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?