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).
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.
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?