Chapter 20 of 23 from Margaret Atwood

Research and Historical Accuracy

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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.

Topics include: The Importance of Accuracy • Sources for Research • Historical Accuracy in Alias Grace • Unearthing the Research • Costume Accuracy • A Note on the History of Underpants

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood Teaches Creative Writing

Learn how the author of The Handmaid’s Tale crafts vivid prose and hooks readers with her timeless approach to storytelling.

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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 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.

Analyzing literary classics and her own work, Margaret demonstrates her approach to crafting complex dystopias.

A downloadable workbook accompanies the class with lesson recaps, assignments, and supplemental materials.

Upload videos to get feedback from the class. Margaret will also critique select student work.

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Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood Teaches Creative Writing