Sunday, March 22, 2009

Thoughts on Accuracy in Historical Fiction from Guest Author Lynne Connolly

I have found that whenever I try to discuss historical accuracy in historical
fiction, especially in historical romance, the same responses pop up. So
much so that I'm getting bored with them and tempted to wave my hand, sigh
and say "Whatever."

1. "It's only fiction." That response trashes the nature of the novel
and the nature of fiction. It tends to show that the responder is either
parroting the response he or she has heard elsewhere or really doesn't
know what the novel is, or what fiction means. The novel is a highly
artificial construct made of several recognizable features. I think
every author should at least know that, or come to realize it as s/he
writes. But sometimes they don't. Fiction, similarly, doesn't mean you
can make up what the hell you like, it is again a recognizable construct
and bounded by understandings. If a writer has something they want to
bring to that, and the example that springs to mind is Truman Capote's
"In Cold Blood," then they are at liberty to do so, but it's nice if,
like Capote, they know exactly what they're doing and why they want to
do it. Even better if they can explain to a room full of academics, who,
in this case, are the gatekeepers.

2. "The story comes first." Hell, yes, of course it does, but that isn't
a reason to traduce history in the telling of it. Just incorporate the
real stuff or call it fantasy. There are some superb fantasies that take
a medieval world as its base ("Lord of the Rings" anyone?) but also
introduce other ideas. Just don't call it history if it isn't.

Alternative history, like "The Wolves of Willoughby Chase" is also an
exciting way to go.

3. "The readers don't care." Demonstrably, they do. You can sell
humongous numbers of historical romance that have very little relation
to the era they claim to be set in and get away with it, but I firmly
believe that was one of the factors that led to the collapse of the
historical romance genre a few years ago. The readers moved away from
the paper-thin walls towards the paranormal romances, many of which take
the same construct (putting made-up characters into a recognizable
world) and make it more real seeming.

4. "You can have a success without fussing too much about the history."
Yes, you can, but that, IMO, is short-changing the readers. Even if they
don't know, many can sense it's not right because the setting isn't
fully depicted, or they sense something about a character. And you're
limiting your readership. Publishers think in the relatively short-term,
they don't care if a writer only has a few years' success and then fades
away because there are plenty more waiting. And if you have respect for
yourself and your integrity as a writer, then you'll take more care.

5. "I want to read a novel, not a text book." As if making lists and
over-description aren't symptomatic of bad writing in any genre. This
one exasperates me, because no good historical fiction writer would
dream of overwhelming the reader with facts and details. When you write
a novel, it's like the tip of the iceberg. You put in what you need to
put in, but you need the confidence and the knowledge to put it in and
not to insert the wrong thing. You need to know all these facts if you
want to create a living, breathing character in a vivid background. Your
reader doesn't. I don't read SF romance for the details of how a
spaceship works, I read it for the story, but if the writer has an
inconsistent world, I won't bother reading further.


*Lynne Connolly, author of Dark and Provocative Romance
A murder... A lord's desire...and her quiet, respectable life is gone
Tantalizing Secrets from Samhain Publishing
<http://samhainpubli romance/tantaliz ing-secrets>
*_*http://www.lynnecon TantalizingSecre ts.html*_


  1. Anonymous10:29 AM

    Well written article. I agree with your points. Especially the no need to inundate the reader with more historical facts than is necessary to validate the story, the fiction taking place as being realistic.

  2. I couldn't agree more, even with historical romances. So many of these newer ones are such ridiculous nonsense. Romance or not the story, plot and setting needs to make sense. Let's say someone decided to write a novel set in the 70's and the author had their heroine texting on a cell phone. No one would buy into that would they?

    As for historical novels, the actual history is fascinating enough - why embellish it?

  3. Yay, Yay, Yay, Lynne. You know I agree with you all the way. If I hear one more person say 'If I want history I will read I text book' I will explode. It so misses the point.

  4. I'm sorry, but I don't angry with you. No one study the history from the novels. Even when the author tried, he will never can write a novel have great historical accuracy. The history usually will be explained by the author's view. And finally, we reader will never know what information in these novel is the reality, what is the fiction if the author don't made a list of notes about it.

    Ex: " King X go to the palace at the morning, to have his breakfast. He eat a potato with a glass of apple wine."

    = > the list have to note to help the readers realize that:
    - Are King X is the historical character?
    - In that period, the King really have breakfast?
    - In that period, they really eat potato???
    - In that period, they really drink apple wine???

    follow that. It a 500 pages of that novel, may be we have to write 600-700 pages of notes, just to help the readers know what is the reality, what is the fiction.

    Beside, can you really tell me any name of the novel which really good in historical accurancy??? I don't think so.


    I am from Vietnam, and my experience about Vietnam's historical fiction is really terrible:

    We Vietnam really think " we can use historical novel as a historical source, to teach/ research about the history.". Yeah, they think as same as you. But that trouble is, almost of them never can realize the historical elements and fiction elements in the novel. They really think " historical fiction = history book".

    On the other hand, Vietnamese usually have the great hatred against historical novels. That is why we have very few famous historical novels. When a historical novel be released, a huge group of Vietnamese will read that novel, note all of the mistakes, fictions in every sentence ( As same as the example which I have just mentioned above) . And they will show to everyone a very loooooong of notes, to claim that " that novel this the terrible of writing. It historical accurancy is terrible. It shamed our native heroes in the past. We have to burn/ ban all of this novel.". Not only that, sometime, because the nationalism, even the reality usually be claim as the mistake, too. Exp: when you discrible a historical character who actually is the bad guy ( follow the history book) while everyone usually think they a the good guy.

    Really, you can write a historical novel have high historical accuracy as they Vietnamese want? So, you are the genius.

    Thank is my idea about this problem. We never should think historical novel is the history book.

  5. I say " agree", not " angry". Sorry about my terrible English grammar.


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