Friday, September 21, 2007

Historical Facts and Fiction

I’ve been reading quite a bit lately about writers and readers who are disappointed by the latest historical romance novels they’ve read because the facts were not 100% accurate. Like most readers, I want the stories I read to be authentic. Like most writers, I strive to make sure my details are accurate (even though I don’t write historicals).

BUT, and this is a big one, if you’re reading historical romance, you’re already accepting a lapse of historical details. Let me explain…

Take the pirate novel. We all love the handsome swashbuckler, who is secretly a British Lord or comes from some kind of wealthy family. Through circumstance—either he’s disowned by his family for a crime he didn’t commit or he was stolen from his family as a boy and has no idea of his true heritage—this man has been robbed of his life and has taken to a life of piracy. This pirate captain is tamed by the feisty female who becomes his captive. All is revealed in the end and the couple can live happily ever after.

Okay. Stop. Before you take another step or read another word, think about this.

This is already a historical lie. Pirates were not long-lost lords who were restored to the bosom of their families. Nor were they well educated and cultured. They certainly didn’t bathe on a regular basis. And any young woman who was captured by one, I’m sorry, but her first thought wasn’t that he was handsome and she wanted to bed them. And don’t get me started on the rest of the crew.

Yes, there are pirate books out there that show the situation in a much more truthful light, but there are just as many that don’t—and we love them all.

I’m not saying that I don’t want accuracy in the period. I do, but I will forgive certain thinks.

Let’s look at the medieval romance next. I love books about knights in shining armor and the woman who tame them. But in truth, women of that time period had little rights, the men were gone a lot, sometimes years on end, and they weren’t particular enamored of personal hygiene. Do I want to read about an overbearing knight who treats the women in his life as if they were of no consequence? Only if he changes by the end of the book. Otherwise, he’s no hero in my books.

Once again, the details vary from author to author, from decade to decade, and from one historical period to another. Historical accuracy was expected more back in the seventies—The Wolf and The Dove by Kathleen Woodiwiss springs to mind. But again, as a reader, I’m willing to give the author some artistic license. I’ve read many medieval romances where the heroine takes the knight on a wild ride, while in truth, she’d probably have been beaten and locked away.

Then there is the Regency novel. This is a time period that requires quite a bit of study. Rules of Society were extremely important. But you know what? I’ve never understood the British Peerage. I'm never 100% certain who is over who, who should be called “My Lord” and who should be “My Lady.” Unless and author make a glaring mistake, I’ll never know. But I do love the era and how intelligent the ladies had to be to get ahead and get the man they wanted. Even within this genre you have the “true” regencies, which are very correct in the history of the times. Then you have the large books, which tend to stretch conventions somewhat. And you know what? That’s okay by me.

In fact, some historical language references, while correct, actually pull me out of the story, because they are something I have to stop and think about. A historical romance is not a historical novel. There is a huge difference. In a historical novel, the details should be 100% accurate. In a historical romance, while I want the details as real and accurate as possible, I don’t want it at the expense of the story.

So, pull out that next yummy historical novel, settle back, and enjoy. And if there are one or two minor details not quite right, ask yourself if it was because the author didn’t know the difference or if it was done for the sake of the story.

I know that everyone has a different opinion on this subject, but that’s okay. There are writers that appeal to all of us out there. Some are all about historical accuracy, while others relax the rules slightly. And then there are those whose books very few will read because they’ve just taken it too far, interspersing too much modernism in a book that is supposed to take us back to the past.

When I read a historical romance, that’s what I want, so the details better take me to another place and time where I can lose myself, if only for a couple of hours. If I want modern, I’ll read a contemporary.


Denise A. Agnew said...

Hi NJ,

Good points. :) As with anything, I thing people can get wrapped around the axel about things. That includes accuracy in history in novels. I do admit that I research my historical novels to death. That's what I've done with the book I'm working on now. But here's an example of where I'll have to take some license with history. I'm making sure that I'm putting it in my author notes so anyone who reads it will know I purposely took license with the following things: Roman naming conventions were a pain in the butt. So I'm taking a little license there. For example, Roman women were often named after part of their father's names and all the girls named the same. So in my heroine's family there are five girls. The only way to distinguish one from the other is to name them Adrenia Prima, Adrenia Secunda, Adrenia Tertia, Adrenia Quarta, Adrenia Quinta (in other words, one, two, three, four and five.) My heroine is Adrenia Tertia. But, because I want my hero to call her Adrenia rather than Tertia, he's going to choose to call her Adrenia. So while I like to keep my historicals mega accurate, there are times when for flow of story or fantasy there may be some slack. But I also think this is always going to be a controversial subject no matter what. To me a historical romance author should do the very best they can to make something as historical accurate as possible, but not to the point it feels like I'm reading a textbook. It's a very fine line to tread. :)

Denise A. Agnew

Denise A. Agnew said...

Oh, lordy. Speaking of accurace, I just saw my typos in my last post. GROANNNNNNN.

Denise A. Agnew

Anonymous said...


I'm pretty forgiving when an author takes artistic license (hey, I love Amanda Quick's medieval romances), but when an author has her blue-stocking English heroine travel to France while the two countries are at war to view the Eiffel Tower BEFORE it was even built, I know s/he didn't even bother to read the most basic of history books.

That's not artistic license.

N.J.Walters said...

I agree totally, Denise. You want it as historically accurate as possible, but you need to make allowances for the story. Your new book sounds fascinating. :-)

And don't worry about typos. LOL Our books we can revise. Blog comments you don't need to worry about. *g*

I agree, Ann. That's why there are authors out there whose books I won't read. Artistic license is one thing, total inaccuracy is another. And I love Amanda Quick's books too...all of them. Just re-read Ravished the other day. :-)

TJ Michaels said...

Well said, NJ. I have to admit one of the reasons I haven't read historical in awhile is because the books I was reading started getting mired in the details, and I had to sit back and think about what they were saying in order to understand it. Perhaps I'll take another gander at the genre. ;D



Dena said...

I love historical romances and thank goodness the writer changes the main facts like you posted NJ,because what a depressing book that would be. Bertrice Small writes wonderful historical stories that mixes real people and places with her fictatious characters and settings so well that the story is so believable and really enjoyable.Some people might enjoy her writing with some accuracies more?

Mechele Armstrong said...

Very good points. I think Ann said it best. Artistic license is fine but basic facts should be researched.

I'm always terrified writing a historical. I know I'm going to make a mistake on something no matter how much I research. And I do research a lot.