As a reader, are you assuming that the historical fiction you are reading is accurate? Do you care?
I’m assuming there are people are going to answer yes to both questions, and people who are going to answer no to both or one of the questions. But I’ve never understood why some readers bother to read historical fiction if they aren’t interested in the history—and in its accuracy.
The reason I write historical fiction is that I adore history. I don’t even read historical fiction. I read biographies. I just finished a couple of biographies of Napoleon Bonaparte. When I finish reading Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park right now (I write Austeneque fiction when I’m not writing historical fiction or historical dance textbooks), I have to decide between Ron Chernow’s biography of Washington, Mary Chestnut’s Civil War diary, and David McCullough’s books on Teddy Roosevelt or the Panama Canal. I’m writing this after having spent the day hiking Cumberland Gap, and spending dinner talking over the way in which one needs to SEE the terrain to truly understand events in history. Seeing where events actually took place makes a lot more sense of them.
The role of historical fiction is to bring history to life for readers, some of whom may have had history teachers in high school who made the subject seem dull. To me, there is a sacred trust between a writer and a reader. A writer needs to stay true to the characters. When readers get irate because the writer went off on some wild tangent, there can be a lot of dismissive language about “those crazy fans.” Well, readers aren’t stupid. As soon as a writer treats people as if they’re stupid, some stupid things get written. And the writer deserves all the ire for having broken faith with the readers.
That sacred trust for historical fiction writers includes staying true to the times in which the story is set. Why write a story set in a particular place and time, and not put in the work to honestly represent that place and time?
I have read some disgustingly BAD historical fiction from traditional publishers. All they seem to care about is whether the first chapter has the right cliffhanger “hook” so that people will keep reading, and it needs to be a certain length, and it needs to be in the era they think is selling well this year. My favorite example: I read this meandering story that turned into a murder mystery about halfway through, about a woman who had borne an illegitimate child to President Grover Cleveland. The author thought that, since the telephone was patented in 1876, by the 1880s, women all had telephones in their homes and were calling up to gossip, and let a mother know her daughter was on her way home.
I only choked down the rest of the book (which never got better) because I was so angry that publishers pass over carefully crafted, thoroughly researched historical novels, such as my novel set in Pittsburgh between 1875 and 1889, but this piece of schlock got published.
Well, there are those out there (cough, Hollywood) with low standards who say “So what if we lose all the [Fill in the blank]s in the audience.” I don’t need to be one of them. I’ve watched those speakers make fools of themselves because they forget that people aren’t stupid. And I see no need to take the intellectually lazy shortcut, and not bother to do my homework because “no one is going to know” that the breed of dog I wrote about in the book didn’t exist in 1878. I’m not going to insult all the dog lovers who read my book.
My first historical fiction novel, Wealth and Privilege, is filled with little details that required research. I almost used a Pekingese in the story . . . a breed that did not exist in the 1870s. In the course of telling a story set in Pittsburgh between 1875 and 1889, there was a financial depression, a railroad riot that burnt down the entire center of the town, a mill explosion, a Presidential assassination, and the catastrophic Johnstown Flood. Women’s clothing started with bustles, then lost the bustle, and men saw a woman’s natural figure for the first time since the early 1800s, and then the bustle came back, bigger than ever.
History is full of fascinating events like these. My most recent novel, set in 1815 inside Jane Austen’s universe, is when Napoleon has escaped from Elba, and is looking to return to power. The British lose to the Americans in the Battle of New Orleans. The volcano Mount Tambora erupts so forcefully, 1816 will be called The Year Without a Summer. The Battle of Waterloo is fought. Franz Shubert is publishing copious amounts of music. Beethoven presents his first new sonata in five years.
The history, unadulterated with any “improvements” on my part, is a heart-stopping roller coaster ride. My research was copious and extremely rewarding, and my characters’ stories are a matter of surviving from one crisis to the next. Weaving a love story in there? That was the easy part. But every bit as satisfying for me—and my readers. There is no part of the story that requires me to break the sacred trust between writer and reader and mess with history in order to stay true to the characters. In fact, the history and the characters are bound together. You can’t diminish the one without hurting the other.
How do you feel about accuracy in historical fiction? What’s the funniest (or most painful) historically inaccurate situation you’ve read about in a historical fiction novel? Let me know in the comments below!