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.
Which begs the question: does it matter?
In the 1980’s, the attitude toward historical novels was pretty much anything goes as long as it's a good story. 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 too much about research. Because the stories were fun and engaging, publishers let them get away with it. Unfortunately, a lot of those stories had situations that readers believed were truth, many of which are still accepted as truth today.
A prime example of this is the myth in Regency romance novels is 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. Annulment was messy and scandalous and never, ever happened quietly. It also socially ruined both the husband and the wife. Even after King Henry VII legalized divorce in England, divorce was difficult to obtain and still had a huge social and legal backlash.
Today, more and more publishers are looking for historical accuracy, but still not enough to satisfy some history geeks. The winner of a nationally recognized historical contest began her Regency romance novel with a grand wedding full of descriptions that are modern inventions which never happened in that era. Why did she win? 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.
Why do we, the authors of Regency Romance novels care about historical accuracy? Several reasons.
First, it’s true. The fiction comes from the plot and the characters, not the setting.
Second, accuracy helps preserve our heritage.
Third, we can learn from the past and see that maybe the good old days weren’t all that good, or that they were wonderful and should be treasured.
Fourth, many readers (and writers) are fascinated with the Regency era and want sources to guide them through it. In other words, they want to know what it was really like. That's part of why they read Regency romance novels.
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. 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, or fiction, but not a historical.” If you’re going to call a novel Historical, or Historical Fiction, or Regency, do the research. I know it's a pain. I had characters nagging me to write their stories for years 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. At first, it was hard, and frustrating, and very time consuming. But worth it. The end result was my first ever Regency romance novel entitled, The Stranger She Married, published in 2008, Book 1 of the Rogue Hearts Series.
Now I'm hooked on the Era so much that I read research books on Regency England just for fun. Okay, well, it's continuing research and all that, but really, I read those research books because I have become a Regency geek. My head is so stuffed full of Regency trivia that I have probably lost touch with the real world. But I digress.
In the midst of the on-line ranting, one of the published authors in my group shared with us her philosophy:
As a Regency romance author, 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.