Tuesday 2 August 2016

How Historically Accurate Should Historical Fiction Writers Be?


This is a relatively contentious question and one I have been thinking about a lot recently. I was asked, by an author, to review their historical fiction book. As well as an author I am a professional reader ~ in other words...I review books. The book in question sounded right up my street, and I looked forward to reading it. However, very soon I became very disheartened, for there was one historical inaccuracy after another. The author had clearly done very little research, and this showed in the writing. I am afraid the book did not make it onto this blog as I could not give it a positive review and I do not want to trash someone else's book on this blog ~ that isn't what I am about. Unfortunately, the more books that I am given to review, the more I have realised that this isn't an isolated incident.

Now those of you who are regular readers of this blog, will no doubt know that I write historical fantasy set in the Dark Ages. Just because I write 'fantasy' this does not mean that I am complacent with the era in which my book is set in. I can spend hours researching the most mundane history of - let me give an example, I spent two hours researching the history of cobblestones and all for this one sentence.

There was an old man with a broom and a bucket, trying to wash away Merton’s blood from the pitched paving. All the water did was spread the blood around further until the old man was paddling in it. 
The Du Lac Devil (Book 2 of The Du Lac Chronicles)- due for release late 2016

That is 2 hours of my life that I will never get back, but I now know a lot more about cobblestones! And who knows, maybe one day there will be a question on cobblestones at the local pub quiz, and I'll be able to answer it. Yay!

My point is, if I can spend two hours researching cobblestones for my historical fantasy novel, then I expect a historical fiction author to take as much care.

 Please note - the Candy floss was merely used to hold the book down. I did not eat the rest of the tub. As I asked my children, "where's your proof?"

 For someone like me, a historical inaccuracy jumps out. It is the same with historically based movies. Let's use Braveheart as an example. I am sure we all remember Mel Gibson playing the heroic Scottish freedom fighter, William Wallace. There is so much historically wrong with this movie that it could take up an entire post, but nevertheless, it doesn’t take away from the fact that it is a great movie, and cinematically pleasing. Braveheart was - is - an amazing film. I have watched it countless times. It won 5 Oscars for goodness sake. So why am I spending two hours of my time looking up the history of cobblestones for one sentence, when Hollywood, puts all the Scots in kilts and rewrite history by taking out the Bridge in the Battle of Stirling - and that is just two examples of historical inaccuracies in this film...believe me, there are more! 

No one cares about the historical inaccuracies if the story is good.

Actually, readers care.

Readers, and Reviewers like myself, expect a historical novel - whether that is romance or an epic saga - to represent the period of the time it is set in. An author is setting themselves up for a fall, if they don't do their homework. Believe me, it isn't just reviewers that pick up historical inaccuracies, it is readers as well, and they will happily tell you all about it when they leave a review on Amazon.

Just out of interested I googled how to write historical fiction. I read a few posts, and they all said the same sort of things...

Don't trust Wikipedia.
Grab some reference books.
Don't worry about the history just get the story down.

I agree with the Wikipedia and the reference books but how can you not worry about the history when you are writing historical fiction? That is like saying, don't worry about medical practices when your story is set in a hospital. You need a little knowledge at least. Now there is a fine balance. I don't want to read a book that comes across as a history lesson. If I wanted to do that, then I would pick up one of my non-fiction history books. The story has to be good, and if the story is good, then the odd historical inaccuracy can be overlooked and let’s be honest, we all,  even with the best intentions, make mistakes, but when the mistake is something big, or there are a lot of little mistakes, then this takes me away from the story.

Let's take a look at one of the masters of historical fiction. For this example I am going to look at Philippa Gregory's books - I'll pick The White Princess as an example - now this book is a work of historical fiction. Gregory has no proof that Henry Tudor raped Elizabeth, but Gregory obviously thought this made a good story (personally I would disagree with her on this, but it is her book, it is her fictional story). But, what Gregory does do very well, is she keeps to the history of the period. By that I mean she sweats the details. She researches the mundane. And that is why I have read, not all, but a fair number of her books.

A historical fiction author can get away with a fair amount. They can rewrite history. They can make good kings bad, and bad kings good. But, to keep their readers ( and reviewers) happy, they must stay authentic to the time the book is set in. As a book reviewer I ask this of you... Take your time to research. Don't make big mistakes. It could mean the difference between a 5* review and a 3.

No comments:

Post a Comment

See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx