How Accurate Do Your Historicals Need To Be?

I’ve heard various opinions on this, either in conversations with fellow writers or in blog posts. One thing I’ve found is that opinion amongst those romance writers I’ve talked to vary WIDELY.

One writer I talked to, when I said that the historical inaccuracies in one NYT Bestselling Author used to bother me, but her delightful writing and humor won me over, stated she couldn’t read her works because of the inaccuracies. I’ve heard others say that they don’t worry too much about historical accuracy when writing because they consider the historical past a fantasy world.

I think I fall somewhere between, with my bar as a writer higher than as a reader.

While I agree that the worlds we are creating for our reader are fantasy worlds, that fantasy world can be popped if we’re too careless with facts. It’s true that we write about situations and events that might not have happened, heck, I wrote a time travel, and we know there just weren’t that many scorchingly handsome, progressive-thinking single dukes to be had in Regency England for our Bluestocking heroine. But I do think we have a responsibility to be as accurate as we can while still creating that fantasy world for our readers.

I feel like if a book has the basics down, I’m able to suspend my disbelief and immerse myself in the straight-up Regency with the aforementioned hijinks of the duke and heroine, or into the wonderful world of vampires, werewolves and tea in Victorian England, like Gail Carriger’s wonderful Parasol Protectorate series. I wonder if it’s the same level of tolerance paranormal writers talk about? You can have one made up thing/premise, but throw in more and you risk popping that bubble?

So if the premise is what we’re making up, shouldn’t we try to be as accurate as possible with the day-to-day, non-plot elements? Nothing yanks me out of that world than simple historical details that could easily be fixed without affecting the plot. Some things that yanked me out recently:

  • Addressing someone by the wrong title. It should have been Lady Something, not Miss Something
  • Introduction etiquette–who-gets-introduced-first type of thing.
  • Having the heroine refer to wearing bloomers (and using that word) in a Regency. Not only a problem with word choice, but they didn’t wear pantaloons or drawers in the early Regency.
  • Having an historical character know that a Jane Austen novel was written by Jane Austen and the book is set prior to 1817. I blogged about fact-checking last year and about this particular date.
  • Using modern day valuations for transactions. I remember one historical where the hero gave the heroine like a 100,000 British pounds piece of jewelry. While yes, today, that would be extremely expensive and would show how wealthy the dude was, did the writer understand how freakishly, astronomically expensive that would have been in modern terms when converted to the valuation of the pound in the novel’s time?
  • Using the word fiancé or fianceé in a Regency. They used the word betrothed until about the 1850s.
  • A Scotsman from the 900s wielding a claymore.

I know that there’s way more than this that will yank me out, but that’s all I can think of that I remember, or came across in my reading in the last week (wish I’d taken notes!). I also know we can’t possibly get everything accurate, because sometimes even historians are divided about what really happened. And also because sometimes we just can’t know. Or it’s something that only someone with a doctorate in history would happen to know. After all, we’re not writing non-fiction, we are writing entertainment. But for things that are basic, like what they ate and wore, etc., we should strive to be as accurate as possible. That’s my take.

Also, others might look at some of my examples and roll their eyes as their tolerance as a reader is lower. And that’s fine. It’s all about the reader and what keeps their willing suspension of disbelief.

This also underscores how important Beta readers are. I know mine have caught numerous historical inaccuracies and anachronisms in mine! (Thank you!)

As a reader, where do you fall on this spectrum? Writers, how accurate do you strive to be? As a writer, is your reading tolerance higher or lower than what you write?

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30 Comments

  1. I am a very intolerant reader and an ever more intolerant writer. I tried and gave up reading several well know historial authors before I even thought about writing myself. I don’t get why an author can’t get the culture of their period correct. That includes, language, clothing, horses, carriages, food, you name it.

    Reply
    • I know, it irks me too. You might have a slightly higher intolerance than me as a reader, but I’m hoping I’m aiming at the same bar as you for my writing. I wonder if it comes down to laziness? Or the fast world of publishing? I think the argument about it being a fantasy world we’re creating is only true to a point. What bothers me is when writers use that as an excuse to just do a window-dressing Regency, or what have you.

      Reply
      • Thank you, Angela. I research almost everything. Though I do have a square-necked gown in one book when they were out style by two years. I may go back and change it. The number one reason I’ve heard for writers allowing themselves to be inaccurate is: “But she’s a best selling author and she’d not accurate.” I can think of two in particular to which the people to say that are referring. And guess what? I don’t like their books.

  2. I’m inconsistent. Sometimes historical inaccuracies drive me nuts, other times they don’t bother me at all. A lot depends on how well I know the period, and how engaging I find the characters. Now that I’ve spent a year trying to write a historical and know how bloody difficult it is, I’ve become a great deal more tolerant.

    Reply
    • I think for me, analyzing when it’s bothersome and when it’s not, I wonder if it comes down to the writing itself? The recent published writer that inspired this post and had several of the bullet points I mentioned, also had these inaccuracies coupled with lazy writing. For example, several times she used “discrete” instead of “discreet” or the writing just wasn’t very tight, or the characters weren’t very consistent. The one writer I allude to that I tolerate, and I know Ella doesn’t ;), could be because otherwise her prose and characters are so well done.

      Reply
  3. Good post, Angela, and attention to detail is exactly why I don’t write Regencies. Love to read them. Would get knocked unconscious with my own book by the readers if I tried to write them. I’m sticking to what I know, the American Western Historicals. Saddle up! LOL!

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  4. If you write historical fiction for young readers, you have to have a bibliography to back-up your research for the story to the publishing company. And then most writers list the liberties they took in relation to historical figures or locations in an afterward.

    Reply
  5. Historical inaccuracies will bring me out of a novel briefly, though only a few have sent me running to a computer to fact check. I very seldom stop reading a book because of inaccuracies. As writer I try my hardest to get everything right–all the details, like you said. i have a go-to person who catches my mistakes and I thank God for her! :)

    Reply
  6. derekd

     /  October 29, 2012

    Hmm, great question. I’m studying to be a history teacher and am already a medieval geek, so I love all the small details. However, I grow weary of writers who feel the need to drop the story into the political setting of the day. I roll my eyes each time I read about an encounter with Robert The Bruce or Wm Wallace. If these characters are integral to the story, fine, but more often famous historical figures are used to try and ground the tale in a particular time period and it comes across forced.

    Hannah Howell is an example author who comes to mind that is pretty light on setting and detail. However, she is a fun read and with 16 books in one series (at last count), not doing too badly. I know enough about that period that I don’t need much from her or any other writer, as my mind fills in the details nicely. Perhaps leaving it to the reader’s imagination is better than getting it wrong?

    If we are writing historical romance, then there already is plenty of fantasy going on. The H/H’s hygiene, dental condition, levels of ecstasy reached in the love scenes, the amazing restorative powers when the H/H are injured, etc. I’m fine with taking some liberties, and I can forgive a miscue with a historical detail more than I can a heroine who was smacked around and then seems to function just fine the next day without any lingering physical problems.

    Reply
  7. I’m very annoyed at the whole Gossip Girl in period clothes trend I see in YA historicals, with books like The Luxe, Vixen, and Gilt. I admit I was guilty of the same thing in my earliest days of writing 20th century historical (for some reason, my 18th and 19th century stories were a lot more historically accurate), but my excuse was that I was like 11-13. Not an adult with a publishing contract and a college degree to know better. If you want to write about contemporary-minded characters, don’t put them in the past and use history as shallow window-dressing!

    Other historicals make me wonder if the writer did any research at all into the time period, setting, and specific situation. I’ve heard that The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is like the literary equivalent of Life Is Beautiful; i.e., making the Shoah into fun and games, not a big deal, something that was easy for a little kid to survive. And to think the agents at a YA Lit Chat pitch event earlier this year were accusing ME of not having written a historically accurate book set during that same time period (albeit not in the camps) because the hero escapes from a death train midway through. I’ve read at least one Shoah memoir where the author DID in fact escape from a train, and heard other stories about it. It was uncommon, but it did happen more than a few times.

    Reply
  8. Hi Angela. Enjoyed the post. It’s a never ending discussion. Sorry you don’t like fiancé. I struggled with that one but finally decided to use it because I don’t like the alternative. Referring to “my betrothed” or “my engaged husband” or whatever seems affected to me if it’s used too often. I write in modern English while trying to avoid anachronisms. My researches indicate that fiancé(e) is probably OK by the 1830s but I use it earlier. I give myself more latitude with foreign words because the educated English did (and still do) like to toss French phrases into their speech. I once had a very picky copy editor who insisted I italicize any foreign word that hadn’t yet been fully anglicized by the date in question. Well, OK. But overuse of italics annoys me too. We all have to make these choices and some people aren’t going to like them. :)

    I agree that my tolerance as a reader is pretty broad. I notice things because I’ve researched them myself, but I accept that most readers don’t. As always, good story and characters come first. I’ve read some incredibly boring books that are “accurate.” Give me a compelling mistoical any time.

    Reply
    • Hi Miranda! Thanks for visiting and commenting! I think you bring up a great point, and that is when a writer makes a conscious decision like you do to make the story more relatable/accessible (I don’t remember getting pulled out of yours). Perhaps it’s like grammar–know the rules before you break them? I think it must all come down to craft and skill–if the story is so well written and wonderful I might not even notice the inaccuracies or even care (like the auto-buy author for me whom I mention in my post)

      The one that inspired the post didn’t give me the impression it was conscious— there were so many and it was coupled with lazy characterization, writing and plot.

      We walk such a tightrope and like with anything in writing, we won’t be able to please everyone.

      Then there’s the problem of those who THINK they know and ding you and you happen to be right. I had a contest judge take me to task for my heroine using a calling card case saying that was a Victorian thing. While yes it was most popular then, there are existing ones that date to the Regency, and since mine’s in the 1830s like yours I figure I can get away with it :)

      Reply
    • Fiance does make me grit my teeth, but you’re stories are so good and for the most part entirely accurate, that I get over it and continue reading.

      Reply
      • Miranda Neville

         /  October 30, 2012

        Thank you, Ella. And I hope I don’t put too much stress on your dental work :)

  9. “Or it’s something that only someone with a doctorate in history would happen to know.”

    You hit the nail on the head with that one. Thanks for the cute post and the adorable dog.

    Reply
  10. I’m afraid I am less than tolerant of historical inaccuracy, both as a reader and a writer. But the truth is, no matter how “accurate” we try to be, we are interpreting history across years of time. What we think of as accurate may be all wrong. (Once, as I agonized over being unable to find a full description of something, a friend said “if no one knows, you can make it up!”)
    I, too, have put down well-reviewed writers because I kept tripping over blatant errors. My pet peeve is using words that didn’t exist in the period. (Fiance, however, is new to me!) Even here, there’s a balance. No one wants to read my medievals in Chaucer’s Middle English. And there are some words you just have to fudge.
    On the other hand, when I do find a PhD level tidbit that brings the period to life, I feel as if I have done the reader, and the story, a service. After all, if we did not want to experience a different time, why read historicals at all?

    Reply
  11. Nancy

     /  October 29, 2012

    I focus more on the laws of marriage, divorce, and inheritance.. A couple getting married by the captain of a smuggler’s vessel; a couple planning a temporary marriage or looking for an easy divorce; an illegitimate child being chosen as heir to a dukedom. peerages being inherited by the son of the peer’s sister or English peers having to be elected to the House of Lords.
    Clothes, transportation and church come later. I am not as sensitive to langugae as I should be.

    Reply
  12. I was always a historical novel reader but one of the reasons I didn’t find romance all that interesting at first was the first few historical romances I read were rife with inaccuracies. Like the hero and heroine in revolutionary Boston have an argument and she says ‘let’s set out on the patio’ (huh?).

    As Blyth says, we really don’t want to read medieval novels on Chaucer’s Middle English – but writers should strive for authenticity when they can’t have accuracy. I read a historical western where the sheriff of the town spent the night in the only hotel with the unmarried heroine – and there was nothing said or done to suggest this might not have been appropriate for the time frame.

    I have been known to change events for the sake of my story, but I always include author’s notes to explain why I moved the fire in Durango by a couple of weeks, or why my Texas Ranges don’t actually have a badge in the time frame of my book.

    There is an old Chinese proverb – every time you open a book, you learn something. I believe historical writer has a duty to make sure their work is an authentic representation of the time they are depicting in the novel.

    Reply
  13. I had one manuscript set in the late Bronze Age on what’s now known as Santorini. There’s a lot of guesswork in that time period, but there are two things known for certain on which my beta corrected me:
    1-Saddles did not have stirrups.
    2-Carrots were not cultivated in that region during that time; thus, no “giving the horse a carrot.”
    Also, there was no soap, but I figured that out before anyone pointed it out to me.
    That manuscript, alas, has been consigned to the dust bunnies, but the research was fun.

    Reply
  14. Good post, Angela. What gets me the most is anachronisms in speech. I cringe when I read modern day slang in a regency. I had an excellent beta reader catch a number of mistakes in my regency Christmas novella. She’s an expert, and really helped me out.

    Reply
  15. I’m pretty intolerant, and my father is even worse. I think it’s quite important – there’s no reason not to be accurate, it just seems a bit lazy not to be, imo!

    Reply
  16. First off – good for you •Having an historical – yes “an”

    When I wrote my historical I was as accurate as I could be. I had a mentor and she was a great help.

    I am picky as a reader too. I read a story that took place in the 1950s, or so the author said. I could not “feel” that it was that time period. All the details were down pat but no emotional sense of the times.

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  17. The thing about history is it can be subjective. It is often written from the prospective of the one writing it. I did extensive research some years back when I wanted to write a series during Edward the Black Prince years. I found numerous accounts for instance on his Pointiers campaine. As a writer I was far more intregued by the more romantic and heroic version and wrote my story accordingly. I was called out on it by a judge who promptly told me that I needed to get my facts straight and that I really needed to reconsider my future as a writer. I knew my version of the historical event wasn’t the most reconized one but I’m the writer, I get to choose, lol. It did make me realize however that reader expectation must be considered. Readers of Regencies want certain things from the books they buy. They want details, they thrive on the romantic air of the time period. As a writer you must deliver but a good story can carry you through. A tight manuscript with no or very few gramatical errors, strong characters that draw you into their world will go a long way toward conflicting historical details as long as they aren’t huge. I am pulled out of the story when there are major goofs. I’m pretty tolerant of artistic license.

    Reply
  18. I thoroughly agree with you, Angelyn. As historical writers, we should strive to be as accurate as humanly possible. That’s one of the reasons my historical romances are all set around the American Civil War. While I enjoy reading other periods in history, I just wouldn’t have the time to do all the research required to set a story in another period.

    Reply
  19. I’ve thought a lot about this myself with both my Medieval books and my Western ones. The biggest thing that irks me that would fall into the category of historical inconsistencies in my Medieval novels is that a lot of readers have unrealistic expectations of what they think the time period was like. I have not one, but two degrees in history, have studied the Middle Ages as a hobby since childhood, and it drives me nuts when people assume that everyone back then was dirty, smelly, had bad teeth, and only lived to age 40. NOT TRUE! But since very few schools bother to teach more than the absolute basics about the Middle Ages, what people think they know is wrong. It’s like nails on a chalkboard when someone faults me for being right but not fitting with what they think they know about the time period.

    That being said, I also included a lot of deliberate anachronisms in my Noble Hearts series because I was going for a certain feel. That kind of historical inaccuracy I’m okay with.

    But Regency is another story altogether (no pun intended :P). It’s such a well-known, amply written-about period that I feel authors should know better. I think you did a great job with MLB, by the way!

    Reply
  20. I’ve had long conversations with Alex Beecroft on this subject and we both came to the conclusion that if a story is exciting, absorbing and we really want to know what happens next we’re far more forgiving of anachronisms. If the story is boring us our brains look for reasons to be outraged so we can stop.

    I think a lot of anachronisms occur with things that writers don’t even question. Stirrups, for instance. It’s almost impossible to imagine a time when such an obvious and useful thing didn’t exist.

    Reply
  21. Goodness, hi Angela, what a great topic.

    I suspect I could give an answer that would itself be a whole blog post, so I have *tried* to keep it short. I think most of us who write historical (regardless of genre) have areas of personal expertise versus gaps in our knowledge. For example, I know my food and clothing is as accurate as possible, as is my layout of London, since I use primary sources for all three, so if someone *tries* to call me out on those, I get tetchy. Sometimes, vocabulary in conversation, small technicalities, or long research requirements trip me up, information I can’t quickly access in my stack of books. Then I’m most likely to throw my hands up and hope betas catch it in edits. Alternatively, I have the luxury of steampunking it up the wazoo, and pulling my problem child out of reality. Sometimes it even becomes a plot point. However, it’s nigh on impossible for any author to catch them all. In that, some research errors are like typos.

    As a reader, I find some more egregious than others. I did a blog recently on Victorian money for this exact reason. My personal areas of expertise cause me to be extremely annoyed if someone misnames an item of clothing, for example. (One of my big ones for late Victorian is calling a corset anything other than stays. Or pretty much anything to do with pottery. I know, I’m weird.)

    On the other hand, I feel I really could do it perfectly, if I took years to write each book. Unfortunately, the readers, the publishers, and my ability to eat regularly might object. Besides, I did enough of that as an academic. I believe, as authors, we have to take the calculate risk that one reader out there will probubly catch us out on whatever detail we got wrong – even the ones we didn’t know we could get wrong – and write an angry email. But in my experience, most wont (notice, bother to write, or care). In the end, I’ve found it’s the publisher’s choices, like going with American spelling, language, and syntax in a Victorian setting that seems to cause most offense. So in classic fashion, it’s always the thing you can’t control that comes back to haunt you.

    Pip pip,
    ~ Gail

    P.S. If it works for the story, I’ve occasionally explained an error away in a following book just for my own peace of mind.
    P.P.S. With regards to introductions, I like to have a gauche character get one introduction wrong, at least once a series. I’m sad to say, so far, no one said anything to me about it. Although, one beta reader laughed hysterically – or should I say historically? OK, going now.

    Reply
  22. Angela, this is a great post. Pertinent.

    As a reader, I want to “feel” the era without getting stumped by the realities of said era. Does that make sense? If the hero and heroine are intimate for the first time, I don’t want to know the details of their garments, or how complicated her corset knots were. ;-)

    Reply
  23. Historical fiction is a lot like translation. The heart of it, for me, is the Trip into a different way of looking at the world. “The past is another country; they do things differently there.” Now how that’s accomplished is another matter entirely; if you’re writing, say, in prerevolutionary Russia, you’re going to have traditional measures to reckon with. Should your characters measure their travels in versts, weight in poods, etc., or should you translate to English measure? How far should traditional titles be rendered? (There’s a title from the very rigid Table of Ranks that translates to ‘Your Luminosity’ and figures in at least one contemporary Chernobyl joke.)

    How far a ‘translated’ detail will be jarring for a reader will depend very much on the expertise of that reader. I think that the key thing is to get the social rules right in their main lines; the rest of it comes down to a judgment call. All of the commenters raise good points. It’s a precarious balance.

    Reply
    • Good points! I didn’t know about the ‘Your Luminosity’ title and the Chernobyl joke… As you said, it comes down to a judgment call, and, in the end, writing craft comes down to a lot of judgment calls :)

      Reply

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