, he began lowering himself down.

Cochrane tried not to look down; he knew the drop was about twenty feet, onto stone cobbles. The guard was shouting, it wouldn’t be long before he called for help. He quickened his pace. As he made his way backwards down the wall, he could feel the knots in the sheets loosening. Cochrane dropped the last eight feet onto the street and made for the harbor.

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

36 Replies to “Incorporating Historical Figures Into A Narrative”

        1. Heh.

          It’s kind of hard picking out chapters that won’t act as spoilers as most of my chapters are quite plot-heavy and I know some readers will get annoyed if something important is revealed before they read it properly. This one is pretty much one entire sub-plot, though, so I should be safe from pitchforkery.

  1. Wonderful! I think you’ve done a great job using historical exploits to build character. The episodes you chose to have Bissel relate not only gave some great historical context for the character, but demonstrated Cochrane’s behavior in harrowing situations. It makes for a richer background for the next adventure in Malta. Nicely done.

    I agree that using historical characters that are not as well known now is less daunting than using those that are more famous. I used a 15th century Italian humanist philosopher in A Hidden Fire, and that was nerve-wracking enough. I can’t imagine trying to use anyone better known.

    I also write in the paranormal realm, where origins can be more mysterious. One of my favorite things to do is tease readers about who a character might be without ever confirming or denying it. With historical fiction, of course, that’s not as easy to do. 🙂

    1. Well, one of the other main characters in this novel is José de San Martín who isn’t very well known in North America or (most of) Europe, but he is extremely well-known in Latin America and is Argentina’s “Founding Father” and national hero. So there is a little of that pressure there – I have some friends in Buenos Aires!

  2. I hope this is helpful. You lost me at the start of this, because you do rather give the impression that the same team of horses had come all the way from London to Falmouth, an extremely uncomfortable journey of several days’ duration. Stage-coaches were so called because they travelled in stages, with frequent changes of horse and occasional changes of driver. The horses went out 10-15 miles and back the same distance later that day. At the height of the stagecoach boom, around 1825 when most main roads were macadamed, they made the giddy speed of 10 miles an hour. Lord Cochrane would probably not have been seen dead in one (they were slathered with advertising). He would have gone from London to Falmouth either around the coast by fast cutter (just as practical) or in a post-chaise, which was quick but expensive; or if all else failed, in the Mail, which had a lot more class than the stage, and an armed guard, and kept time properly. (Loving your book on self-publishing though – I’m revising my whole professional life at the moment and it’s timely.)

    1. Hi Hannah,

      That is helpful, thank you. As soon as I wrote that bit on anachronisms, I knew that there would be one in my chapter, and thank you for elucidating my point perfectly 🙂

      I seem to remember from my research that it was a post-chaise they traveled in – although I will have to check – and I will amend accordingly. Luckily, only a minor adjustment will be required. Travel times is a tough one for historical writers, and we often trip up here.


  3. You are a master of dialog, David. And you are so brave to post it pre-edited! Please post more soon.

    I also have a fondness for unearthing forgotten historic characters and you’ve pointed out all the difficulties of doing so. Instead of cutting out the most unbelievable (and most interesting) parts, I decided to include a page on my blog where I provide links to back up the history behind the not-so-well-known facts. Mentioning this in the forward, allows the reader to have faith in your plausibility, and after they’ve read, they can research it more. Well, I’ve just launched so I’ve yet to see if this pleases my readers.

    As to double-checking things you might have left up to your own imagination, I’ve found that requesting (begging) experts in those eras to beta read before publishing, is worthwhile to be sure to catch all those inaccurate flubs. It gives you wonderful confidence when experts tell you, you’ve done your homework 🙂

    1. When I started writing this book (over five years ago now), dialog was by far the hardest to write. I just read lots and lots and lots of books with great dialogue, analyzed real speech patterns, noted down bits of conversations I overheard – but it still needs lots of work on each draft (and my editor then has to work on it again). It’s really tricky but, at this point, I’m a little more comfortable with it. On my first draft, I avoided many conversations and skipped over them which led to plenty of awful telling instead of showing sections. Each succeeding draft I’ve spotted more of those and turned them into dialog. They breed like rabbits!

  4. Good post, David, and I fully support your idea of using what I call a “secondary historical character”. That’s something I’ve done too. Congrats also for this chapter: it has an excellent pace and the dialog is highly believable. The error about traveling time and method is just a glitch – easy to fix but I think that your commenter who suggested to get an historical expert to beta read your ms is spot on. That’s what I did for my Trilogy Fear of the Past (takes place in Sicily and uses a lot of secondary historical characters – to get the language right and period details I was lucky to get the help of a History Professor at the University of Catania)

    Of course, to go through the filter of experts takes time but it’s well worth it because you feel more confident in finalizing your ms!

    1. I had an excellent beta reader who helped a lot with earlier drafts. The problem are the parts I added since – of which that chapter opening is one. A good beta reader is worth their weight in gold, for sure. Thanks Claude.

  5. Congratulations on working hard on this, David. I, too, write historical fiction, and it’s a doozy at first. But then I got the rhythm of the dialogue and the flow, so after two novels I feel right at home in the 1800’s. I noticed you do a few things I do as well in my novels, which is awesome. Sometimes it’s “cannot,” sometimes it’s “can’t.” It’s a fine line between sounding like a modern novel or a textbook, and you are plainly a master. Sometimes I include a famous person in a minor role, like Frederick Douglass stirring up a war rally in my Civil War novel. But I never make them the focus and they just drop by for some authenticity and then leave. I, too, like to discover famous people who aren’t remembered – like Orson Squire Fowler who was all about octagon houses or Moses Farmer who invented incandescent lamps. I can’t wait to read the rest of this. Good luck! 🙂

    1. Thanks Meg, although I really am still learning as I go. I try and write in a slightly more modern style than many historical writers – there’s no “ye olde” anywhere to be found. It’s a tightrope though. One wrong step and you are doomed! I think there is a difference in being objectively authentic (in terms of language) and believably authentic for your readers and your story. I don’t think a woman in hte 1800s would describe herself as pregnant (other than, perhaps, with desire), she would probably say she was “with child”. On the other hand, the word “coma” sounds very modern, but it’s not. You could use it, but because it sounds so modern, readers may think you have made an error. It’s tricky!

      Orson Squire Fowler and Moses Farmer are fantastically evocative names, I automatically want to know more about them.

      1. I once had someone complain to me about my use of the word “party” in a story set in 1811 saying it didn’t mean “social gathering” then. Not less than Jane Austen used the word in that sense all the time in her letters.

        Of course, the thing about “Ye Olde” is that everyone, in their age, isn’t being Ye Olde, they are just speaking the current dialect/language. I generally don’t care unless the author is inconsistent.

        So, you’re right, it’s so tricky. People bring so much baggage to HF.

        I’m looking forward to your book. I love HF, and the great thing about the recent self-publishing boom, is that we’re seeing a lot of HF that maybe woudn’t have been as immediately “commercial” but still has an audience if it was given a chance.

        1. Hey, it’s all a symptom of the passion HF readers bring to the table, so I’m cool with it – even if it can get a little pedantic at times.

          I think the boom in self-publishing is exposing readers to a whole range of diverse voices, which can only be a good thing. Personally, I had difficulty selling an MS set in South America. Several agents told me they couldn’t sell that to a publisher (but loved the writing). I was told bluntly that they couldn’t see a market for it. Well – being equally blunt – I can, so I’m publishing it myself. We’ll see who is right in a month or so!

      2. Ye olde interview questions are coming up. Yea, though I wanted to send them tonight, mine own eyes have grown bleary, so watch for an email on the morrow, my liege.

        I’m looking forward to your book. I snuck in under the deadline for the FundIt thang. Congrats on achieving that.

  6. Hi David – nice work. Do you plan on an author’s note or afterward to help reveal some the great historical detail you’ve unearthed? I’ve always enjoyed when Bernard Cornwell has done this in his Sharpe series. My only complaint is that they’re too short 🙂

    1. Hey – thanks.

      I started a new website about a month ago called South Americana. That’s here:

      That will be home for all sorts of historical stories from South America’s past – both bits uncovered while writing this book as well as other stuff that I came across from throughout South America’s history. I think I will probably have a micro-site there or here focused on that book in particular. Probably a more extensive version of this website I did a few years back for this book (but haven’t updated since 2009):

      Or I might have a standalone site for the book on that domain and link it all back to here and South Americana. Not 100% sure yet – still figuring it all out.

      1. About five years ago, my wife and I went on a 17 day driving tour of Patagonia. We were expecting natural beauty and exotic landscapes, but were unprepared for the crazy and strange history that surfaced in almost every corner of the southern half of the continent. It’s a place made for story-telling. Eagerly awaiting the release of ‘Storm.

        p.s. Congrats on getting the domain Can’t believe it was available…

        1. Patagonia is amazing. Just these huge wide open spaces with nothing. People don’t realize how big Argentina is. The flattened-out map of the world takes liberties with its size. It’s actually the same size as India, but with only 40m people – and a third of those in and around Buenos Aires. We made it down all the way to Ushuaia – a real ghostly frontier town. You could set a great murder mystery there.

          I couldn’t believe that domain was available either. I grabbed it on the spot!

  7. Personally, I prefer writing about historic characters. I freely admit that it can bring extra challenges to one’s fiction, but so does writing a sonnet. Meeting the challenge of the constraints and overcoming them enhances the creativity. They don’t just drop by but are the story. Excluding them excises too much of history for my taste.

    I find the hole “ye olde” thing inauthentic anyway so you won’t find that in any of my fiction though. The language is difficult. To what extent, writing about events in the 14th century, should I worry if a certain word wasn’t used until the 16th century? Mostly I don’t. I simply avoid “modern sounding” language which is a very fine judgement call. It is particularly difficult since my characters spoke Scots, which is a language not an accent. That it is related to English is an additional complication.

    Your sample chapter is very enjoyable, David. I’m looking forward to your novel. Now get to work.

  8. Love history, and love reading it, both fiction and non-fiction. However I’ve never read much South American history. I can see that’s going to change. 🙂

    Although I don’t write about actual historical figures, just everyday folk, part of my research is to read journals and contemporary books from my time periods. Music helps, too. Also, have you seen ? It’s great for checking when certain foods were introduced, and then more about them. All of this immerses me in the history’s culture, helping pick up seemingly inconsequential details to add life.

    This looks like an amazing book, David. I look forward to reading it in full!

  9. What a joy to read. I had already checked out your southamericana site and loved it. I enjoy mixing reality and fiction and reading books with both also. It’s like getting a non-fiction and fiction book for one price, which is a great deal, I would say.

    I understand a lot of what you’ve said about how to trip yourself up. My finished novel is set at the end of the Civil War and is about a serial killer. I incorporated a few real events too: a town taken over by Confederate soldiers, the Preliminary Proclamation (ok…maybe I had forgotten my history but I didn’t know there was one), the burning down of a courthouse, and an article from Harper’s Weekly. I had a lot of fun incorporating those into the story.

    Meg1800s was so right. I cut out a lot of contractions. But then there were a few places were they stayed. I just had to get the feel for when it worked and when it didn’t. Also, my editor caught one time period slip up. I mentioned the use of a tractor. Apparently, I was a few years ahead of the inventor.

    I really love the southamericana website, though. I like that you have all of that additional information. For people who love both fiction and non-fiction, this will be great. Remember when the movie Braveheart came out and all of a sudden people were interested in the historical elements relating to the movie. That’s what I mean.

    Sorry for the long post.

  10. Great Post. I agree that writing historical fiction requires walking a fine line between providing the historical facts and backdrop, and sticking to the emotional plot and story of the characters. I have found myself reading several books to just use a few choice facts of a time period. Right now I am reading through papers of the time to just get a sense of the news of the day. All of this has to be balanced against pacing, word count, plot. etc. etc.

  11. This is a fascinating post, David, and Hannah’s comment makes one realise how the tiniest slip-up can alienate a discerning reader (not saying Hannah’s been alienated, of course).
    I am writing a hist.fict/hist. fantasy currently about the legendary Sir Guy of Gisborne. Whilst Guy is most likely legendary, his timeframe isn’t, and the novel has just come back from its first beta-read with a historically-knowledgable person.
    Bearing in mind that I have read reams and reams on the 1190-1220’s, I still managed to make about 20 mistakes in the first pick-up. Back to the editing!!
    I think hist.fict is one of THE most demanding genres one can write!

  12. Holy Mackeral (ha ha maritime theme). I totallyt heard the squeeling of, erm, tires? as Cocrane managed to do a 180 on the open seas with a sailing ship. Made me nearly laugh out loud (but I was at work, so I had to contain myself). Cochrane is indeed a larger than life person. they are a rare type, and how awesome that you got to put him in your novel.

    I love how you used three men chatting as a way to tell his escapades, if anyone didn’t believe them, they could chaulk it up to exageration on the teller’s part.

    And then, your bit on the Marshal and Proctor being the the same person.. I’m almost afraid to ask – is that really true? (I’m not a big history buff, so I have no clue, but I can see how it certainly could happen.)

    :} Cathryn

    1. Hey Cathryn,

      Thank you! Reading aloud really helps with dialogue, I find, especially if you try and read it quickly (like people speak). That helps you get the rhythm. Although, you can’t map it exactly – if you were to transcribe a real conversation, you would see how unreadable it was – it must be an authentic approximation – much like historical fiction in general.

      The bit about the Marshall and the Proctor being the same person is very true – quite the scam, and it was uncovered by Cochrane too. The conversation is my invention, but the escape from the jail cell was very real. But all of that is nothing compared to what he gets up to later on.


  13. There was an interesting discussion on BBC Radio 4 about the boundaries between historical fiction and history. Of course, it is always worth remembering that a lot of what we call history is often fiction, and usually written by the winners. I’ve made use of this as the central theme in my Lost King novel.s
    Dialogue is a fascinating subject as we never really knew what people said or sounded like before the end of the 19th century. I guess that different classes may have also sounded different so I’ve had fun using this in my current novel.
    One of the loveliest uses of language I’ve read recently is in True Grit. The rough villains speak in a wonderfully formal manner which is really convincing. I recommend looking at this.
    Lovely to see Cochrane featuring in the novel, David. I was interested to see that his exploits were so unbelievable that you had to be careful which you chose in order to maintain suspension of disbelief. It’s a wonderful comment on the man.

  14. Well done, David! I’m intrigued…

    As it happens, I’ll be in Valletta on Malta next Sunday on my Mediterranean cruise! I’ll look for dashing Captains descending from bed sheets as they escape the jail.

    What’s your anticipated pub date?

  15. Great post on Konrath’s blog, Dave. I like the way you used the numbers, like Dean Wesley Smith does, to back up your points.
    Re. historical fiction, I loved Jean Auel’s Clan of The Cave Bear until I studied Prehistory…
    However, one of my favourite authors is Tim Powers, and his manhandling of historical facts into his speculative fantasy is a benchmark I’m aiming for (high, I know). Another example I finished recently is Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which is magnificent. As for my own work, the novel I’m editing right now is set in London, in 1888, and just from those two details readers already have a picture in their heads. I hope to surprise them.
    Have you a favourite period you write in? Automatically, my stories seem to fall between 1880 and 1930 – it’s as if the ‘feel’ of the period is right.

  16. Historical fiction is a major field and always has been, if quietly so.

    When done right, historical fiction doesn’t have a best-before-date. It doesn’t matter to me as a reader if a book was written last year or 150 years ago, as long as it delivers on the story. In that respect HF writers not only draw from history, they write for it.

    For good and bad, other genres come with a pronounced contemporary flavor. Or maybe HF just does a better job of concealing it.

    Good luck taking your story to the finish line, Mr. Gaughran.

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