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?
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TAINTED ANGEL Anne Cleeland
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.
"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.