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So, I'm writing fiction but in it, historical events, such as wars between the French and British, are taking place. But, after doing research, it's looking to be difficult to squeeze my little fiction story into real events and still make sense. I'm still looking deeper to find a timeframe and space where it will work. I'm leaning toward the idea of the same conflict happening, just that it's happening differently. Overall, I'll try to keep it as close to the truth as possible, but is it acceptable if I distort and tweak the facts? Would it still make a good story and would it be fine if it ever gets published?

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    There is actually a whole genre of fiction which deals with taking historical facts and changing them: Alternate History. But this genre generally expects that the changes to the historic timeline have major consequences for the course of history and that the work focuses on exploring those consequences. The historic alterations should not just be minor changes of little consequence which are made for the convenience of the plot.
    – Philipp
    Feb 16 at 14:01
  • Once Upon A Time In...Hollywood is a movie that flips the script about the Manson Family murders.
    – adamaero
    Feb 16 at 15:18
  • A good story is a good story, to such an extent that a really good story can even make up for bad writing… which is not to suggest that your writing might be in any way bad; merely that a very good story can stand by itself. If you want historical accuracy, you must shape the story to fit that. If you want the broad sense, consider Talbot Mundy's Tros, CS Forester's Hornblower or Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe, among other well-respected fictional heroes of factual events. If the story matters most, stick with that even if it means either distorting names or reshaping events Feb 17 at 1:27
  • Take solace in the knowledge that historically accurate historical fiction has yet to be written.
    – jMdA
    Feb 18 at 2:44
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    Patrick O'Brien simply added years as necessary to accommodate his books :)
    – chepner
    Feb 18 at 14:30
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Changing history is slippery because it's a complex weave of causes and consequences, and even an expert might not know the full picture. I agree with Zeiss Ikon in their answer, the devil is in the details, and some readers will have vastly different opinions about what this or that change should entail.

That's why my golden rule when fundamentally changing the truth of the world (e.g. historical events, but also the laws of physics) is: if you don't have an airtight explanation, then don't explain.

You can just state your premise as a matter of fact. Readers can fill the gaps themselves if they fancy it, or they can just accept the premise and roll with it. If details are not necessary for the story, you can just stay vague about them, including the precise time and space your story happens. Just as long as your story remains consistent with itself.

As for working with history, your story may not fit within real events, but maybe it doesn't have to. Here are some examples of what you can work with:

  • History can serve as a backdrop. Like the made-up heist of payroll money during a very real military campaign.
  • History is fundamentally incomplete. Your story may simply have been forgotten or buried, because it's embarrassing, because it doesn't fit the national myth, because nobody lived to tell the tale, or for some other reason.
  • Your story can happen on the fringes of history. Maybe in a little village just a few kilometers away from a big battle.
  • Your story doesn't need to affect the outcome of history. A single soldier going AWOL and living their own adventure isn't going to change the overall strategy of the war.
  • Inversely, your story can be the secret reason history went this way. It's fiction, a silly mistake or incredible feat of luck can do or undo a battle.

Remember that behind the great recorded History with a capital-H, there are tons of little stories you've never heard of. You have a lot of wiggle room there to tell a story within the confines of history without changing it. And just because they don't change the flow of history doesn't mean they're uninteresting.

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Hot Water:

If you are going down that rabbit hole, you need to be SUPER careful. Writing in a historical period pretty much implies you stay consistent with history, except for the most trivial of details.

I agree with Zeiss Ikon (+1), that going into alternative history is your safest bet. Establish up-front (possibly on the first page) that this is NOT the original historical time line. Otherwise you'll just anger your readers.

  • There is one very narrow window to break this rule. If you establish that different events take place, but that for whatever reason the HISTORICAL account is recorded inaccurately, then as long as the history is recorded as such, you can take liberties with the reality.

FOR EXAMPLE: If a given British ship is recorded as being sunk by the French on a given day, but in your version the ship disappears into a fog bank, the crew turns pirate and renames the ship, then the French claim the vessel as a kill, you can then have seemingly dead men continuing on. As long as the recorded account is still the official version of history, it doesn't matter what really happens.

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    Zeiss's answer actually suggests staying away from Alternate History; that it's simpler to stay within major historical events.
    – Harabeck
    Feb 16 at 20:43
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I assume you mean something along the lines of Napoleon winning at Waterloo, or the British not getting caught with their pants down at King's Mountain and Cow Pens?

It's usually easier to alter your story to fit the actual historical events than to stray into the (very detail-oriented) field of Alternate History. Change historical events, and don't follow it through in detail, and you'll have readers beating down your door to correct you and expecting you to rewrite your story accordingly.

The kinds of things you can change without a lot of nitpicking are minor stuff, like giving a known admiral a sister that never was for your protagonist to marry (Horatio Hornblower), or adding an illegitimate son in France for Ben Franklin (who spent several years there as ambassador).

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    I was really hoping when I read "It's usually easier to alter your story to fit the actual historical events" that the sentence would end with "than to change historical events to fit your story"
    – Sidney
    Feb 16 at 21:33
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Shakespeare changed plenty of history in his "historical" plays. He killed off Richard-II about a decade early for dramatic effect. He freely changes ages -- searching for "Shakespeare accurate" gives plenty. A search on "The Crown accurate" (a popular historical TV show) reveals similar alterations. Sadly "Hamilton accurate" gives similar negative results. Somehow it did pretty well. Downton Abby does better, but has things like "was a composite" for some events. For more serious writing the 2017 book "Lincoln in the Bardo" (Lincoln visits his dead son and sees ghosts) had about 50% made-up stuff mixed in with the real. It got rave reviews and NPR loved it.

IMHO, if it's labelled fiction, readers will be amused to find that 2 of your plot points happened for real, and not be too concerned that they were really 20 years apart.

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    Whether this works depends in part on the labeling of the work. If it's a "murder mystery set in Regency England" it pretty much only needs to have the broad strokes right -- date range, who're Regent for whom, and so forth. If it's a "historical novel" you'll get a bunch of readers who quit the first time your story diverges from history. If it's an "alternate history" you'll get readers who read specifically for that, and some will know every little detail, what you got right and what wrong.
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Feb 16 at 18:36
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    @ZeissIkon That sounds plausible, but it's difficult to find an example of wrong history doing any harm. Rather the reverse: "The witch trials in Outlander are off by 20 years", "shut up, he's about to take off his shirt". Feb 16 at 22:03
  • Your sample probably suffers from confirmation bias -- you're missing all the examples in which the wonky "history" caused people to not read the work in such droves that you never heard about it. "Historical" as a genre is generally expected to take place within (or at least peripheral to) the real historical events, like the Hornblower series or Captain and Commander.
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Feb 17 at 10:01
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Answer in three parts, for writers with differing desires for historical accuracy.

Part One: Writers who don't care much about research and history.

Anyone can write a story set in historical periods and places and change anything they want to, and the historical fiction police will not come to their home in the middle of the night and drag them away to prison.

For example, I have read a lot of the history of the west in the USA, especially the Indian Wars, and so I know that a lot of western movies, tv shows, stories, and novels ignore a lot of historical facts. They depict war with tribes when there was peace, and peace when there was war. They depict towns and railroads in places which weren't settled yet, and move rivers and mountain ranges around for the plot.

Considering how much many stories movies distort the rules and customs of the US army, it is easy to imagine that the depictions of various Indian groups, tribes, and nations is very incorrect.

I haven't seen the most recent cavalry and Indians movie I have heard about, Hostiles (2017) but descriptions indicate the characters ride hundreds of miles north from Indian Territory all the way to Wyoming or Montana. Instead of riding to the nearest train station, taking a train east, taking a second train north, and then taking a third train west, to get somewhere much closer to their destination and avoid hundreds of miles of riding.

And Hostiles (2017) has a fictional date of 1892, although the plot would be much more plausible about 20 years earlier in 1872, when there were many hostile warriors on the plains, and railroads were much rarer in the west, than in 1892.

Part two: Writers with intermediate concern for history.

I have a idea for a story about the Great Sioux War of 1876-77. What is the most famous battle in the western Indian Wars? The Little Big Horn, June 25-26, 1876, of course. But what was the greatest battle in the western Indian Wars? The Little Bighorn was definately not the biggest battle in those wars.

Since the Sioux are not now an independent nation, you can guess that they were defeated sometime after the Little Big Horn, and you might guess that they might have been defeated in one big battle which would have been the greatest in the Indian Wars. And that was actually a plan. In August 1876 the reinforced army of General Terry, mostly infantry, marched south along Rosebud Creek, and the reinforced army of General Crook, mostly cavalry, rode north along Rosebud Creek, hoping to crush the Sioux. But the hostile Sioux avoided armageddon by moving east out of the Rosebud valley.

There were a number of battles in the rest of the war, and two of them, Slim Buttes and the Dull Knife Fight/Battle of Red Fork, were very large for the Indian Wars. But the war ended through negotiations and none of the battles was as great as a military history buff might wish, though all were too big and bloody for some of the participants.

So in my story the hostile Sioux stay in the Rosebud valley and are defeated by the armies of Terry and Crook in the biggest battle in the western Indian Wars.

And I plan to describe the story as being set partially in the real west of history, and partially in the wild west of fiction. So readers will know that anything in the story could be either true or fictional, and research would be needed to find out.

And the story is told by an old man - who got involved in the Great Sioux War as a kid - to his grandchildren. And sometimes the story is interrupted by one of the kids expressing skepticism. And when he is finished one of the kids will claim that he made it all up, and (as dark clouds form and thunder is heard) the old man says that if he has exaggerated anything the least bit, may God strike ____ and then his wife kicks him and he stops talking and the dark clouds and thunder go away. And maybe I might make the story be told in a recently discovered mansuscript written by an old person remembering the story they heard as a child from their grandfather in the 1920s, introducing another level of possible inaccuracy.

So that should be enough to show the readers that research would be needed to decide what details in the story are and are not accurate. And I may include a list of sources about the Great Sioux War for those interested in researching it.

Part Three: For Writers who want to follow history really closely.

And another way to write historical fiction set in historal settings is to research really throughly and then use your imagination to weave an interesting story into the historical events.

Thomas Berger's novel Little Big Man (1964) has an introduction by the fictional Ralph Fielding Snell telling how he interviewed the ficitonal Jack Crabb in a retirement home. The bulk of the novel is Jack Crabb's story of the first decades of his life, how he passed from white society to Cheyenne society (as Little Big Man) and back, several times.

And reading it I noticed that Jack was involved in many historical events I had read about before, and he meets many historical characters.

The novel Little Big Man (1964) does a much better job of fitting Jack's life story into the frame of real western history than the movie Little Big Man (1970) does.

In the introduction "Snell" says that he has checked everything in Jack's story that he could, and everyone Jack claims to to have met actually was at that place and time. "Snell" says he found only one error in Jack's story: Jack says that Crazy Horse never wore a war bonnet, and "Snell" knows that is wrong because he owns Crazy Horse's war bonnet and trusts the honesty of the dealer who sold it. And of course it is actually said that Crazy HOurse never wore a war bonnet.

Another example of research in historical fiction are the Flashman novels by George MacDonald Frasier. They are supposedly the recently discovered hidden memiors secretly written by the fictional Victorian military hero Harry Paget Flashman, revealing that Flashman was actually a coward and a cad. As I remember, most of the novels had notes at the back where Frasier discusses how accurate (or honest) Flashman's memories of the events are, thus adding to the illusion that the novels are translations of Flashman's autobiography.

And those are examples of historical fiction with many fictional personal experiences of the characters happpening among many historical events, almost all of the historical events accurate.

I also note that many historical events are not known very well. For example, there are many different theories about the destruction of Custer's detachment and Custer's Last Stand. So it would be impossible for Berger's description in Little Big Man (1964) to agree with every single one of them, especially those based on evidence uncovered later.

And there are many historical controveries about whether various stories and accounts are accurate or not. For example, the Sioux & Cheyenne fought fiercly for six hours at the Battle of the Rosebud on June 17, 1876, before withdrawing. General Crook decided to follow them to their camp, but as the army approached a narrower canyon ahead, the Crow and Shoshone allies claimed the Sioux were waiting to ambush them there. They also said that the cavalry had wasted most of the ammunition. So Crook stopped the army and had the ammunition counted. And it is said each cavalryman had only five rounds of carbine ammunition left out of the 100 rounds he had started with. So Crook turned his army around and camped on the battlefield before returning to his wagons the next day.

And as far as I know the majority of historians think that the story that the Sioux were waiting to ambush Crook's army in the narrow part of the canyon was probably false. But obviously using it in a work of fiction could build up and then release a lot of tension as Crook's army approaches the ambush and then stops and turns around.

And I have read about many other historical controversies and uncertainties. If someone is writing a story fictionally told in a fictional recently discovered manuscript, they can note that the manuscript is another bit of evidence supporting one side in a historical controversy. Or possibly giving evidence about several different historical controversies.

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Absolutely nothing wrong with it.

If Bernard Cornwell can do it with Sharpe and The Last Kingdom, you can do it with your book.

It's worth including an appendix where you discuss the differences though for those of your readers who care.

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Arghh! I feel your pain. Research is a bitch.

I get the impression you're having time-line problems rather than who won the Battle of Waterloo. Getting hero from A to B in a certain time might not be possible. So what to do about it?

Possibly have Fred's cousin bring the news to give the 1st person exciting account of what happened last month. News wasn't like today's instant all-knowing media. First the French are coming, then Bonaparte has been assassinated, then a storm has swept up the channel and nobody will hear anything from the West for days. That sort of thing might give you wiggle room.

Your hero can be on all sorts of peripheral actions with only mentions in inns or offices of wider events. If you're blockading a French port in the Mediterranean it might be weeks before you heard anything from Blighty. It can be a small world. For all you know the chaps you're fighting today became your allies two weeks ago at some peace conference.

All this leads to blurring of what happened when. Scholars might think your book is a piece of military or political documentary, but that's their obsession and they form a tiny proportion of the readership. Very few people will google-along. Most will never have heard of the Treaty of Amiens and take your word about when it happened and what the consequences were. You don't have to say 27 March 1802 but allude to it having happened before Easter. More wiggle room. Most people will be following along in general.

If your hero, Fred, is say the private secretary to Marquess Cornwallis who was well documented at various places at various times, then you need to get Fred detached from time to time.

Don't worry about what can't be helped. Try fudging who knew what when and don't specify too clearly what day of the week it is. eg. Spring rather than March. If you really have to have Fred at Waterloo itself then you can't realistically change that, so something else will have to give.

Finally, timelines can be a pain when you need somebody to grow up and turn from farm boy to general in six months! You'll have to be more realistic in timescales. But think! That gives you more experiences of derring-do to write about. Good luck.

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