Writing

Research and Historical Accuracy

Margaret Atwood

Lesson time 15:19 min

Getting details right is critical in historical fiction and can lend believability to any story. Margaret emphasizes this point but also shows how to avoid letting research slow you down.

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Margaret Atwood
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I think if you research too much ahead of time, it's going to clog things up. You find out such interesting things that you long to put them in. But quite frequently, they sidetrack the plot. So you want the details to be accurate, but you don't want them looking like research. And by the way, let me tell you about the shoelaces. So I like to write first and then research the details that I've put in to see if I've got them right. I find that much more helpful than having a huge stack of research that can bog you down, if you like, and slow up the actual writing. [MUSIC PLAYING] It's important to get those details right, because if you get them wrong, it throws off the reader's belief in your story. I once got a letter from a woman who had read "Alias Grace," an older women. She said, that's not how you make butter. Luckily, I had "Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management" at my side, in which there are about 50 ways of making butter, one of them being the one described. But if you've got one of those things wrong, it throws the reader off. And they get sidetracked. And believe me, if it's not accurate, somebody is going to write you a letter-- or these days, do an internet posting that begins, you idiot. So it's best to check your facts and factoids and even such things as when did people start using plastic garbage bags, what color were the refrigerators in 1960, when were pantyhose invented. You may think you know these things. But you really should go back and double check. And a wonderful source of information are old magazines, especially the ads. You can find out a lot that way. Your goal is to keep your reader believing in your story, even though both of you know it's fiction and it says fiction on the outside. [MUSIC PLAYING] The internet is your friend mostly, just as the reference library is your friend mostly. But just because it's on the internet or because it's in the reference library doesn't mean it's true. It's always good to cross check and use more than one reference. If you're using old magazines with ads in them, be advised that the ads aren't how people actually lived. The ads are the advertisers' idea of how they thought people ought to want to live, which was a different kind of thing. But mail order catalogs are pretty good. That's closer to how people probably really lived in some areas of their lives-- old diaries, letters, those kinds of things. Unfortunately, diary writers and letters never wrote down the most obvious things that you might want to know because those things were known by everybody at the time. So why would you write them down? Suppose that we're in the future and everyone has forgotten what a toaster is. Nobody will have written down what it was because everybody knew. But then they forgot. So if you are a diary writer or keeping a journal, do us a favor. Do the people in the future a favor. Tell them about some of these ordinary things that you did every d...


The art of powerful storytelling

Called the “Prophet of Dystopia,” Margaret Atwood is one of the most influential literary voices of our generation. In her first-ever online writing class, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale teaches how she crafts compelling stories, from historical to speculative fiction, that remain timeless and relevant. Explore Margaret’s creative process for developing ideas into novels with strong structures and nuanced characters.



Reviews

4.7
Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

This class had made me look at the aspects of research before writing my next knovel.

Good course and I have learnt some valuable information. Her personal insight as a successful writer is interesting and useful.

I'm sorry to say goodbye to M.A. now. I think I'll start the course all over again. I loved the anecdotes of someone who 'has been there done that'. I share her black humour, her bright scarves and her talking stapler. I'm such a fan and I hope to slowly morph into her. If you're looking for a place to to rest your soul when you die Margaret, then my heart is all yours. x

Amazing! Provides the basics as well as thoughtful exercises, ideas, and motivations to keep on writing. Will definitely continue to reference back!


Comments

Andrea P.

I really liked this lesson. I wanted to use people's first-hand experiences for my story about a particular event in Bolivia's history. But people are, of course, biased by their own views. Another thing this lesson made me think about is how fragile memory is. Do people remember things as they really were? or they remember them as better, or worse? So, using people's experiences to tell a story might not necessarily provide me with accuracy, but it can give me a sense of how people felt. In any case, research is important regardless of the story you want to write.

Suzanne B.

I finally got it downloaded - Spec. Fic Case Study. What a great chapter. Margaret's comfort level was most apparent during this segment, I thought. She uses drawing quite casually and makes great points concerning research and her personal interest. Yes, if only Hitler had gone to art school. Thank you for a wonderful class.

John D.

It was good to hear about how Margaret Atwood encourages us to write first and research later. I can see how checking each fact as you go along breaking up the flow and spontaneity of the writing. And who knew about the history of the underpant(s)? Fascinating.

Sam

I thought I was going overboard with some of the research I'm doing for my own book, but this lesson showed me it's wise not to leave any stone unturned. Thanks for the reassurance!

Chris W.

What I found fascinating was Ms. Atwood’s interest in NOT being viewed as fanciful in The Handmaid’s Tale. She notes that she wanted to make sure that anything that happens in the book has happened somewhere in history, and my honest reaction was, “Who cares?” Even if some detail had no historical basis, it’d still be an incredible novel, and most people won’t know the historical antecedents anyway. I get wanting to have historical accuracy in a period piece, but I don’t get it for speculative fiction.

Caetlin W.

There are multitudes of tiny details in historical fiction that make that type of writing so challenging. I liked Ms. Atwood's suggestion to just write the book first and do the research afterward to fill in the blanks. I know I would end up getting lost in some rabbit hole if I tried to do all the research I thought I might need before ever writing a word. I would have too much material that I may or may not be able to use, and doing the research before writing the book would most certainly influence my writing. That isn't always a bad thing, but it is definitely something to think about.

Lydia N.

So may little things I did not think of. For example, you mention the color of the refrigerator. If I have someone smashing up against one in the 60s, I might want to contrast that color with blood. But I don't know WHAT COLORS there were back then. That is just an example, but this type of research is interesting and not only interesting but significant to my story.

J'nee H.

The History of Costumes that she mentioned is duly noted for future fact checking. She is also spot on once again with her example of the toaster. Similarly, I was eating a piece of corn on the cob "America style" with two hands. I was biting off buttery bits from left to right and then making a "ding" sound when I got to the end. Then I returned to the left with a jerk and began the process again. (I was just being silly doing something I did when I was younger.) However, my children thought I was certifiably crazy. It didn't dawn on me that they are from the key board generation and had little exposure to a manual or electric typewriter. Without the historical context-- I understandably was acting like a strange bird. So yet another great lesson that the devil is in the details and her historical research makes her stories so very believable.

Cameron C.

Her glee about those details about early designs and use of underpants cracked me up.

Marilee S.

Whew - lots of details that I never really thought about. In my book about my year in China, I attended two different weddings - a country wedding and one in the city. I found many brides and grooms came to a large Catholic Church (one of the few Mao didn't demolish.) The grounds were very beautiful and perfect for elegant photos. Many brides wore the traditional red gowns, which surprised me. Under the gowns, I could see tennis shoes. Guests were often not dressed as one might imagine - get out of here, wedding garb has been provided, but you're not wearing it. Didn't matterto the Chinese.