Real People In Historic Fiction

Writing historical fiction can be difficult, but a lot of fun. The difficult part is doing the research. One wants to be thorough despite sometimes conflicting data. Going through archival books, papers and journals myself, I have come across information where dates don’t jive with other historic records, but I have to consider the source. Was it Wikipedia? Was the information written by someone of that era or someone else who had to research the period and may have slipped up on the dates or was it a typo?

Once you have the facts straight – or at least as close to accurate as they can be – how will your character interact within this historical time period? Will your character be meeting any of the real people that might be walking past them or are they introduced to anyone famous? If so, you need to do a little more research about that particular person. Look for anecdotal accounts about that person. Look at their actions as recorded by historians. These pieces of information paint a picture about the person in question, gives clues as to their personality and how they might react given the scenarios you dream up for them. Examine the manner of speech for that time period so that it doesn’t sound contrived or too modern. Read old literature to learn the grammatical patterns and turns of phrase that were common in the era you are writing about.

This isn’t always easy because sometimes you want to include minor historic figures about which little has been written. Then, it’s guesswork, for the most part. That happened to me when I decided to introduce my character, Michelle, to Duncan McRae, the Scottish stone mason who built St. Andrews Church. All I could find out about him was that he was a Scottish stonemason who built St. Andrews Church (as well as Little Britain Church), and married a woman from London after my character left the time period, built a house in the Little Britain area and had a large family! I was well aware of the fact that he still has living relatives here, so I gave him favourable traits, although they might be a bit annoyed that I gave him a personal interest in MY character instead of letting him stay true to the woman he eventually did marry.

Women of Red River

Harriet Sinclair was a woman I read about in the book Women of Red River. Her story was written from anecdotal accounts given by the woman herself. I got a real feel for her character and knew she would be the perfect girl to befriend Michelle.


As for Governor George Simpson, I had read accounts of his dealings with the Hudson Bay Company and he had been described as the ‘Emperor of the Plains‘ by both admirers and detractors. He also had a reputation as a bit of a philanderer, having taken many ‘country wives’ and siring several illegitimate children. he had also been described as ‘cold-hearted, but fair‘. I was able to work in a lot of the information when creating the living character for Michelle to meet. He was stern when he thought she was slacking but kind enough to let her stay at the fort as long as she worked to earn her keep.

Once you have done all your research and decided on the traits you want your real historic person to present to your character, you are ready to dive into the story. THAT’s the FUN part!

Hope you found this useful, or at least, I hope it’s given you a little insight into what went into ‘Withershins’ and ‘Spirit Quest’.

Have YOUR characters ever interacted with real people?

10 comments on “Real People In Historic Fiction

  1. Being a history teacher, I find it really difficult to write historical fiction. It’s like my creativity is totally blocked, because I’m too fascinated by the real story. I know a lot of historical writers have the exact opposite reaction and I’m glad they do or we’d have no historical fiction. 🙂

    • It’s kind of fun to imagine myself in a particular time period, interacting with the people and ‘witnessing’ history. That’s the beauty of writing historical fiction. 🙂

  2. It seems like writing historical fiction takes a lot of research and patience. It’s doesn’t seem like something I’d be suited to, but it sounds interesting.

    • Most of the historical research I’ve done involves my home town and surrounding areas, so for me it’s been fun learning more about our history than what we were taught in school. 🙂

  3. I had my characters interact with a few historical figures, and for me the challenge was that the historical characters weren’t in the time or place I needed them to be to match the sequence of events in my fictional narrative. Not ashamed to say that I just moved them around to fit my story……with one exception. In one scene, a character goes to one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and in that case, I felt that it was too important an event to mess with. So I spent about a week researching that particular debate so that my account of it would match up with the historical account, even though it only takes a couple of paragraphs in the book.

    • I’m sure everyone has done that at one time or another. In mine, I did fudge the dates that Governor Simpson was at the fort so that my character could meet him. I stated as much in the author’s note at the end of the book, in case anyone got their nickers in a twist! 🙂

    • Glad you liked the post. I know I enjoyed researching my home town and, with the fort open in the summers with volunteers acting as characters from history, it made the history come alive for me. Best of luck if you do decide to try your hand at it. 🙂

  4. I am a totally undisciplined seat of the pants writer, I admire writers such as yourself who have the commitment to do the job “properly” it must be really wonderful to know that at the heart of your story is – well a real heart.

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