Monday, October 19, 2009

Historical accuracy in novels?

How much does it matter to you as a reader? How much as a writer?

I have to admit it matters immensely to me, but I'm never quite sure where to bend when writing my own historical works.

Examples of what annoyed me: a spinning wheel in 14th century England. They didn't have them. They used spindles to spin at that time. Spinning wheels came much later.

Men riding destriers as though they were every day horses makes me cringe. It would be about the equivalent of driving a tank down the road to work. In fact, even for warhorses constantly referring to them as destriers annoys me. Destriers were the heaviest of warhorses and not necessarily the most desirable. A rouncey or habelar was often used for their greater speed and agility and chargers were by far the most common warhorses.

Kilts in 14th century Scotland. NO!

I had someone do a first read on a novel I'm writing and he was baffled that I referred to a Scottish nobleman as a baron. But they're lairds, he protested. No. He was a baron. And I suppose I could refer to the Scottish earls as Mormaers but I suspect that would only confuse things further.

Oh, I won't even go into the introduction of feminism into medieval thought. I'm a feminist--a pretty avid one, and there were strong, capable women in the middle ages. They were not feminists, and few women got choices, such as who they would marry. Widows sometimes did, but the fact that when Edward I's daughter married a man of her own choice it caused the new husband to be thrown into a dungeon kind of shows how uncommon this was. Pretending women usually had these choices annoys me, but maybe not some readers. I can't bring myself to do it.

I think we can all agree that you should be accurate on the big details such as who was king when or who controlled which country. But what about those smaller details? They probably take some painstaking research and may conflict with people's expectation, such as the kilt thing that so annoys me. *grin*

I suppose where I falter is what are the important factors and what are not. It jerks me out of a story to read anything that is an anachronism, but I am SO likely to spot them. Would it bother most readers to read about that spinning wheel Catherine Coulter put in her 14th century novel? It sure did me. She got the politics wrong, too. Her medieval novels still did very well.

Even referring to rooms can be confusing. Should I call what was in fact referred to as a wardrobe as an office? It is the closest comparison. I cringe a bit, but the meaning of the word wardrobe has changed.

It's a fine line to try to not confuse people, not jerk them out of the story when introducing historical concepts that they may not be acquainted with, and yet maintain some degree of historical accuracy.

Anyone else struggle with this? Thoughts? Suggestions?

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

hi
well as a reader it annoys me if there are historical impossibilities in a novel. Out of place artifacts is just one, lack of knowledge/research into the terrain / road system is another. What to think of potatoes in the 13th century Europe?
Better not starting a rant.

oldnat said...

And what about assumptions of patrilinear succession in pre-Anglicised Scotland?

btw Aye_write has sent you a message on quirkynats.

Jeanne Tomlin said...

I'll stop over there, oldnat. Sneaky Scot tracking me down at "home". ;-)

oldnat said...

You know you can't escape! We need your insight to stop us getting too introspective.

Jeanne Tomlin said...

Can't escape? But do ye know whaur my auntie bides? ;-)

You know my advice. Stop apologizing and tell the cyberbrits they don't own the earth.

Vronsky said...

Shakespeare is notorious for anachronisms. He is still considered quite successful as a writer, though. By the same token I've read some historical fiction that was meticulously accurate, and relentlessly boring.

Jeanne Tomlin said...

So you're saying that historical accuracy doesn't matter.

I can say that Napolean conspired with the Russian to defeat the French and if it's a "good story" that's ok? Or I can say that the great King Robert Bruce was a traitor and that's all right?

And no one will care? Well, you might be right that some won't. I think some will. And I know that I'd care that I was lying.

Jeanne Tomlin said...

I also think it is ALWAYS a mistake to say someone did something 400 years ago so readers today will accept that from a modern writer. I wouldn't suggest writing in Elizabethan English, either. :-)

Heck, I think it's a mistake to assume readers will accept a lot of things writers have done in the past. Whether it's Mark Twain's racism or Edna Ferber's writing style.

Vronsky said...

So you're saying that historical accuracy doesn't matter.

No. Well, sort of. If you're writing a history book, historical accuracy matters. If you're writing a historical novel what matters is that you write good, entertaining fiction. It would be nice if you avoided obvious errors and anachronisms, but to demand 'historical accuracy' assumes that there is some canon of historical truth, to which even the fiction writer must adhere. In reality much of historiography is inconclusive. It is a debatable land; even when the facts are agreed, interpretations differ.

In the novels of Sir Walter Scott there is a great deal of historical accuracy - certain events occur where and when he said they did - but wound all around them is invention. The characters are invented, other incidents and conversations are invented. However we know that Scott was an accurate observer of his time. Although the work is invention, we have strong reason to believe that what he describes was typical of the Scotland of his time - so much so, that his fiction is often quoted as an historical source.

I can say that Napolean conspired with the Russian to defeat the French and if it's a "good story" that's ok? Or I can say that the great King Robert Bruce was a traitor and that's all right?

If you're writing history, 'no' in the first case (because it's clearly not so) but 'perhaps' in the second case (Bruce was a highly ambiguous character). If you're writing fiction, 'yes' in both cases. Books have been written in which the Germans won World War II. I rather feel this way as I do about sci-fi or fantasy or other genres: if you're writing fiction, no device can get you off the hook of having to write good fiction. You can't argue (with me, anyway) that I should enjoy an extremely dull novel because it's 'historically accurate'. In any case, I'd want to know in whose opinion it was accurate.

Jeanne Tomlin said...

First, Scott's representation of Scotland's history was highly inaccurate, especially his representation of the highlands. I don't know who you know who quotes Scott as a historical source but the very idea is absurd. He can in no wise be take as a historical source and I have never known a historian to do so.

And you JUST proved my point. King Robert Bruce is absolutely not "a highly ambiguous character" any more than Napoleon was. However, a certain Hollywood movie told horrible lies about him such as that he betrayed William Wallace and that he was responsible for William Wallace's death. If you want to make up a character to do that, I have no objection. For a historical character especially one of considerable historical significance and a national hero, this is a horrible thing to do.

The exact kind of thing that I object to so strongly.

You seem to be forgetting the word HISTORICAL in historical fiction. I'm not writing fantasy. I'm writing historical fiction. I will not turn it into something totally else.

By saying it shouldn't be dull all you are saying is that it shouldn't be POORLY WRITTEN historical fiction. That has nothing to do with whether it should be true to known historical facts.

As far as in whose opinion it is accurate, frankly, I consider it your problem if you want to argue that Robert Bruce fought with the English at Falkirk when he didn't or that Napoleon conspired with the Russians when he didn't. I am not going to bother with proving historicity although I think it's nice when a fiction writer at the end of their novel gives a list of references.

Jeanne Tomlin said...

Books have been written in which the Germans won World War II....

They are NOT historical fiction. They are a branch of science fiction called alternative history.

I rather feel this way as I do about sci-fi or fantasy or other genres: if you're writing fiction, no device can get you off the hook of having to write good fiction....

We're not talking about the writing part. No one said that it shouldn't be well-written. But if you mess up the fantasy part using cliched or poorly devised fantasy elements, it ruins an otherwise well-written fantasy. If you mess up the history part by changing known history (and making Robert Bruce a traitor for example) or putting in anachronisms, it ruins an otherwise well-written historical fiction.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeanne -
Your advice was so helpful at WD when I asked about finding an agent - thank you!

I have read coutless historical novels (most when I was younger and would have had a harder time spotting impossibilities). I try hard not to get sideways about them now that I have written a book - because I can sympathize with an author's struggle. :O)
Imagine my horror when I discovered that one of my characters unzipping his pants could not have happened in 1890. I was crestfallen. It is a goofy pivotal point in a scene. It just didn't have the same effect when he had to unbutton his pants because of the sound either action made. Then, I struggled for DAYS with the fact that referring to the main character's father as "Pa" didn't work but then neither did "Dad". He is too bad a man to have earned the title "Father". I was really stuck.
Oh, the life of a perfectionist! My next novel is going to be firmly planted in good old 2009. LOL
Thanks again and I look forward to more lively blogging here!
EzRytr (AKA Lisa)

Jeanne Tomlin said...

Thanks, Lisa. I try to pay back a tiny bit of the help I've received myself.

It's the little things that can make you crazy sometimes... zippers when then didn't exist, the same with that spinning wheel I mentioned, potatoes in 13th century Ireland as mentioned in a comment.

And then there are the BIG things that make me virtually froth at the mouth such as saying that Robert Bruce betrayed William Wallace or fought for the English at Falkirk. (NO, he was in fact probably in Ayr where a few days later he was destroying a castle to keep it OUT of English hands.)

But at the same time... the reader, as another poster pointed out, HAS to enjoy the novel. It's still fiction, just fiction within certain parameters.

On finding an agent, if you haven't read the blog by Miss Snark, I urge you to read that one as well. Although it is retired now, it is archived and has some of the best advice ever given on looking for an agent. Good luck with the search!

Conan the Librarian™ said...

Hi Jeanne, thanks for your kind comment about my blog, it's a real paper in some alternate history, somewhere...
My biggest bugbear in reading some historical fiction is having the protaganist share the worldview of of the twenty-first century author. I can forgive slight anachronisms but not Caesar's Tenth legion wearing lorica segmentata ;¬)
A favourite historical novelist of mine was Alfred Duggan, his novel about the wars of Alexander's successors "Elephants and Castles" blew my thirteen year old mind.

Jeanne Tomlin said...

I'm acquainted with the paper your refer to, although whether one might call it real or not is surely debateable. :-)

I prefer your version.

You know, I sympathize with your complaint about calling Roman armor lorica segmentata. On the other hand, as an author if I were writing about the Roman Army, which I don't because that's not my era of expertise, I would be torn. It's an anachronism, but it is one that readers will recognize.

I do the same debate over the "wardrobe" in a medieval castle which you are probably aware was a room where papers were often kept. In a fiction, I have debated if I should just give in and call it an office which is close to the room's use and a recognizable term.

Introducing 21st century thinking -- such as that executing prisoners is unthinkable or feminism, for example, is another problem. Possibly it should be one for a new post. Thanks for raising it.

Now go do a new Hootsmon. I do enjoy them more than the "real paper" in that alternative reality.

Conan the Librarian™ said...

The origin of wardrobe may be more disgusting than you think Jeanne.
It was thought that the foul odours from human excrement "warded" off the wee beasties who munched on expensive clothes, so the original guarderobes were set over the privy holes...
It was also the origin of the "Privy Chamber" due to the big fat evil predator the English call Henry the Eighth. Basically he couldn't wipe his own arse, being too fat, so he needed trusted(ones that wouldn't stab him)counsellors to do so.Doing "private" business was the next logical step, as the room had only one entrance, and one very small and smelly exit.

The Rush Blog said...

So you're saying that historical accuracy doesn't matter.


If it gets in the way of the writer's story, it doesn't matter. Writers have been following this rule for centuries.

Jeanne Tomlin said...

We'll agree to disagree then. I believe that if you want to write complete fantasy, you should write fantasy.

If you write HISTORICAL fiction, then it should have history in it.

The Rush Blog said...

Historical fiction has both historical FACT and historical INACCURACY. If the facts help the story, then fine. If it gets in the way of hte story, then history is going to be changed.

It's not a crime to write fiction with a historical background. This has been going on for centuries. If you can't deal with the realities of writing or watching historical drama, then don't bother and stick to documentaries and history books. But I warn you, there is no guarantee that what is presented as historical fact in documentaries and scholarly books cannot be guaranteed as being absolutely correct.

Jeanne Tomlin said...

My, my. Who pissed in your cornflakes?

Yes, there can be and often are disputes about interpretation of history within the academic community. I might dispute whether Napoleon was a monster or a hero and make an argument in a historical treatise one way or the other. I CAN NOT make the proposition that he was a traitor conspiring with Russia or that Columbus sailed from Norway instead of from Spain and be taken seriously.

If you are not capable of writing a story that works within the boundaries of the facts, then write a FANTASY, not historical fiction. It's what G.R.R. Martin did with excellent success.

He wanted to write about the War of the Roses but did not want to be bound by historical constraints. Instead, he has written a fantasy classic.

Easy solution.

Genres ALL have their boundaries and you are supposed to USE those just as a poet might USE the boundaries of iambic pentameter.

In other words, to quote a president, if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen--in this case historical fiction kitchen.