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Writing Historicals – How Accurate Must You Be?

24 March 2013

From Writers in the Storm Blog:

I’ve attended a few panels on the knotty problem of how accurate you have to be when writing historicals, so for those of you who read or write historical novels, I thought I’d pass along what I’ve gleaned.

. . . .

In Larry McMurtry’s epic Lonesome Dove, the heroes drive cattle from Texas to Montana and never encounter any of the three intercontinental railroads they should have crossed along the way.   In his Comanche Moon, a character has a Winchester rifle even though the weapon was not invented for 10 more years.

. . . .

Are the stories any less compelling? The answer probably depends on your perspective. A history professor may reject such liberties, while to someone with a more cursory knowledge of the historical period, ignorance would be bliss.  The trick to writing a story from an earlier time period is to find the right balance between dry-as-dust history and an engaging story, and how accurate you need to be, I think, depends on who your readers are.

So–how accurate does your readership want you to be? If you are writing “hot” Regencies, the answer is probably not very accurate, because nice young ladies didn’t fool around (and were definitely never given an opportunity.)   Along the same lines, nice young ladies didn’t go west in the early-and-mid nineteenth century to stake out a homestead or run a cattle ranch; the huge majority were prostitutes.

. . . .

Have you tied yourself down to a certain year? Is there a commonly-known historic event in your story?  If so, it is probably necessary to be a little more careful in your accuracy, which is actually a lot easier than you think, thanks to Google and Wikipedia. Were there gas stoves, yet?  Was Stetson selling hats?  And be especially careful about weapons–the gun people are sticklers.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm Blog

Romance, Writing Advice

19 Comments to “Writing Historicals – How Accurate Must You Be?”

  1. I once DNF’d an historical romance set in England because the characters ate American-style fried chicken on a picnic. Fried chicken, aka Kentucky Fried Chicken, was barely known in America at the time.
    That being said, I think if the story had held my interest I would have been able to overlook the fried chicken dissonance.

  2. Historical romances run the gamut. Some try really hard to be accurate, while others are just contemporary romances with carriages and cravats. The latter ones drive me crazy–I consider them DNF material–but clearly many readers like them, because they sell.

    I don’t care too much about the accuracy of small details. Honestly, I don’t know the history of the era well enough to even notice most of those mistakes. What I do notice is when the author gives her characters modern sensibilities and puts them in situations that would never have happened in that era (such as the heroine going to the hero’s house, alone, to have dinner with him). I like reading historical romances because I enjoy reading about the different ways people thought and acted in that era. So what’s the point in my reading it if the characters think and act like they time-traveled from the 21st century?

    • See, I *love* writing historical romance set in the Victorian era specifically BECAUSE the social strictures make it so much more difficult for the (unmarried) hero and heroine to get quality time together. 🙂 Lots more fun for me as a writer, and for the reader as well, to have that additional societal conflict added in.

      • That’s an excellent reason for loving what you do. Historical romance is not at all my cup of tea, but you almost make me want to try yours.

        The price, of course, is that you lose the reader who has no sense of history at all. She will fling the book across the room and say: ‘Oh, for Pete’s sake. Why didn’t they just get a motel room, a box of spermicidal condoms, and a morning-after pill? Were they afraid of ending up on YouTube?’ (I presume this reader is female; men that ignorant are liable to be watching football instead.)

        But something tells me the loss of that reader is a prospect you can contemplate with equanimity.

  3. As the writer of historical mysteries (with a romantic element) this is, of course, a difficult issue for me. As a reader I tend to enjoy reading historicals not written about my period (late Victorian US) because I don’t get stopped in my tracks over small inaccuracies (or probably large ones).

    As a writer I have had to develop a thick skin because it seems my harshest reviews come from people who say they don’t like the fact that my heroine has modern feminist sensibilities–when I know that all the times my heroine says something that sounds modern–I am shamelessly paraphrasing from some real 19th feminist. I

    n addition, I know that my historical details are accurate (even to having women go “undercover” –although most times this was done by budding reformers interested in publicizing bad working conditions) because I researched and wrote a doctoral dissertation on women in this period, yet I still have to take into consideration not bringing a reader out of the story because they don’t think it is accurate.

    I am not going to falsify my material to make it sound historical to the average reader, but if the historical point is trivial (the use of a tool, a game, or an expression) I may chose to not use it so as not to break the bond between the reader and the story. I just wrote a blog piece on this recently “The Dude Abides” when I realized I had to refrain from using the word dude (newly minted in late Victorian era) because of its modern connotations.

    As with almost anything, it’s a balancing act, and I do appreciate the readers who are able to let their inner critics or skeptics go and enjoy the story.

    Mary Louisa

    • I’ve written historical novels and plays and I do my research meticulously – plus, I have a Masters in oral history and know a lot about certain periods in Scottish history in particular. I find if I’m reading something set in Scotland which is full of anachronisms or inaccuracies it jars with me to the extent that I seldom carry on. But Mary Louisa’s point above is very well made. My editor for the Curiosity Cabinet queried non-existent anachronisms all the way through, but as a writer, you’re juggling the requirements of the reader with your own perhaps more detailed knowledge. I debated long and hard about the term ‘ghostly gear’ to describe a dead woman’s possessions. The word ‘gear’ was used in Scotland to denote possessions for many hundreds of years yet sounds very modern. In the event, I left it in, because I liked it. But I still wonder if somebody might query it!

    • I personally don’t mind at all if a heroine in a historical romance has modern feminist sensibilities. In fact, I prefer such characters, because the ones who accept a lesser role without complaint make me sad. What I feel I need is a sense that the character’s decision to be a feminist is a hard one. She gets pushback from society, she gets pushback from her parents and/or peers. I want a sense that while she is feminist, the society she’s living in is not, and her demand for equality and fairness requires courage and sometimes sacrifice.

    • Any joy from “afterwords” that show the research?

  4. BarbaraMorgenroth

    The OED should be their BFF.

  5. For me, it’s all about the quality of the writing. If the prose is graceful and the characters are unique, I’ll be engaged in the story. When I’m engaged, I’ll swallow just about anything the writer throws my way.

    If the writing is pedestrian or ill-thought, and if the characters are poorly drawn and lifeless, then I’m nitpicky to the extreme.

  6. I write Regencies, and believe me, die-hard fans pick apart every little nuance. I’ve done (and still do) tons of research, but even the littlest mistake can set someone off. As evidenced by 2 star reviews.

    That being said, if I read Larry McMurtry, I never would have noticed the railroad wasn’t there. Or the time difference on the rifle – or do you call it a shotgun?

    I suppose it depends on the reader.

    • Interestingly enough, for a Regency paranormal book I wrote, I’ve had people totally willing to accept an alternate history that included straight-up magic, but try to argue with me about some other perceived historical inaccuracy (in every case thus far, the other ‘inaccuracies’ were accurate for the period).

      So, it’s hard to know what will set people off.

    • The rifle is so called because the barrel is rifled–that is, inside the barrel are twists that impart a spin to the bullet, thereby enabling it to fly farther with more accuracy.

      Shotguns don’t have rifled barrels. They fire shot from shells, or slugs. You could regard a slug as a large bullet with no jacket. The ammo doesn’t fly as far, but it can be devastating in-range.

  7. I’m one of those readers who doesn’t like historical or cultural inaccuracies, but it does depend. The author who has one anachronism in 300 pages isn’t the problem for me – it’s the author who clearly doesn’t understand the historical period or culture they are writing in.

    My (least) favourite example is the Regency novels where the central plot point was the King making Lady X the ward of Lord Y. The whole point of the Regency was that the King insane and the Prince Regent was the acting monarch. If an author can’t get that right…

    I also dislike American authors using vocabulary that makes their Victorian English characters sound like modern-day Americans. An author doesn’t need a Masters or PhD in the period, but they do need more than a basic understanding of the history and culture of the period.

  8. I think it depends on the target audience. Historical Romances and Historical Mysteries can have a bit more latitude in that the “history” isn’t the focal point but the love story or mystery is so, as long as the story is compelling, readers tend to be more forgiving if, for example, you have a Strauss Jr. Waltz playing in the background of a scene set in 1850.

    I write historical fiction with a military bent and my readers tend to expect the history to be solid behind the story. I can get away with the “this COULD have happened” with fictional characters but not anything that has the wrong historical person in the wrong location or event. Makes it tricky at times but, with so many research tools available now, it makes it far easier to put in that little extra bit of time to track down the odd little bits and pieces.

  9. People will better believe a historical character is a feminist/suffragist if they reference Wollstonecraft or whoever is relevant for their period — and if the author includes some attitudes and sources not typical of a modern feminist. You have to provide a balance, and let the character express their ideas in a way that suits their time and place. Otherwise, you and the reader will both have a hard time believing the character.

    Readers want to be a little bit off-balance in a historical, because the past is a foreign country and that’s part of why we visit. But reminding people that some contemporary things go back a long way isn’t bad, either.

  10. My rule is that if I make a specific reference to a person who was real, a place that was real, or a thing that actually happened, it must either be accurate or it must be clear that this is an alternate history. (My out for this is that the universe most of my books are set in IS an alternate universe and is clearly so identified. However, I assume that it is extremely close to our own.)

    After that, I try to be reasonably realistic in terms of speech and manner, but if one of my characters is an iconoclast, then they are an iconoclast, and as long as there is SOME rational reason for them acting the way they do, then you can either like it, lump it, or toss it.

  11. I can say from experience in writing historical romance/historical fiction, that if you do not want to be crucified in reviews, you better be historically accurate in all ways from dialogue, lifestyle, customs, clothing, locations, and historical facts (if you throw any in). Yes, it takes time to research, but there’s always one reader out there who knows that you erred in some respect who is not hesitant to call you out on it. Creative liberties are not always acceptable to readers.

  12. *sticks to her fantasy setting* The freedom to do only shallow research — and deep thinking about implications — is very nice! Plus? Magic. 😉

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