Using ChatGPT to Write Historical Novels

Guest Post by Indrani Ganguly –

When I first heard Zager and Evans’ In the Year 2525 in 1969, I was sceptical of the dystopian vision of humans at risk of being made redundant or even extinct by their own technology. Being the eternal optimist, I was confident humans would never lose their creative sparks and be replaced by machines.

Although 2525 is still far away, I’m not so sure now that computers, the internet and various forms of artificial intelligence to do desktop research have become part and parcel of my writing life. However, I’d avoided ChatGPT altogether until fairly recently after being exposed to a discussion about how fellow writers of historical novels had used it.

My work in progress historical novel has several settings: Lahore (now in Pakistan), New Delhi (capital of India) and Australian cities including Melbourne, Orange and Lucknow. The time period is 1946-1950. Given that the geographical, cultural and historical scope is quite extensive, I decided to try out ChatGPT to see if it would help me save time, money and energy in doing some basic research and in assisting me to develop plots and characters.

I chose to test out areas where I had already done extensive research using conventional methods such as online and print resources, travel to some of the settings in the novel in both India and Australia as well as discussions with humans who had some knowledge about aspects of my topic to construct the scaffolding for my work.

My first step was to ask ChatGPT to describe some landmarks in Lahore, New Delhi and Melbourne as well as plan out some travel routes for my characters. It came up with quite a comprehensive and accurate response including both the historical and the contemporary names of roads. ChatGPT’s descriptions of important landmarks such as cinemas, temples and shopping areas also received a tick for bare bones factual accuracy. I could give this a tick as it tallied with my prior research and first-hand knowledge of New Delhi and Melbourne. I have never been to Lahore, but the information from ChatGPT tallied with what I had picked up from reliable print and online sources.

Significant gaps in ChatGPT’s responses included the historical context, descriptions of the weather and traffic and the sights, sounds and smells my characters would encounter. All of these required using conventional research methods and personal knowledge.

To be fair, ChatGPT always added the caveat that while the general direction and notable landmarks mentioned in the route description remained relevant, there could have been changes in specific road names and infrastructure over time. It recommended it was always a good idea to consult updated maps and local directions.

Another experiment was to ask ChatGPT to develop the profiles of my three main characters and compare it with my own constructions using the story arc method. I found that while there were some useful points, overall ChatGPT’s characters were very flat without the particular personality quirks, flaws and speech patterns that make both real life and fictional people interesting. The dialogue between the characters was extremely stilted without the little touches I added, to indicate their diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds and the body language that is an intrinsic part of interpersonal engagement. I’m sticking to personal knowledge of languages and what I’ve picked up from books and other humans.

A big no-no for me was that ChatGPT didn’t list the sources it had used. I couldn’t check if its data sources were accurate or even existed! I haven’t used anything which I couldn’t check against information from verifiable sources such as Trove (an online repository of Australian newspapers and printed books).

Overall, at this point, I believe that while AI tools like ChatGPT may be useful for writers of historical novels, they can only complement not replace conventional sources of information.

As both a writer and a reader, I feel ChatGPT cannot recreate the unique author’s voice that leads us to buy the books of our favourites and explore new voices. There is a world of difference between the writing of reports which follow a standardized format and the writing of creative works of fiction.

There is no satisfaction in presenting something a machine wrote as my own work. Like all writers, I want to know what people, not machines, think of my writing. Like all authors, I also want to retain control of my creations.  Anything generated by ChatGPT is not protected by copyright laws which apply only to works authored by humans.

My little experiments have led me to believe ChatGPT is best treated as a useful assistant functioning within guidelines that prevent it from becoming a modern form of Frankenstein’s monster.

Indrani Ganguly, an Australian of Bengali-Indian heritage, trained in history and sociology, has published academic books, articles, short stories, poetry and a debut historical novel The Rose and the Thorn.  She’s now working on the sequel.

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