Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Dilemmas of Historical Fiction

How important is accuracy within a fictional work? This is a point which almost all the writers I know argue. Views range from "not at all" to "it must be as accurate as possible." While I disagree that it is unimportant, I'm well aware that complete accuracy is probably not possible, nor desirable.

Let me state now that this subject tends to be controversial, and what I'm about to write is obviously colored by my own opinions. Nonetheless, I'm hoping to break this down in a way that might help other writers—and readers—make up their minds about what is and is not important to them.

And the good news is that there are published books along the entire continuum. They range from: the only "historical" elements are long dresses, candlelight, and horse-drawn carriages; to "as completely accurate as possible."

That last goal: "to be as completely as possible" is more difficult than you might imagine. Even a writer such as Steven Saylor, who writes mysteries set in ancient Rome, cannot be entirely accurate and still create popular fiction. He often adds notes indicating where he had to "modify history" in order to make it understandable to a modern reader. For example, one of his challenges is time. Up until around the 4th century, B.C., they formally divided day into only two parts: before midday—ante meridian (A.M.); and after midday—post meridian (P.M.). So it's difficult for his characters to talk about time, particularly using modern units of time such as an hour or minute. And yet readers expect some sort of time reference to know how long things take, e.g. did he stand there 5 minutes or 2 hours?

By Seneca's time, 4 B.C. – 65 A.D., the Romans had divided the day into 12 units, "hours," but the thing is, that time was elastic. The day always had exactly 12 hours of daylight no matter if it was a long, summer day, or a short, winter day. So "summer hours" were longer than "winter hours". And that concept sort of hurts my head.

The bottom line is that there are many basic concepts we accept and pretty well believe are "self evident." We think things were "always this way" when in fact the notion may be a relatively modern invention.

But, if you are writing for modern readers, you're going to have to accept a certain amount of anachronisms just to make sense and keep the story moving.

Like a hour being a relatively fixed amount of time.

So, I break this subject—and therefore decisions I make when writing historical fiction—into the following categories:

* Environment. Also called into "world building." This consists of architecture, clothing, furniture, and general props. Even in the most egregiously inaccurate fiction, there is really no excuse for getting these things wrong. There were no steel-and-glass skyscrapers in the 19th century. There were no flying buttresses and Gothic cathedrals in ancient Rome. Unfortunately, there are actually a great many stories where even the basics are just…wrong. This makes me very sad. Because I consider this to be the "minimum" set of things you need to get right to give your historical a sense of being, well, an historical.

* Society, mores and customs. The milieu of the character. This is where even the most fanatical historian can start to drift. Some readers may not even notice errors in this area. And many time periods, such as the Regency, have become so stylized that you may actually be considered to have written a historically inaccurate book if you do not follow the "popular perceptions" of this period.

For the Regency, this includes things like the importance of Almack's to a Regency Miss' social acceptance, or the ease with which a damsel may become "compromised" and forced to marry some hapless male. So this is definitely a grayer area, but note: the more accurate this, the more layers or interest your book can have. And you will often find that this layer forms the major "difference" between mid to lower tier authors and higher tier (esp. literary) authors. Presenting a realistic, complex view of the Society during a specific era can be the thing that makes the difference between ordinary and extraordinary fiction.

* Characters. This is the area where authors not only have more freedom, but probably should make the major anachronistic changes. Hero and heroines who find a hanging, disembowelment, and wild animals vs Christians to be great entertainment, or believe they have a God-given right to anything they want because of their birth and wealth are probably not going to be very sympathetic in modern eyes. I think it safe to say none of us would be particularly attracted or sympathetic to most of the upper class people before the 19th century, and probably not to most people before that time, either. And when writing popular fiction, you need to get the reader to identify and/or sympathize with your hero/heroine. That character, more than any other, will by necessity, be a modern person thinly cloaked by the trappings of their time period.

However, you can't just write yourself into the story and be done with it. Many inexperience or unskilled authors go a little too far with this to the point of turning their characters into a person that is so modern that she (or he) just seems bizarrely misplaced into the past.

So those, in a nutshell, are some of the factors you need to consider when writing, or reading, historical fiction.

Given that, why do I write so many stories set in the Regency period?

I am fascinated with the paradoxes in that Society, particularly for women within that culture. The period hasn't crystallized into the "hard and fast" rules of the Victorian age and you have wonderful, brilliant and yet proper women like Jane Austen in contrast to courtesans like Harriette Wilson or Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey. Everything was undergoing massive change with the sudden explosion in the sciences and exploration. New plants, new cultures, and huge changes in things even as simple as the rose. By mid-century, roses from China were hybridized with European varieties to create reblooming roses that eventually became the Hybrid Teas of today.

So much of what we have and know today grew out of that period.

And for me, it is the conflict of the individual within the turmoil of that Society that attracts me the most. How would an intelligent, articulate woman fit in and attract a man when one of the "rules of polite Society" was the advice "Do not speak until spoken to?" If you flouted the rules, what would the consequences be? How would you deal with them?

I have always been fascinated by those who did not quite fit in. I am intrigued by social outcasts and the desire or possibility of re-integration into Society—if you even wanted to be integrated.

That is what draws me to that period.

And I'd be fascinated to know what draws others to historical novels and how important accuracy is to them as readers or writers.


Sonja Foust said...

Wow, thanks for that blog! What a great explanation. I'm scared to WRITE a historical, mostly because I'm afraid I'd fail to make it accurate enough. But I really like your point about character, and making the character sympathetic to a modern reader.

I'm a big Regency reader, particularly, as far as historicals go. The thing that draws me to them is all the rules and how fun it is to break them. :) I think it's a lot harder to be a rebel in modern times (or at least a lovable one), and I love a good rebel story. Plus forbidden sex is sexier. ;)

Amy said...

I TOTALLY agree with you. Yet another reason to adore previous, more restrictive time periods. Breaking the rules is more fun.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a very useful analysis. I've linked to it from the "Writing Tips" page of my Historical Novels website at

Cathy Johnson said...

Wow, I found your blog because I’m taking a graduate level class next semester ( a directed study) on “Writing the Narrative History.” I have always loved historical fiction or nonfiction and feel after I read them that I’ve come away with a good story and some more insights into the past. I have always been fascinated with the lives of people living in conflict, who have to make tough (yet real) decisions, who come back after great loss and how they are changed. What is fascinating is that the historical events really happened and real people had to face that time period’s unique challenges. I’d much rather read about these truths than pure fiction. Accuracy is extremely important to me because I love to learn about the nuances and details of times past.
I have some letters, diaries and artifacts from my relatives in the Civil War and have been fascinated for a long time with their dreams, challenges, lives and losses through this terrible time in our nation’s history. So, I propose to write their story and your blog hit me right where I needed it the most.

Amy said...

Glad you found it useful! Writing about other historical periods is very challenging--but it's also very rewarding and I wish you the best of luck!

Let me know when you get published--I'd love to read it!