Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Historical Writer’s Dilemma: How Accurate Must You Be?

My guest is historical author, Anne Cleeland. Fascinating lady and one who writes an excellent tale of adventure, danger, spies, and suspense set in regency England. Today she shares some of her thoughts on research and writing historicals. 

I am lucky enough to have two series debuting this summer—and neither of them draws from personal experience. I’m a lifelong California native, but I’m writing a Regency adventure series and a British detective mystery series—that features an Irish heroine, no less. It almost goes without saying that precise accuracy will be abandoned in the interest of telling a good story, but how much license should be taken, and at what point do you run the risk of having the reader abandon your implausible ship?

There are no easy answers, but along the way I've attended a few panels on the knotty problem of how accurate you should be when writing historicals, so for those of you who read or write historical novels, I thought I’d pass along what I've gleaned.
In the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice, neither Elizabeth Bennett nor Mr. Darcy wear gloves to the formal Netherfield ball—an omission that would have been unheard of at the time; both would have gone home rather than attend bare-handed. In Downton Abbey, one of the streets in the town has a double yellow line—not exactly Edwardian. The movie Braveheart tells us that the future Edward III was the product of a liaison between William Wallace and Isabella of France.  The problem is, Wallace was executed seven years before Edward was born, and Isabella of France was nine at the time Wallace was executed.

Are the stories any less compelling? The answer probably depends on your perspective. If you teach history—or are just a purist in general—these liberties are unacceptable and your disbelief is no longer suspended.  On the other hand, if you are not familiar with the era, you may not even notice these types of errors, but you may also come away with a distorted view of historical fact.   The trick to writing a story from an earlier time period is to find the right balance between dry-as-dust history and an engaging story, and how accurate you need to be—at least in my opinion—depends on your target readership.

If, for example, you are writing “hot” Regencies, strict accuracy is necessarily abandoned unless you write about the demi-monde, because nice young ladies didn't fool around (and were never given an opportunity, even if they were so inclined.)   I know some may want to argue about this point, but remember that Jane Austen served as a reporter at the scene, so to speak, and in her books it was a scandal if an unmarried woman wrote a letter to a man she was not yet engaged to. “Nice” women of the time were chaperoned within an inch of their lives until they were handed over to a husband with the correct pedigree.

So it seems that the question is not whether to take liberties with historical accuracy, it is how much liberty to take. My own rule of thumb is to never write anything that would “jolt” the average reader out of the story’s time frame—not the average history professor, just the average reader.

Here are some things to ask yourself: 

  • How much accuracy do you like to see from your favorite historical writers? Can you think of any other examples where an anachronism “jolted” you out of the story?


A Deadly Game of Deception...

Notorious and beautiful, Vidia Swanson works as an "angel," trying to coax incriminating secrets from powerful men who may or may not be traitors of the Crown. Her latest target is suspected of stealing gold from Wellington's troops, but matters take an alarming turn when Vidia realizes that her spymaster thinks she is the one who is tainted—a double agent working for Napoleon.

Backed into a corner, she can only hope to stay one step ahead of the hangman in a race to stop the next war before it destroys her—and destroys England. Tainted Angel offers up a compelling game of cat and mouse in which no one can be trusted and anyone can be tainted. EXCERPT 

"A world of spies and traitors where no one is quite what they seem and the truth is only true for a moment...a thrilling take that will keep you guessing until the very last page."—Victoria Thompson, author of Murder in Chelsea


Anne Cleeland holds a degree in English from UCLA as well as a degree in law from Pepperdine University, and is a member of the California State Bar.  She writes a historical fiction series set in the Regency period as well as a contemporary mystery series set in New Scotland Yard.  A member of the Historical Novel Society and Mystery Writers of America, she lives in California and has four children.


Mason Canyon said...

Sia, thanks for introducing me to this talented author.

Anne, I've often wondered about some facts when reading historical romance. I will say, reading these books has, on occasion, caused me to do some actual research of the point in question. To me that was fun. I read an interesting story and it lead me to learn a bit of real history at the same time. Wishing you much success.

Jo said...

On anachronism which really got me was in the movie The King's Speech when Lionel Logue exits the bathroom and says he was in the loo. This expression was NOT used for many years after this. It did spoil the story a little for me. Re the gloves, we were still wearing them when I was a young woman and wouldn't have gone anywhere without them.

Talli Roland said...

Wonderful post, Anne. It's a very good thing I'm not a historical writer because accuracy is definitely not my strong suit!

Elizabeth Loupas said...

I suppose I'm more on the dry-as-dust history side, because although I'm not a history professor, I do love history and do a lot of research. Recently I was reading a much-touted novel set in France and England in the twelfth century, in which the hero and heroine tucked into a hearty dinner of meat and potatoes. Potatoes, in England, in the 1100s, 300+ years before Columbus' voyates to the New World! What was that writer thinking? Later in the same book one of the heroines was dithering about her babies catching germs, 700 years or so before Louis Pasteur. Would other readers have been as outraged as I was? I don't know.

I think what this sort of thing does is give characters a modern worldview, and reduces the story to a costume drama. Mothers still worried about their babies in the twelfth century--they just didn't do it in the modern-day context of "germs."

No historical fiction is entirely accurate, of course--it would be unreadable for most of today's readers. But for me a lot of the pleasure of reading (and writing) historical fiction is the experience of another time and place and way of thinking, and the sense of amazement at how different it may have been. I wonder if writers will still be writing historical fiction in 500 years, and if so, what they'll make of the 21st century. :)

Great post, Anne! Thank you, Sia, for your thought-provoking guests.

Anne Cleeland said...

I think that's the key--to include enough history to make the reader interested in the period, but not to over-saturate, especially with anachronisms.
There is an anachronism in this book, but it was "close enough" to use---not like germs or potatoes!

~Sia McKye~ said...

Anne, Welcome to Over Coffee!

I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on research. Not easy finding the right balance for today's reader.

Perception and reputation was everything in regency times.

I have a problem with historicals when they are so modern in content that if feels like a contemporary dressed up in period costumes. It gives no feeling for the era.

Since I love history I do have problems with rewriting historical figures or, as you mention, major fudging time lines. One movie that was beautiful to look at but I hated was The Other Boleyn Girl and for so many reasons I won't get into here. :-)

~Sia McKye~ said...

Elizabeth, so good to see you stop by! Honestly, so many readers aren't familiar enough with history to catch much of what you did.

I don't think you're dry as dust when it comes to your stories. You manage to blend history and entertainment very nicely and make the reader feel like they're on the spot.

Anne Cleeland said...

That's another interesting topic--I went to hear Philippa Gregory speak and she defended herself by noting there were only four historical references to Mary Boleyn. Think about that--she bore Henry VIII a son, and no one thought she was worth mentioning. Gregory stumbled across her name because "Mary Boleyn" was the name of a ship (one of the four references) and she was curious.

I suppose the general anonymity of women in history could be a whole other post!

~Sia McKye~ said...

I've heard her defense,Anne. :-)

And yes, women bore kings and were still thought of unimportant. It would make an interesting blog post.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Talli? you don't have a fact checker? lol! I couldn't resist referencing one of your characters.

Johanna Garth said...

That's such an interesting question. So much of it probably depends on the reader and the glaring-ness of the error. I am a huge Austen fan and would never have caught the glove thing, but it makes me cringe when I read historical dialogue where the characters say things like "That's great!" Too modern and jarring.

jrafferty11 said...

Anne, interesting post. I wrote a story set about 100 years ago and I found I had to do a lot of guess work about certain things. It did help to have beta readers who were more up on details such as what a dance from that era would have been like. The key is to have enough verisimilitude so that the reader will focus on the story, not on the errant details.

James Rafferty

nutschell said...

Lovely to meet Anne! great post!

Anne Cleeland said...

It's a delicate balance, that's pretty clear from the comments--the storytelling vs. strict accuracy.
I P&P it's obvious the decision about the gloves was deliberate, as everyone else at the ball was wearing gloves. They needed something a little sexy, maybe.

Rachel Morgan said...

The problem is, Wallace was executed seven years before Edward was born, and Isabella of France was nine at the time Wallace was executed. <-- Haha! I had no idea! None of the errors you've mentioned in this post have bothered me, and that's obviously because history isn't my area of expertise. On the other hand, when someone in a movie/TV show is meant to be playing a musical instrument, I can usually tell if it's fake. So ... I think this really depends on who is reading the story!

Anne Cleeland said...

It made for a good romance, though!

Julie Flanders said...

I'm so glad I came upon this post today as part of my WIP takes place in the 1800s and is my first attempt at writing historical fiction. This was so interesting to me to read. Great to meet you and learn about your work, Anne.

Anne Gallagher said...

Way late to the thread here, but I had to chime in.

As a writer of historical (Regency) fiction, a lot of my time is spent researching. Sometimes I think I spend more time researching than I do writing. But it is absolutely necessary. Even a small thing about gloves (which I actually did use once in one of my books) makes a big difference.

Best of luck with your two series, Anne. Thanks Sia for another compelling guest.

Arlee Bird said...

If I'm really caught up in a story I may easily accept inaccuracies or not notice them, but if it's really blatant it might put me on guard to start watching for more. In my own writing I tend to be a stickler for historical details.

Tossing It Out