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Arts & Entertainment

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

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

Atwood is very knowledgable with a wonderfully blunt way of saying what she wants to whilst still gently guiding her students along her MasterClass.

It was wonderful to hear about your writing process and life experience as a writer. I would have loved to be given assignments to practice what she teaches!

Margaret Atwood is a badass. I learned a great deal from her! She is a treasure trove of knowledge and wisdom.

This likely the best Writing class I ever had, even from the ones I followed in University


Comments

Diane C.

This was one of the more useful lessons for me: write first, fact-check later. I think I get so bogged down in researching every last scrap of information that it holds me back from the actual writing. It's a form of procrastination. I love to research too, and it's easier than writing because I'm not vested in how it turns out.

April C.

I'm curious if anyone has a perspective on this issue: My novel is inspiring by a real-life series of events that has permanently affected scientific taxonomy, but the novel is meant to be fiction. I find myself tempted to use details or similar characters as the things that inspired the novel. How much can a novelist generally get away with making circumstances and characters similar to real events? I know anyone can sue anyone, but when does it become especially risky. The actual characters who put in motion the series of events that inspired the novel are dead, but I imagine that relatives of his might recognize some of the details of the story in my novel. Margaret's characters in her historical novel are from a long time ago than mine, so it doesn't seem like this was much of a concern of hers. Also, am I the only person here who is slightly in love with Ms. Atwood? Her little sarcasm, witticisms, and giggles are completely adorable. : )

Globalman

The more I watch the more fascinating I find Ms. Atwood. Her manner of speaking, describing and story telling are almost addictive along with her occasional little laugh of irony or sarcasm. Actually not only draw strings broke but also elastic. One thing is interesting ...... the 19th Century and its views of woman which continued on into the 20th century. It was not ladylike or proper for a woman to be present at a Hanging. How and when this mentality began I don't know. However it was not the case in previous centuries. During the middle ages and renaissance public executions were attended by much of the population of a town male, female and young people. During the French Revolution at beheadings were large numbers of women often in the front row. Many were knitting and they were known as "Les Tricoteuses", The Knitting Ladies. And I believe the Puritans who so prodigiously murdered innocent people in the name of their god hung, burned etc their victims before all the congregation as a warning to those who would be "different".

Dale U.

Margaret says write first then do the research. To think all this time I've been doing it backwards.

Alice T.

I am so enjoying these lessons and loving Margaret's cute little side jokes and notes. The importance of accuracy is one that I feel really makes a book more satisfying however I am limited to writing and doing my day job and so find I can be unkeen to spend too much time on research. I'm curious as to how much research are you guys putting into your writing or are you more ideas people?

Tauna S.

In historical work, from romances to mysteries, details need to be accurate. So must words used in conversations. There are programs that show when a word was first used and the peak use of those words. Including real people in your stories, can give it a sense of reality, so long as those people really were where you locate your characters. But, whether it is language, people, or circumstances of the time, they must be used the same way you use spices, to improve the recipe's flavor not overpower it.

Anne

So much to learn in these classes. I’ll be listening again! Thank you Ms Atwood

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.