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Monday, July 25, 2011

Historical Accuracy....Important or just too nerdy?

In my on-line writing group for Regency Writers, some of us were bemoaning the fact that so many novels labeled historicals are historically inaccurate. In the 80’s, historicals were pretty much anything goes. A few authors did a great job of blending a great story with historical accuracy, but many best-selling authors just wrote whatever they wanted and didn’t worry about too much about. Unfortunately, publishers let them get away with it and readers swallowed it. Now don't get me wrong, they crafted wonderful stories with wonderful characters, but they created their own rules which many readers accepted as fact but were, in fact, myth.

A prime example of this is the myth that marriage could be quietly annulled if it wasn’t consummated. I don’t know who started that, but it is unarguably false. There was an ancient Scottish tradition that allowed for annulment in certain circumstances if the marriage was not consummated, but for all intents and purposes, marriage was permanent especially in England. Furthermore, in England, annulment was messy and scandalous and never, ever happened quietly. It also socially ruined both the husband and the wife. Even divorce was difficult to obtain until King Henry VII legalized divorce in England, and even then, never became an easy thing to do until late in the 20th century.

Today, more and more publishers are looking for historical accuracy, but still not enough to satisfy many history geeks. The winner of a nationally recognized historical contest began her Regency novel with a grand wedding full of descriptions that are modern inventions which never happened in that era. Why did she win? Probably because it was a lovely fantasy that blended history with modern-day traditions, and she was a good writer. Too bad the judges overlooked the fact that it was historically inaccurate. A few hours spent in research would have won her not only the contest, but the respect of other regency authors and the well-informed readers who know better. However, she probably understood that readers have a certain expectation and wanted to meet that instead of rely upon historical accuracy.

Why do we care about historical accuracy? Several reasons.

First, it’s true. The fiction comes from the plot and the characters, not the setting.

Second, it helps preserve our heritage.

Third, we can learn from the past and see that maybe the good old days weren’t all that good, which helps us appreciate our day....or that the good old days really were wonderful and should be treasured--and remembered.

Fourth, many readers (and writers) are fascinated with that era and want sources to guide them through it.

Fifth, keeping an accurate backdrop helps shape the characters. Research is more than just learning about what the clothing looked like, or what kind of carriages they drove; it’s about society and people, how they behaved and what their expectations and frustrations were. It’s a realm long gone and our only doorway back is through painstaking research.

Some say, “Oh, well, it’s the story we want and the fantasy that entertains us.” To that I say, “Well, fine, then label it a fantasy, not a historical.” If you’re going to call a novel Historical, or Historical Fiction, do the research. I know it's a pain. A few years ago, I had characters nagging me to write their stories but I resisted because I didn't want to do the amount of research that would be required. Finally, when they wouldn't leave me alone, I broke down and began researching. It's hard, and frustrating, and very time consuming. But it was worth it. The fruits of my labor became the Rogue Hearts series, beginning with The Stranger She Married and The Guise of a Gentleman.

In the midst of the on-line ranting, one of the published authors in my group shared with us her philosophy:

As a writer, my job is threefold:

1) do my homework well enough to please my fellow history geeks,

2) make the story compelling enough to hook readers who don't care whether or not it's accurate, and

3) don’t stress over writers/readers who prefer the fairytale.

It resonated within me. I hope it helps you, too.


Judith Ashley said...

Hi Donna,
Great reasons to do your research! Knowing one has written the best book one can is a certainly a writer's goal - and if it is inaccurrate, then it isn't one's best.

Sarah Raplee said...

I expect anything labeled 'historical' to be historically accurate in relation to the time and place and historical figures and events. I enjoy learning historical facts and trivia while reading historical books. If I can't trust the author to do her research, I won't buy the book.

Vonnie Alto said...

I wholeheartedly agree. Research takes time to get it right. Even if it means posting annoying questions on writing loops. The result is worth the effort.

Mary Vine said...

I was talking with an author the other day and she was telling me about how much time she spent doing research. I was amazed at all the time she gave to her story before she'd started, but appreciated her books more because of it. Thanks for your take on it.

Tam Linsey said...

I couldn't agree with you more. Too many people can't remember where they "learned" a history fact, and all too often it is out of fiction. At least help them get their facts right!