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Making use of history in fiction

I wrote on my reading blog last week about historical fiction and how historically accurate it should be. Some writers and readers think that it should be akin to academic research in accuracy, others that the story always comes first.

There are other ways to use historical facts in fiction than writing historical fiction. I like to add little details every now and then to give my characters some depth. My characters are long-living vampires and shape-shifters who have witnessed centuries of history first hand. It would be odd if that didn’t show somehow. One of my pet peeves is characters who don’t have personal history beyond the book, and it’s doubly annoying if the character has lived for centuries.

For example, the hero in Warrior’s Heart, Jasper Grayson, has fought in the Battle of Killiecrankie. It took place in July 1689 between Highland Scottish clans who supported King James VII of Scotland/James II of England, and troops who supported King William of Orange. Jasper fought for William.

The importance of the battle for my book isn’t in details or historical accuracy. It has personal importance for the hero, because he was wounded there and it changed the course of his life. It’s a random battle, chosen because it fit the timeline, and I didn’t burden the book with everything I learned about it. In romantic fiction like my Two-Natured London series, there isn’t that much room for details anyway.

The sites of Jack the Ripper's murders
In the upcoming book, Her Warrior for Eternity, I added a much better known historical detail, Jack the Ripper. It came about rather accidentally and is only an aside to the story. It’s not necessarily needed, but it gives the story some colour.

Jack the Ripper, or the Whitechapel Murderer, is the name given to a serial killer who killed women in the Whitechapel district of London in 1888. The connection to my book is more superficial than actual. There is a serial killer afoot in my book who kills women and leaves the bodies all over the City, a district adjoining Whitechapel, and some of the action happens on the historical sites of those murders. At least, as far as I was able to determine; the map of London has changed a little since those days. I don’t work the details of Jack’s murders into my story, nor are the murders meant to resemble each other.

Again, the details aren’t important. The name is enough. Readers will make the connection the same way the characters do in the book. Hopefully it will give the readers a notion that the hero, Jeremy Grayson – who, by the way, fought in the Battle of Killiecrankie too – has lived for centuries, not merely existed.

The use of history doesn’t have to be exhaustive – and exhausting – list of dates. Sprinkling it here and there is sufficient to give the characters a past and readers a notion that the story doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

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