Erica Vetsch: Putting Historical Figures In Fiction

Erica Vetsch here. Thank you so much to the P&P ladies for inviting me to join you again! I love visiting with you all. That being said, I am on vacation today…sitting in a car, driving the 1700 miles back to frigid Minnesota from beautiful sunny Florida where I was visiting my awesome parents. I will most-likely be unable to respond personally to your messages until I get into my hotel room for the evening, so please, bear with me!

Using Historical Figures in Your Fiction

Have you ever read a novel that used an historical figure as one of the characters? Was it fun for you to ‘recognize’ a character and see the author’s portrayal of how they might have been in a given set of circumstances? Did the character ring true to what you knew about them?

I love stories that have cameo appearances by historical figures, especially famous cowboys and lawmen and outlaws of the Old West, or presidents, soldiers, and personalities of the Civil War, but when I read one and I see things that are glaringly off with an historical figure’s portrayal, I tend to cringe and put the book down for something else.

So how does an author go about using real people in their novels? Can you use a real person in fiction legally? Are there any rules?

First, it is certainly legal to use historical figures in your fiction. Writing about Richard the Lionheart or Wyatt Earp won’t get you into any trouble, even if you mischaracterize them or portray them in a less than glowing light. (FYI, writing about current public figures has different laws about slander, libel, and image copyright, so research those laws if you want to write contemporary fiction. Even flattering treatments of people who are alive and kicking can land you in a legal tangle.) Second, writing about historical figures doesn’t have any ‘rules’ per se, but there are some guidelines that I try to follow that will endear you to readers of historical fiction.

  • Learn the basic facts and personality of the character by reading history books, watching documentaries, and if possible, reading primary sources such as diaries, autobiographies, and first-hand newspaper accounts. (No matter which historical figure you use, there will be a reader or two out there who is an ‘expert’ on that character and jealously guards their canon. As much as possible, try to get the history correct—or you might hear about it later!) Some things that might be important to consider are: the character’s family situation, how they make decisions, attitudes and philosophies about social issues, familiar catchphrases or gestures (Think Teddy Roosevelt and “Bully!”) etc. You will also be able to create dialogue that feels authentic if you can read their own words and get a sense of their speech patterns and cadences from reading primary sources.
  • Create a timeline of the character’s life, paying particular attention to the time and setting of your story. If you are going to include an historical figure in a fictional situation, make sure they weren’t demonstrably elsewhere in real life. For example, if your scene takes place in St. Louis on November 19, 1863 and you have President Lincoln show up, EEEK! Lincoln was delivering the Gettysburg Address on that day and couldn’t possibly have been in Missouri at that time.
  • Stay true to the things you know about the character. Lincoln was tall, skeletal, with a dry wit. George Armstrong Custer was ambitious, overconfident, with a near-obsessive devotion to his wife. Clara Barton was a shy child, a determined crusader, and an autocratic leader. Readers will respond to an historical figure in your fiction that ‘feels’ like the character they already know.
  • When in doubt, err on the side of historical accuracy. Many people read historical fiction in order to learn while they read. Often, readers will take as gospel what they read of historical events and people in fiction, relying on the author to do the research and present it in a truthful way. Sometimes, you want or need an historical figure to do something in your story that you can’t authenticate through research. That’s fine, but be sure that you are staying within the bounds of historical accuracy when you do. (Unless you’re obviously writing a spoof piece like Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies, or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.) If you include a fictional variation that might be misconstrued, use an author note to explain to the reader what is factual and what is fictional.

An example from my own work is the story A Bride’s Portrait of Dodge City, Kansas. I used several historical figures from Dodge City who would be familiar to readers of western fiction. Because they were used fictitiously, I wanted to make certain that readers understood which characters were historical and which were fictional, and which characteristics for real people I had manufactured for the sake of the story. I included an Author’s Note so that readers would feel I was ‘playing fair’ and not misleading them with inaccurate historical information. Here’s that Author’s Note as it appeared in the beginning of the book:

Author’s Note: While most of the characters in this story are fictitious, the characters of Charlie Basset, Luke Short, and Bat Masterson are taken from the annals of Dodge City history. I have tried to stay true to the historical record, with one noted exception: Bat Masterson’s proclivity for keeping printed material stacked in his office is fictional and entirely of my own creation.

In my story, it was important that a piece of paper get lost in the sheriff’s office. Since Bat Masterson was the sheriff during the setting of my story, I needed him to be a bit of a paper hoarder. But I also wanted to be clear to the reader that I had no historical facts that would indicate that he was an office slob. J Hence the author’s note.

Questions for you!

  1. If you are a writer, have you ever included historical figures in your fiction? If so, who?
  2. If you’re a reader, do you have a favorite novel that included an appearance by an historical figure?

Answer in the comments below to be entered to win a copy of my newest release, 7 Brides for 7 Texas Rangers!

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Best-selling, award-winning author Erica Vetsch loves Jesus, history, romance, and sports. She’s a transplanted Kansan now living in Minnesota, and she married her total opposite and soul mate! When she’s not writing fiction, she’s planning her next trip to a history museum and cheering on her Kansas Jayhawks and New Zealand All Blacks. You can connect with her at her website, http://www.ericavetsch.com where you can read about her books and sign up for her newsletter, and you can find her online at http://www.facebook.com/EricaVetschAuthor/ where she spends way too much time!

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39 Comments

  1. I personally love books with historical figures, facts etc all the more real history the better. I have learned more history from romance books than I ever did in a school textbook

    1. I completely agree Glenda!

    2. Glenda, me too! I love reading historical fiction by authors I trust! It adds so much to the reading experience for me!

  2. Erica- what a great blog. I’ve read many books that have true historical characters in them. Many with John Chivingston, What an Evil man, many with Indian Leaders, & many with Presidents, too.
    I love books that have true historical people and I love when real towns not made up ones are used.

    1. I completely agree John Chivington is one of the absolute worst historical figures I have read about too. Indians are my favorite to read about so far!

    2. Hi, Tonya! Ugh, Chivington. Not a good man at all!

      I like real towns used in fiction. But I also enjoy a good fictional town from time to time. 🙂

  3. I love reading historical fiction. The last one I
    read was America’s First Daughter. I enjoyed the post very much.

    1. Hi, Carol! I haven’t had the pleasure of reading America’s First Daughter. At the moment, I’m reading a non-fiction history book about Paducah, KY and the Civil War. So fascinating. I love reading about places I’ve been before.

  4. Loved your blog! I absolutely love HWR! I’ve read books with real historical characters and love them. I just started reading again late November 2016 after decades of not reading and HWR is one of my absolute favorite genres. I have learned more from HWR than I ever did in a history class! I’ve mostly read books with historical Indians and military figures. I’ve found the books that included Indian tribes and Historical figures my favorite simply for the fact that we were not taught enough about Indians growing up. I especially love Rosanne Bittners Savage Destiny series!

    1. Hi, Stephanie! I am so glad you’re back into reading historical romance! Welcome back! I find myself reading a lot of Civil War and Westward Expansion. I think if we had been given Historical Fiction to read as part of our history curriculum, more folks would LOVE history!

  5. I love when historical figures are included and I know I have read many but cannot recall the names. thanks for the great post.

    1. Hi, Debra! Thanks for chiming in! I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

  6. I recently read A Refuge Assured by Jocelyn Green that highlighted Alexander Hamilton and his wife. They were minor characters in the story but still quite interesting.

    1. MJSH, sometimes I think stories that have real people in minor roles are the most interesting. It lends such a sens of reality/authenticity to the story!

  7. I enjoy reading books with historical figures. We have so many great ones to choose from. Thank you for sharing your very interesting post.

    1. Melanie, aren’t we blessed to have so many great authors to read? It seems I’m discovering new-to-me authors all the time.

  8. Erica, I don’t think I can pick a favorite. I’ve been reading historical for so many years. I really appreciate the work you, and authors like you, who do the research to make sure things are correct. One thing I don’t like is gratuitous use of a historical figure. Example: Domenico Ghirardelli. I have read several books about San Francisco over many years (it’s my husband’s favorite city) where I see his name or the Ghiradelli company being mentioned. He and the company had nothing to do with the story at all, nothing, in at least five books that I can remember. Sometimes the company wasn’t even formed yet or he was dead.
    *I am currently reading a digital copy of Seven Brides for Seven Texas Rangers. I would LOVE to have a print copy to keep on my bookshelf next to my favorite collection of Hart brothers.

    1. Andrea, isn’t that frustrating? A little author license is okay, but it needs to be organic to the story and not pasted on to make the author sound like they know a lot. A little bit of homework on the part of the author can uncover sparkling details that can be layered in and increase the enjoyment of the reader.

  9. Erica, I’ve done this once so far, in a not-yet-published piece that takes place in New York City after World War I. I have a Christmas Eve cameo by Father Duffy, a renowned war chaplain who later became a renowned priest and pastor.
    I have a BIG novel planned for the future about the Old West and will probably pepper it with cameos, but I know enough not to do it without research. The more the better.
    Nobody does real historical figures like Brock and Bodie Thoene, especially in the Zion Chronicles and Zion Covenant. I still remember their Winston Churchill…
    Erica, nice to “see” you in another format.
    Kathy Bailey

    1. Hi, Kathy! I will have to read up on Father Duffy. I’m not familiar with him. I agree with you about the more research the better. I LOVE historical research.

      Winston Churchill is one of my favorite people from history. So fascinating!

  10. ERICA, congratulations on your release! I love to read about historical figures.

    1. Caryl! Thank you! We’re very excited about the new collection.

  11. No favs here. Just enjoy the reading.

    1. Hi, Kim. It’s not a bad way to be. 🙂

  12. Hi Erica, I truly enjoyed this post. I love historical fiction and your point that readers want to learn from this genre was right on! I just finished Across the Blue by Carrie Turansky and she threw in the names of actual early aviation giants so I needed to look them up. Learning accomplished! And near the end of Michelle Griep’s Twelve Days at Bleakly Manor she has a man leaving the house and it is mentioned that he was the author Charles Dickens. I loved that touch!
    Thanks for sharing today and please enter my name in your drawing. I hope to read this book soon.
    Blessings!
    Connie
    cps1950(at)gmail(dot)com

    1. Hi, Connie! Those are two lovely examples of giving readers a treat with historical appearances. And learning through reading fiction is the BEST! 🙂

  13. Yay, a new collection!! I love seeing historical characters cameo in books. It adds a fun and memorable element in my opinion. One of my favorites is when George Washington shows up in a historical – before he was president.

    1. Hi, Susan. Wow, Pre-presidential George Washington is very specific. Are you a Revolutionary War buff? Do you have a favorite GW cameo?

  14. No specific favs for me, but I do enjoy them…

    1. Hey, Colleen! Thanks for stopping by.

  15. My favorite historical novels are Janice Holt Giles’s series about the Fowler family. They sent me researching a number of places, incidents that happened in the mid1800’s along the Santa Fe trail and Overland stage route, Bent’s Fort in Colorado and more. From “Johnny Osage” to “Six Horse Hitch” these books were full of actual history as well as a great fictional family. I read the last one when it was relatively new and eventually found the earlier books from the series. Definitely on my keeper shelf. Not exactly romance novels but romance in them.

    1. Alice! Six Horse Hitch was my Favorite Giles book by far! I learned SO much! And like you, I wound up researching even more Her depiction of Jack Slade was the best I have ever read!

  16. I know I have read books where historical figures have made an appearance, but the only one I can think of is one from then 1950s, Celia Garth by Gwen Bristow, where you briefly “meet” Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, during the revolutionary war. I always think it is fun when real characters show up in a work of fiction.

    1. Susan, I’m not familiar with Bristow’s work, but I’m going to look her up! I’d love to learn more about the Revolutionary period. It’s an area I’m not very strong on.

  17. I’ve read historical romances with references to characters meeting a real king or queen

    1. Denise, I’m currently working on a story where my characters meet Queen Charlotte and the Prince Regent. It’s so much fun to write!

  18. I do enjoy accurate inclusions of historical characters in fiction. It gives extra points of reference and perspective for the story.
    One of the books that did a good job of including historical events and figures was BRIDE OF THE LION by Elizabeth Stuart. Henry Plantagenet (Henry II) plays an important part in the story and makes a few appearances. The story centers around the battles and rivalries of the time period. It is one of the best historical books I have ever read. I was sad to find she wrote only 4 books under this name and one under another. She did her research and it showed. One of her other books, WITHOUT HONOR, includes historical figures and situations of Scotland in the early 16th century.

  19. the characters in Lilac Girls were based on real people. I didn’t know that until I read the author’s notes.

  20. I recently read a wonderful book called All That Makes Life Bright that had Harriet Beecher Stowe in it. I loved learning more about her contributions to history!

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