27.8.11

Is accuracy important in historical fiction?

Sebastian Faulks when interviewed on radio 4 described himself as a novelist whose books happen to be set in the past. ‘For me,’ he said, ‘the use of historical settings is to cast the present in a more interesting and broader light.’


People are clearly more important to him than circumstantial detail. Some novels are so deeply researched they seem like non-fiction in disguise. In a romance they can kill the story dead by boring the reader. Even so, we must do our research and set the scene as accurately as we can. We can take some liberties, for the sake of the story, but if we veer too far from the facts as we know them, the reader may feel cheated and lose faith in the work. If a mistake crops up, an anachronism, this will jar the reader, and jerk them out of the story back to the present.

It’s also best also to avoid controversy or anything doubtful which has a hint of being anachronistic. It hasn’t so much to be correct as to feel correct. E.g: Soldiers did play baseball in the American Civil War. I believe they also played in a Jane Austen novel too, but the reader may find that hard to accept.

Societies traditions, moral mores and customs help to build the picture, but this is where even the most fanatical historian can come unstuck. Many time periods, such as the Regency, have become so stylised that you may actually be considered to have written a historically inaccurate book if you do not follow the “popular perceptions” of the period. Presenting a realistic, complex view of Society during a specific era can be the thing that makes the difference between a passable yarn and a gripping story.

Wine and Roses available from Regency Reads

It’s surely about striking the right balance. The story is the most important thing, but it must be firmly rooted in its world. It must not simply be a costume drama. The past must be made as relevant as the present. The problems are the same, human emotion, conflict and behaviour. Falling in love and losing that love are just as painful.
Bernard Cornwell said: ‘Essentially the background has to be right because it’s the detail of the background that pins down the fiction in the foreground.’

It’s a combination of accuracy and imagination to give credibility, create atmosphere, and make the story plausable. The writer needs to incorporate the odd, quirky detail. Perhaps the price of cheese, a housemaid’s monthly wage, a description of underwear, length of time for a journey, breed of horse, how someone would get their boots mended, what book or newspaper they might read. How would they conduct a funeral, spin wool, pluck a hen, fire a rifle, fight a duel or take part in a bare knuckle fight. Whatever is needed for your story.

When I can’t draw on personal experience or memories I use interviews, explore diaries, memoirs, biographies, newspapers, etc. I select with care and don’t put material in just to show off how much I’ve learnt. It is the attention to small detail which builds the atmosphere, and a strong sense of time and place which creates that feeling of reality and verisimilitude which is vital for the reader to sit back and enjoy the ride.

14 comments:

  1. There are so many things about historical accuracy in novels that annoys me. Firstly, if you are try to be absolutely accurate with your details, often an editor will insist the accuracy is removed or diluted, because the reader 'won't know that'. Recently, I saw a friend's book slated on Amazon for using the CORRECT word for an historical accessory, a word which the reviewer did not know and therefore felt must be wrong. (Why did she not google the word before reviewing, one wonders?)

    But if you go in there and treat the story and characters as more important than the nitty gritty of historical details, you get accused of not doing your research.

    I'm with Faulks, in general. I love period detail and historical accuracy, but it's less important to me than the people and their lives. Frankly, I would only get annoyed if something was so ludicrously anachronistic as to jolt me out of the story - a wristwatch, for instance, in a Regency. But I'm not reading with an eye to see if the reader knows her umbrellas from her parasols, and would love it if the same applied to my own readers.

    My basic feeling is, if a reader wants to read something wholly accurate about any period of history, they should please read a non-fiction book about the period - not a novel. This current endless harping on about accuracy above everything else is destroying the creation of fiction in favour of a dry, careful, factually-driven account.

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  2. I don't want to call it accuracy because no novelist
    or historian working today can be 100% accurate. We all have to speculate
    and form particular opinions at some point based on what we know - or think
    we know. But integrity is a different matter. It means striving to stay
    within the mindset of the period and interpreting the facts in a consistent
    and logical way. (the more research one does, the easier that becomes). I also believe that a writer who is good enough at their craft can work with the known historical facts without having to twist or distort them and still be able to tell a darned good story with vibrant characters that will engage the reader. It's not one or the other and the end result should be seamless. I get so sick of hearing people say 'If I want historical accuracy I'll read a non fiction book.' I'm busy researching non fiction books at the moment and the accuracy in half of them is shot to blazes believe me. The only way to get at an approximation of the truth is to read the primary sources from as many angles as possible, and I guess most readers aren't going to go into that much depth. I do as a researcher, because I want my novel to feel right to me. No editor has ever asked me to remove material and if there is a dilemma then the author's note exists to put things right. Just because some readers are ignorant, doesn't mean you should stop striving. I find one of the most exciting things about writing historical fiction is creating that interface between the known history and the reader. The writer is the bridge, and it's such a vital role.
    It's about transporting the reader to another world. Some readers will be more knowledgeable than others and yuou can't please everyone, but IMO a writer should aim for excellence in both the depth and breadth of their research and the skill of their story telling. That way the don't cares still get to read a fantastic story and the do cares get their history fix on top and everyone (or nearly everyone!) is happy.

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  3. Thank you for your comments, ladies. I do agree with the points you both raise, but you will always get Disgruntled from Tunbridge Wells who will write in the margins of their library book, delighted to have found a perceived error, so we must do our best to thwart them, I suppose, and create a world they believe in.

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  4. As a reader I would have to say that if you don't know anything about it or unsure then... DON'T PUT IT IN!!!

    Sorry, but I had to say that. Clothing can be a real minefield as different regons and countries wore slightly different styles. As can a whole lot of other things, weapons, armour, what they ate, lower class aginst upper class.

    I'm glad that you mentioned Bernard Cornwell, as I am currently reading his grail series and I had to double take on what he described one of the main women was wearing. Lace! Which from my understanding wasn't worn in 14th century anywhere... at least no one except the clergy. This link helps to explain just when and who created it. http://www.lacemakerslace.oddquine.co.uk/history.html

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  5. Very interesting, Freda, especially to this first time historical novelist! As a reader, I love to feel I am right there in the period in which the book is set (as far as possible), but the characters and their stories are always more important. I only feel cheated if it's a glaringly obvious anachronism.

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  6. As a reader and novice historical writer, I find that one does research so that your characters are of the period, I don't like a lot of historical detail if there is no apparent reason for telling me the reader about why a room looks a certain way or other detail. As a reader I tend to gloss right over it in large part often these long stretches of historial detail come off as info dumps, sort of "look at me I did my research" but if there is no purpose to the detail I feel it is a waste of word space. I am one of those anal readers who does look up something historical that seems out of place and often find the author is right, though it is a "no no" to take the reader out of the story, if the reader doesn't go back it probably wasn't the historical detail but something else lacking in the story that made them not finish. What gets me as both a writer and reader of historical fiction or historical romance is the complainer who says they don't want to a history lesson and I have to ask why then read historical fiction at all.

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  7. I think that writing in an historical period is interesting and exciting just because of the constraints such a period puts on the author. Some people read two books by Philippa Carr or Georgette Heyer and feel they know a period . Knowing when and where marriages could take place, or who could inherit what and writing within those boundaries is what I call historical accuracy. None of us are likely to write about stinking privies or primitive medicine unless our main character is a time traveler to whom such things would be noticeable.
    One should know the strata of society, the place of the church, the laws of marriage, and rights of women of the time period. It is easy enough today to research clothes.

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  8. Awesome post! I agree, Freda! Historical fiction and historical romance are two different animals. I recently had a nice review by a historical fiction reader. In general she liked my story but her main complaint seemed to be about the "romance" hero, who is, in my opinion, right in line with what romance readers expect from a great hero, but he is not precisely like a man from the 1600s would've been. I agree, there is a delicate balance. As a historical romance writer, I want to transport the reader to the past, but the romance relationship is still the primary element. However, the same story cannot exist without both, the characters and their relationship and the historical setting. The two need to be inseparable. As for the history lesson, I would see that as the info dump where the writer is including everything they learned about such and such, instead of inserting the detail they need and moving forward with the action of the story.

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  9. Excellent post Freda! This is the second blog I have read today regarding paying attention to the details. Grace Burrows spoke today about subtle build up to romance in a fiction romance novel.

    Sight, sound, scenery, feel, hear, touch, taste, I learned from my teacher who just posted her opinion (Vonda Sinclair). And I just finished reading My Fierce Highlander as well.

    The important thing for me as the reader is if it feels realistic to me. Do I make that emotional connection to the character. If the writer has done his or her job well then I will be transplanted back to the Highlands, or riding the rough seas during the War of 1812. In building the details through subtle observation I am there in that place and time.

    As a writer it is my duty to get it right but to make sure I don't bore you to tears. One of my favorite authors has a tendency to go off on a Historical tangent. As the writer/researcher I am fascinated by the information she weaves in the story but as the reader, I just want her to get on with it.

    It is definitely a fine line that we must all walk.

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  10. I live where history of my stories surround me - the 1849 gold rush era. I like being able to see the sights I put into my story so it does take me back a bit when contest judges tell me I don't know what I am talking about...such as the one who said we don't have deer in California. I had six in my backyard at the time. As the other said, I try my best to see that what I put in historically is accurate.

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  11. I researched for three years to get the Macpherson clan and Scotland as accurate as I could. I still hope I do it justice in my books.

    Thanks for posting this topic Freda.

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  12. My hope is to be able to work my history into my story so well that the historical detail simply comes across as a contemporary describing what's familiar. Jane Austen, of course did it for the Regency because she was writing what to her were contemporaries. Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series is awe-inspiring in its use of detail, which he includes with hardly any stalling of the story for info dumps. (Of course the time-honored technique of having a newbie to a technical world--Maturin's ignorance of the navy and the sea--helps enormously.)

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  13. Always an interesting topic. I don't understand the "don't teach me anything" readers... Accurate historicals teach far more about other times than any lecture, and those who don't learn from history...

    Funny you quote Bernard Cornwell; he's one of those writers whose massive amount of info makes my eyes glaze over. Patrick O'Brian was, IMO, a much better writer in terms of exquisite use of immersion in the period. It was hard sailing through the first book - and I bought the glossary! - but the stories were so absorbing that it was well worth the effort. As Vivian Davis says, Dr. Maturin was brilliant -- both new to the seafaring environment AND an intelligent, progressive man whose personality was a link to the modern-day reader.

    On the other hand, I was sorely disappointed to read a Victorian mystery by one of my favorite authors... who didn't know the difference between a barony and a baronetcy, and thought a prince could be addressed as "Your Majesty." From a major publisher, too...

    I think it's all about skill and the willingness to do the work--both at the writing and editing levels.

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  14. Depends on who you're talking to.

    I was reading a thread on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, and more than one person said she didn't care about historical accuracy because she wouldn't know anyway.

    That type of reader exists. At the same time, there are also fanatical readers who want everything correct down to the last button (or appropriate clothing fastener). I suggest you find a happy medium. No matter how much research you do, you will never know it all. After all, scholars don't know it all either. Be as accurate as you can, because, despite what the above reader said, I think most readers of historicals want something that's halfway like history.

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