Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Past and the Pending

No, this isn't about verb tense. You can all breathe a sigh of relief. Today I want to talk about what a reader can reasonably expect in the way of historical accuracy from a writer.

I know there is a genre called "historical fiction" where real-life figures play roles in fictional stories, or where fictional characters play roles in actual historical events. In this genre, I am led to believe, readers expect a pretty well fleshed-out historical world, with loads of period detail and all of the story events must align properly with real-world events. Have I got that right? I don't actually read historical fiction; I merely report what I've been told.

I have, at this point in time, about five books pretty well planned out for future writing. All of them take place in the past. My last book was in the late 16th Century, my current book is in 1749 (in and around Maryland, USA), my next book will likely be set in England and then Antarctica around 1915, the book after that will be around Baltimore in 1910, and the one after that will be set in 1790. Possibly at some point I'll finish a book abandoned a decade ago called The Metaphysics of the Rat, which is set in 1612. So I'll be spending my writing life in the past.

While I do a ton of research when I'm writing about historical periods and places, I've come to realize that for me at least, when the needs of the story conflict with the realities of space and time (which is to say, real history), the story trumps actual fact. Although I don't write in the historical fiction genre, people have sometimes told me that this attitude, that a work of fiction--if it's not overtly some sort of alternative history--should be accurate in historical fact. That a writer should just make sure his research is deep enough to represent the places and times he choses for setting in a way that informed persons won't have cause to point to the work and say, "Wow, look at how dead wrong this is."

On the one hand, I do believe that you should know enough about your period and place that you don't put a cell phone in Magellan's hand or locate Madrid in Italy. On the other hand, if there was a massive earthquake in South America in 1950 and you want to incorporate that into your story set in 1948, I say go for it. The average reader just wants a compelling story, I think, and will let you gloss over facts if the truth of the characters is there.

So what's your opinion on this? Should a writer be sure of every one of his facts when writing about historical periods? Should someone like me have historians vet my stories against their professional knowledge? And when the story and the history are in conflict, is it incumbent upon writers to change their story to fit actual history?


  1. I don't think it's a problem to gloss over historical facts as long as the author isn't claiming somewhere that it's all completely accurate.

    I write real-world fiction, so I feel like it's important for me to get things fairly accurate. For Monarch I deal with terrorists and the butterflies and the CIA. I had to do a lot of research to make sure I wasn't totally screwing it all up. But I also left a lot to my imagination.

    Main Goal: Tell an interesting, believable, and intriguing story.

  2. I wrestle with this myself. I use Google and Wikipedia to add the basics of authenticity (13th century France is the subject of my research) but I focus more on the interaction between the characters and the movement of my story than the history. It's the backdrop, not the focal point. Sometimes the research puts me in the proper mindset but doesn't materialize directly in the novel.

    Similar questions can be posed regarding medicine and illness. How accurate do you need to be?

  3. Michelle: Interesting, believable and intriguing! That's my goal, too. I think that as long as the reader's suspension of disbelief isn't broken--that is, as long as everything seems plausible--you're doing your job.

    Rick: I read tons of books and journal articles for my research on 16th-century Europe, and for my current novel I've already got a stack of a half dozen history books that I'm making my way through. I can see already that some of the facts won't fit with my story and I'm prepared to ignore them (most of those have to do with the actual timeline of the latter 18th century). What I don't want to make mistakes about are things like daily lives of common people and class distinctions, because all of that goes to character. Even after I read my 2,000+ pages of research materials, I know I'll get some of my facts wrong. I'm trying hard not to care about that, because I won't actually know what I've gotten wrong until someone points it out to me.

    One main reason I worry about this sort of stuff is because I've read a couple of books (or tried to read, actually) that had main characters who were musicians, and the books were clearly written by non-musicians. The factual errors pissed me off, frankly, and stopped me from finishing the novels.

  4. As is well-publicized on the internets, I'm a research fanatic. Heck, you head over to Free The Princess (me blog) and you'll see at least half a dozen posts where I mention the freakish amount of research I do.

    That said, I feel that you're right about story trumping fact. This is why I've thus far avoided writing straight historical fiction and focused on history-fueled sci-fi/fantasy. I'm afraid I'd try to keep things too in line with the period -- including historical events -- so I write the spec fic versions to avoid that temptation.

    Part of that is why I decided to make the protag of SON OF MAGIC an engineer instead of a farmer. Engineers and engineering I understand (son of one, younger brother of another, close friend of a third). Farmers? Not so much.

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  6. Personally, I believe it all depends on the book. I have read historical fiction for years, and nothing disturbs me greater than finding out that a fact I thought was true actually was fabricated or twisted by the author.

    That being said, my current WIP is also historical fiction, set right before the Revolutionary War. I am doing vast amounts of research, from finding out what a certain hairstyle was called, to what the Appalachian mountains were referred to. In many cases, I think that research is vital. I know, as a reader, I would want that sort of dedication to accuracy, and as a writer, I can't stand to lie about the past. I am fabricating people who 'supposedly' lived during this time, and therefore I feel the need to make it as authentic as possible. All the same, I am not torturing myself over the facts I know I will miss, because I can't possibly have everything right, as I didn't live then.

    When it comes to a major event, I like that to control the story, not the story controlling the historical event, but I suppose it all depends on the book. As a reader of historical fiction, it might send me into a rage, but I probably wouldn't put the book down.

    I suppose, ideally for me, when I come away from a historical fiction book, I want to feel like I have lived it. Lived alongside the characters, like I have been completely immersed in their world. If I know this fact or that fact isn't true, then I have issues with doubting the rest of the experience as well, as I don't know how much authenticity the author actually put into it.

  7. Matthew: I fight against the pull of real history in my writing, which is one source of my worry. I also try to write about characters I know I'll actually understand that I won't do something really stupid. Which is why my characters are all cityfolk. Though I'm going to stretch myself in my current book and have plantation farmers, Native Americans, runaway slaves and maybe some Quakers as well. My plan is to treat them all as people and not as their jobs or social classes. We'll see how that goes.

  8. Peanut: Do you make a distinction between something that's supposed to be "historical fiction" and fiction that is set in the past? I don't consider myself a "historical fiction" writer.

  9. I suppose there could be a distinction there, though to be honest, I never really thought about it before. Even if it is fiction set in the past, it is still in a part of history. Even if it doesn't touch famous characters, or events, it is touching a historic culture. I don't see much of a distinction, but I suppose it all depends on the definition of either. I tend to read both.

    Also, I don't tend to be as rigid with historical facts if there is some sort of disclaimer. And I could just be too much of a history fan (which is quite possible, most people are far more lenient than me), it is something of an obsession. =P

  10. Peanut: While I do a lot of research, I doubt I go to your level! I won't be mentioning the names of hairstyles nor will I mention that men wore buckles on their shoes as fashion statements, etc. I do want to know what buildings looked like and how they were constructed, and the populations of various parts of the colonies, and that male children were considered girls until they reached legal adulthood and stuff like that. But at some point, I just want to tell a good story. I guess a lot of the details in historically-set books goes right past me anyway.

    And at root, as soon as you put pen to paper you are making stuff up that never happened anyway, aren't you? If I can say, "These people never existed, but let's pretend they did," then I think it's okay to have people eat beef even though they'd have actually eaten mutton.

  11. Doesn't historical fiction automatically imply that the facts aren't necessarily . . . real?

    I think as long as the basics of the period you're writing about are there, the earthquakes, tsunamis, or whatever events are okay to add. A cellphone . . .not so much.

    I know we're in the technological age, and google is a few keystrokes away, but how many people truly are going to google to see when the big earthquake in Argentina happened? I'm not. I'm more about the compelling story. : )

    As for your last question . . . And when the story and the history are in conflict, is it incumbent upon writers to change their story to fit actual history?

    How much history are you changing? Major events? Did Queen Elizabeth I never ascend the throne? Did Columbus never find America? If so, that's when you cheekily change your genre from historical fiction to alternate history and keep on writing, rather than change your story to fit actual history.

    Excellent post and food for thought . . . if I ever decide to write historical fiction, which I might do one day just to change things up a bit.


  12. Let me start off by saying that this is something I struggle with. My personal belief is that it doesn't matter. I prioritize story. Having said that, I have had the experience of reading a short story to a critique group in a class I took several years ago. In this story, I had "invented" a culture, including various recipes that were similar to Thai recipes, but different enough that a Thai person wouldn't recognize them. I made this choice simply because I didn't want to look up all of the correct recipes. So, basically, they were odd mixtures that were kinda sorta similar to Thai ones. And, to me, this was all background material. During the reviews, someone asked a question about a recipe, and I told them that I made it up. To my surprise, the class was unanimously said that the recipes should be accurate. They felt cheated that they weren't. That was the first time I dealt with expectations of truth, even in fiction. So, now, though it's something I don't necessarily agree with, I try to get my facts right, even if it hurts the story. But, I try to be sensitive to which details matter and which ones don't. That's hard.

  13. Davin: "which details matter and which ones don't" is important. I also begin to think that this is going to vary from reader-to-reader, and a lot of the reader's reaction will have to do with their own experience and knowledge. I changed some of the story in "So Honest A Man" to fit the historical facts and ignored others (the actual chronology of Danish kings from 1550 onward, for example). I made sure I got the food and the fencing right, and the geography, but there are still, I am sure, little things that I didn't know I was getting wrong that will likey annoy some readers.

    For my current book I am letting the facts push the story some, but at some point, if I stumble across an inconvenient truth or two that will break my story, the truth has to lose, because I'm a storyteller, not a historian. I try to be informed and not an idiot, but I also can't spend the rest of my life researching this book.

    The anecdote about the recipes surprises me. I wonder how I'd have felt as one of your critique group. I think that when we read something that has the ring of truth, we do feel cheated when it turns out to be false. But I might think that's the sign of a good writer, not a bad one, to have pulled one off on the reader like that. I don't know. I'm struggling with all of this.

  14. I suppose I have a tendency to just immerse... I want to know everything anyway, so I don't mind spending time researching little facts. Most are insignificant, I realize that. And I should mention, I tend to be very rigid when it comes to detail, even in a science fiction book I tried to write over the summer. Halfway through it, I realized I didn't know enough to satisfy my detail frenzied personality, and so put it on hold.

    But I do think most facts brush completely past the reader, like you mentioned. I think it is sort of like a house, you only see the walls, you don't see the framing. The world encompasses more than you can see.

    You make a good point about the making stuff up that never happened, just in regards to the characters. I suppose I just like the world to be as accurate as possible, even if the characters are not.

    I think, in the end, it is a personal balance. There are always going to be readers that want more accuracy, and then there are going to be readers that really don't care. If you don't think you want to kill yourself with research, then I wouldn't. If you were to change a huge fact though, such as making an event happen in a different year than it did in reality, I know I personally would prefer a disclaimer at the end of the book. Like I mentioned though, I am very fact oriented, so I might not be the best one to be expressing an opinion. =P

  15. I think that there are some things that you can work around in terms of historical fact, that some things don't have to entirely accurate. However, I think in some ways, historical fact is part of the 'sell,' as it were. If what you say is mostly accurate (or at least looks mostly accurate), then the reader won't mind so much the minor inaccuracies.

    Of course, there are some things most people won't know a lot about, but if a beta reader can point out to you an error in historical fact without the aid of Google, it wouldn't be out of line to expect other readers can do the same thing and might be distracted by it.

  16. What makes this so tricky is that each reader comes with different knowledge, experience and bias (as you said, Scott, for you it's music). So the danger is pulling a reader out of story when they see something wrong. Still, I think we can only go so far in research. Our job as fiction writers is to tell a story that hits a universal chord and hope we get the setting as accurate as we can.
    Years ago I read a hefty book that was a ficitonalized account of an historic figure about whom not a lot was known. So I knew the author had to invent scenes, dialogue, etc. I had no problem with that until the author stopped the story to tell readers that at this point some historians said the person died, while others said she went on to raise a family in a small town, and the author was going to follow that second version of her life. I could read no more. I was not willing to read total fabrication, if that makes sense.

  17. As someone who writes historical fiction, I believe the facts need to be as accurate as possible. However, as one who also reads historical fiction, if the facts are wrong, and I think they are, I'll make it a point to look them up. It bugs me to find out the author fudged this or didn't know about that.

    I read a book by a famous author who set her story in Rhode Island. I lived there for 45 years. The things she chose to fudge over drove me over the edge. I refuse to read her anymore just because she didn't take the time to (and supposedly she was in RI at the time when she wrote this) drive from Newport to Narragansett. Anyone can tell you it takes close to an hour, not 15 minutes. And Aunt Carrie's is NOT where she said it was. I realize she was writing a FICTIONAL story but she didn't get even the basic of facts right. ARGH!!!

    Perhaps I'm too much of a stickler and of course you are free to write as you see fit, but in my own mind, and in my own writing, I need to make sure things are accurate. And just to add, I recently had to do a major revision on my work that is being sent to agents because in the middle of the night I woke up in a cold sweat realizing my dates were all wrong and the protagonist could not have been a captain in the Napoleonic Wars.

  18. This reminds me of one of my favorite lines from Animal House:
    "Over? Did you say Over? Nothing is over 'til we decide it is. Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?"

    So I say accuracy, shmaccuracy.
    For my current WIP, I'm writing a Steampunk alternate history of North American. Sure there will be some "facts" in there...but in my world where the Germans settle Pennsylvania instead of the Dutch and/or Amish, the world is a heck of a lot different.

    Speaking of which, I wonder where we would be today if the Germans--I mean Japanese never bombed Pearl Harbor?


  19. I do think a distinction needs to be made between novels that are in the "historical fiction" genre and other novels that are simply set in the past. I believe that some readers seek out "historicals" to learn about history and to be whelmed by details and historical events, where other readers are not. I certainly don't. I loved Orhan Pamuk's "My Name Is Red" but I have no idea if his 17th-century Persia was in any way accurate. Persian historians likely feel differently about that. I'm more of the Shakespearean "history plays" school, where the characters are of prime importance, and the history is an excuse to put characters into interesting situations. That said, I still do a lot of research. There's a difference between artistic license and laziness.

  20. @Iapetus999 --

    I almost a knee-jerk reaction where my response was going to be "but the Germans did settle Pennsylvania."

    Then I did some research and found that the earliest settlement in the 1640s was by Swedish, Dutch, and English settlers.

    Random trivia though (dunno if you know this): The "Dutch" in Pennsylvania Dutch is actually a corruption of the word "Deutsch" -- what the Germans call themselves. My mother grew up in Bethlehem, smack in the center of PA Dutch country, hence how I know this (my extended family still lives there too).

    I'd be very interested to read your alternate history though. I like seeing how people think history would've gone.

  21. Correction: Almost had a knee jerk reaction

  22. I'm sort what of a history nerd. I like history a lot, but I don't read historical fiction. I prefer my history in non-fiction form. But when I reading a novel unless something is grossly inaccurate, I don't care about it. I read for story and plot; the setting isn't all that important to me.

  23. Crimey: I prefer my history to come in non-fiction doses, too. But that doesn't mean I'm using history as nothing but set dressing, either. I want the feel of the time and place, the sense that this story could not have happened in this way in any other place or time. Mostly, I don't want 21st-century people walking around in 17th-century clothes, which is why I'm reading sociological studies and Colonial-era prose. Though I don't think that, deep down, people have really changed much over 50,000 or so years. Maybe for longer than that.

  24. Doesn't matter at all. As long as the story is attention-grabbing you have all the license you need to make it such. The reader wants a great story. Period! That's it.
    They do not care if the facts are true in even in historical fiction.

    Now that said, it's different when you're writing for kids. Then it must be accurate, because they are learning and the teacher can't have them arguing a piece of history because of something they did or did not read in a book. Nice debate. :)

  25. Robyn: It seems to me that some of the readers of historical fiction who've posted here care a lot about the accuracy of historical facts. I also know that a lot of the biographies I read as a kid either glossed over facts or were simply wrong, as I found out later in adult life. So, huh. Hopefully schools are using better materials these days than they did in the 60s and 70s.

  26. Then for my sequel, I'll have an alt history where religious zealots colonize Massachusetts.
    Puritans, you say?
    NO! I mean zombies trying to avoid religious persecution.

  27. IMO: No, you shouldn't have to research every minor detail. What the public can reasonably be expected to know, or find in research of their own - if they're interested - should suffice for a viable story.

    After all, you're writing about a HISTORICAL place, so unless someone has drawn a picture of the place and noted every business and house and person in that time, then how can we truly know. Even historians could be wrong about subtle details.

    And, you're also billing it out as FICTION. So if certain details are not 100 percent, well, its your world: just state so in the author notes: "I changed certain details to match my specific needs for the story."

    It's no different than modern fiction set in real cities. As you mentioned: as long as the George Washington Bridge is still in the same place in New York (unless its sci-fi or fantasy with alternate universes), then who cares if you add a toll bridge that isn't really there or a create a hidden door in one of the pylons(?).

    Stephen King changes the landscape of Bangor whenever it suits his purpose. Why can't historical fiction writers add an event or landmark that wasn't there either.

    Have you seen Shanghi Noon? The Patriot? Braveheart?

    I believe being fiction writers gives us licence to create our own universe. If you're going to write genre Historical Fiction, then you need to incorporate well known events, cultural norms, dates and landmarks into your world. But everything else, is your world.

    Good luck with your delimeas.


  28. I like my history to be thoroughly researched and chock full of facts. I like my historical fiction to be, as Michelle said, interesting, believable, and intriguing. (Michelle is smart!)

    Sticking that word 'Fiction' after the 'Historical' bit makes me inclined to give the author a lot of leeway. In his novel Captian Blood, Sabatini totally rips off an actual nautical battle, giving the historical pirate captain the boot in favor of his fictional creation. It wasn't very historically accurate, but it sure was entertaining!

    You're going to piss off some history buffs if you change facts and events to fit your narrative, but if you've told a good story most readers aren't going to care that you rewrote history a little.

  29. Ahhh, Sabatini. What a genius. :)

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