Historical Musings #13: The author’s note

Historical Musings

If you read historical fiction, you have probably noticed that many books in this genre include an ‘Author’s Note’ or ‘Historical Note’ at either the back or the front. You probably also have an opinion on these, whether good or bad.

In most cases, the author’s note is found at the end of the book and I think this is usually the most sensible place to put it. It means that if we don’t already know the history, we can enjoy the story without having any surprises spoiled for us and without disrupting our immersion in the lives of the characters. When the note appears at the back, the author tends to use it as an opportunity to explain where he or she has deviated away from the known historical facts and where they have had to use their imagination to fill in the gaps. I always appreciate it when an author does this, especially if it’s clear that they’ve researched the topic thoroughly and if they give good, logical reasons for the choices they’ve made in telling the story (rather than using their note as an excuse to explain away something completely implausible).

The Silvered Heart There can be other uses of the Author’s Note too: to share the author’s personal connection to the events of the story; to tell us what happened to any real historical figures after the novel ended; to make suggestions for further reading and even to provide photographs and illustrations – at the end of her novel The Silvered Heart, for example, Katherine Clements shares a picture of her heroine, Lady Katherine Ferrers.

Notes located at the front of the book are less common (although a foreword or introduction sometimes serves the same purpose) and are presumably intended to give us information that the author thinks it would be helpful to know before we start to read. In my current historical fiction read, The White Witch, Elizabeth Goudge places her Authors’ Note at the front and apologises in advance “for the many mistakes I must have unwittingly made”. Several of Dorothy Dunnett’s novels also contain an Author’s Note at the beginning, but they are very brief ones (I don’t feel the lack of detailed notes in her books, though – I think some books benefit from having them and others are fine without). Anya Seton’s Katherine, however, has a very detailed note at the front, describing how the author’s interest in Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt began, discussing the fates of some of the characters and listing her sources – information which I personally think would have been better placed at the end.

The Iron King I have read novels where the notes are provided at the back but are also referenced directly in the text. Maurice Druon’s Accursed Kings series comes to mind here. This has the advantage of clarifying points as soon as we encounter them in the story, but it can also break the flow of our reading. Not many authors choose this format for their notes – it’s what you would usually expect to find in non-fiction – but I think it suits the style of Druon’s novels.

As well as enjoying good historical notes in my historical fiction, I also appreciate it when a book includes maps, family trees, character lists, glossaries and/or pronunciation guides. Although some of my favourite books don’t contain any of these things (and if a subject really interests me, I’m always happy to do my own research anyway), I do think their inclusion adds something to the overall reading experience. Recently I have been particularly impressed by the amount of additional information provided in Robyn Young’s Robert the Bruce trilogy.

Of course, just because an author has included notes in his or her book, it doesn’t mean that you have to read them! The best novels, in my opinion, should stand alone from supplementary material and should be able to be enjoyed for the story itself whether or not you want to read the notes.

How do you feel about Author’s Notes in historical fiction novels? Do you read them or not? Which authors do you think write the best notes?

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17 thoughts on “Historical Musings #13: The author’s note”

  1. I do read Author’s Notes – the ones I particularly like are C J Sansom’s, William Broderick’s, both of explain clearly what is fact and what is fiction in their books. The most comprehensive I’ve read are in Susan Howatch’s Starbridge books, which I read many years ago, but they still stick in my mind. I also liked Geraldine Brook’s note in the most recent book I’ve read, People of the Book.

    I’m not so keen on Introductions as they often give away the plot – so if I read them it’s always after I’ve read the book. I agree that it is is helpful when a book includes maps, family trees, character lists, glossaries and/or pronunciation guides.

    1. I think when an author includes some or all of those things in their books it shows that they’ve put a lot of care into building up a full picture of the novel’s historical world for the reader. I haven’t read the Starbridge series but I have read a few of Susan Howatch’s other books and they are on my list to re-read in the near future!

  2. I always like Author’s Notes, and always at the end of the book, though some authors like Edward Rutherfurd include some sort of guidance at the beginning. I like detailed Notes, but I don’t like footnotes, unless it is non-fiction and original research, because I feel my attention spreading in too many directions.

    1. I’m happy with brief notes at the beginning to provide some historical background, or like Edward Rutherfurd’s, as you’ve mentioned. I prefer the more detailed notes to be placed at the back.

  3. I read a lot of historical novels in my youth — of the Rosemary Sutcliff and Geoffrey Trease ilk — but have sadly neglected it since. A lot of it probably stems from my longtime interest in the Arthurian period and the resulting disquiet at how too many authors (many of whom ought to have known better) have played hard and fast with what little we have known of the times while introducing a whole heap of anachronistic and, frankly, mythical material. Whether they included notes in a preface or in an afterword made no difference to me when I couldn’t willingly suspend my disbelief in the first place. There’s just no pleasing some people …

    1. I haven’t read many Arthurian novels, but I can see that it’s a period particularly susceptible to authors taking liberties with the known facts. I probably don’t really know enough about that period yet to notice the anachronisms, but I’m sure it must be annoying if you do have a lot of previous knowledge.

  4. I tend to read notes that are at the end of the book more often than I read the ones at at the beginning, unless they are setting up the story for me. That is because I don’t want anything to ruin the novel. Even introductions have occasionally given away key plot points. However, I appreciate the ones that tell more about the subject or tell what happened to the characters after the time of the book.

    1. I’m always very careful about reading introductions or notes at the front of the book because they do often contain spoilers. Sometimes when I come to the end of the book I’ll turn back to the beginning and read the introduction – it depends on how much I enjoyed the story and whether I’m interested in finding out more.

  5. I have to be honest — I’ve never read one of the Author’s Notes in any of my historical fiction books. I did read the note in The Boys in the Boat, but that’s historical narrative. There it was interesting to see how Daniel James Brown weaved together the story through archival material and interviews.

    Now I’m wondering how much I’ve missed not read Author’s Notes in historical fiction books. Whoops!

    1. I think the Author’s Notes are usually worth reading as they often contain lots of fascinating information on the historical background, characters and writing process. As long as you’ve enjoyed the story, though, you’re probably not missing too much by not reading the note.

  6. Thinking of the historical fiction I’ve read I think all of them have had the Author’s Notes at the back of the book, and I have appreciated when an author includes images and family trees. I would probably not like the Author’s Notes to be at the front – similar to introductions in classics which I don’t read first as they may contain spoilers or colour my view of the story or characters.

    Last year I really enjoyed Anne O’Brien’s notes in The King’s Sister as it gave me an interesting glimpse into her inspiration for researching and writing a story about Elizabeth of Lancaster.

    1. I avoid introductions in classics too, as I’ve had one or two books spoiled in the past by reading the introduction first. I like Author’s Notes to be placed at the back for the same reason. I agree that Anne O’Brien writes interesting notes. 🙂

  7. I always read the Author’s Notes; I do want to know what inspired the author and whether s/he took any liberties with the facts. While I prefer the notes to be at the end of the book, the location doesn’t matter that much to me, because I always read the notes after the book anyway. I am a total sucker for maps, though. Those I like to have right in the beginning so that I can study them before I start reading.

  8. I agree with most of the comments here. I have learned to avoid introductions because they always seem to assume you have already read the book and so give away plot points. The only exception is that sometimes I find helpful info when reading translated lit. I so appreciate maps, family trees, character lists, glossaries and/or pronunciation guides. And I have read every one of Elizabeth Goudge’s novels. I love her and go back to her when I need to remember that not all of the world is dark and bad and dysfunctional!

    1. So far I’ve only read The Child from the Sea and half of The White Witch, but based on those two books I think Elizabeth Goudge could become a favourite author of mine too.

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