Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Historical Accuracy, Phase 2

A few weeks ago I wrote about historical accuracy in my blog. Since I just submitted a historical novella to my editor and am thinking about what to write next, I started contemplating this topic again. I mean, I'm not sure I could even get the details of my own time period accurate, much less those of a period two hundred years ago. And there is that whole TRUTH issue. I'd like to think that there is some sort of TRUTH or FACT that is understandable and knowable, but for most of us, truth and "facts" are largely based upon our perceptions and often limited, or skewed, knowledge.

We do the best we can, but knowledge is like peeling an onion, there is always another layer. There will always be someone who knows more than you do.

You might think I just digressed in discussing THE TRUTH versus perceptions of the truth, but alas, no. Because I'm trying to plot out another historical mystery, and I keep running into decision points or issues.

And that leads me to think about just how accurate I can, or cannot be.

For example, dressing the heroine—or any Regency woman. I've attended several "re-enactment" type affairs where folks who specialize in Regency clothes show what ladies wore and how they got dressed. And they very strongly made the point that a lady simply could not dress herself due to several factors including:

  1. Restricted movement due to corsets, which prevent a lady from reaching behind to fasten up the back of her dress, for example; and
  2. The excessively complex ties, strings, pins (straight or otherwise) used to keep garments together.

Not to mention the discussion about whether Regency women's clothing actually had buttons or not.

The consensus of this group was that no lady could dress herself without help. And a few dresses actually did have a few buttons.

On the other side, several members of the Jane Austen Society have informed me that shy & private Jane used to dress herself. And they don't believe buttons were used on women's dresses (except as decorations) despite the drawing of Jane Austen showing a row of buttons on the back of her dress.

When you think about it, maids and servants often wore the cast-off clothing of their employers. And servants dressed themselves. Ergo, the clothes they got from their employers actually could be thrown on without help or the servants wouldn't have been able to dress themselves in the cast-offs. And please don't remind me that the servants could have altered the clothing. I know. It's all relative.

So…can my ladies dress themselves? Do their dresses have buttons?

I suspect the truth lies somewhere between the two viewpoints. Ladies could dress themselves if they didn't tie their corsets quite so tightly, and a few dresses did, indeed, have a few buttons down the back.

On to my next problem: locale. I just started reading a British mystery—contemporary (more or less—I mean, at least it takes place slightly less than 100 years ago). The author resolved the problem of locale by making up a completely fictional …shire in England with a fictional stately home, and two fictional nearly towns. I like that solution better than my previous ones. I used to pick a small place at random and "en-grandize" it into a name worthy of a territory title (like a Duke's) and so on. Although Georgette Heyer was very good at that, I was less good at picking obscure-enough place names for it not to "rankle" with folks actually from Britain.

So for that—forget the accuracy and go for the completely fictional.

Finally, flora and fauna. You absolutely HAVE to avoid placing rare (undiscovered in that time) plants or hybrids not even created yet in your story. Those just will not do. Nor does it work to name all the flowers you know and have them blooming at the same time, e.g. mums and daffodils. But where I get into the weeds is WHAT TO CALL THINGS?

I'm sitting here with the c. 1808 copy of The Gardener's Calendar, looking at the list of roses. Now, to take a step back, many of the plant names are the same as today, which is great and makes it easy for me to list plants that I know people today will understand. But there are a lot of hybrids or plants that have names that have fallen into disuse and there it is difficult even for an expert to identify exactly which plant is being described.

Roses are notoriously difficult. In this 1808 book, there are many named which could be almost anything. 'Dutch hundred-leaved' could be Centifolia, aka 'Rose of a Hundred Leaves', 'Rose des Peintres', the 'Provence Rose', 'Queen of Roses' and 'Old Cabbage Rose'. Which name do you use?

At one point, I wanted to put a list of the roses grown by the Empress Josephine at Malmaison on my website. Until a rosarian noted that most of them were Gallica roses that are not grown any longer and were lost in the mists of time—not to mention, how would you give the modern reader any reasonable rose names since those rose varieties that still exist are generally known by different names? And there is very little chance of me being able to match the original rose variety name from the list to a modern name that a contemporary person would recognize.

Given that sort of challenge, how can you really paint an accurate picture of the past? Even those who LIVED IN THE PAST couldn't always agree on a consistent name for a rose (hence, Linneaus' universal scheme of names, taxonomy, based on Latin—but even that doesn't address rose varieties since they are not separate species but just hybrids or varieties).

Anyway, enough. I will do my best, knowing that whatever I do, I will get questions from readers that will be perfectly valid—because in truth, truth seems to be more relative than I would like.

And for those who like puzzles, here is a list of roses from 1808:

Early cinnamon; Double yellow; Red monthly; White monthly; Double white; Moss Provence; Common Provence; Double velvet; Single ditto; Dutch hundred-leaved; Blush ditto; Blush Belgick; Red ditto; Marbled; Large royal; York and Lancaster; Red damask; Blush ditto; White damask; Austrian yellow; Double musk; Royal Virgin; Rosa mundi; Frankfort; Cluster-blush; Maiden-blush; Virgin, or thornless; Common red; Burnet-leaved; Scotch, the dwarf; Striped Scotch; Apple-bearing; Single American; Rose of Meux; Pennsylvanian; Red cluster; Burgundy rose.

Note, the spelling and capitalization are from the 1808 book. J


Sonja Foust said...

Couldn't you do a similar thing with roses that you can do with locales-- pick one and fictionalize it? (BTW, I'm a big fan of fictionalizing places so as not to rankle people and so I can use as much artistic license as I want.)

Amy said...

Heck, no--well, maybe--but you have to be really, really careful. You can't fictionalize many things, per se--because then you just look like you don't know what you're talking about. Faking a rose (for me) pretty much ranks with having your Regency heroine send a message to her best-bud on her iPhone.

You can get away with some things like your character creating a new Gallica rose variety, because I'm sure a lot of avid rosarians at the time were creating all sorts of new varieties that have since been lost in the mists of time... But then you have to say that's what is going on. I'm afraid if I read about roses, the author needs to have done his or her homework. ;-)

And I'll accept some guesses as long as they look reasonable to me (like using Centifolia for the "Dutch hundred-leaves"--because that's possible).

So it just needs to be a reasonable stab at accuracy.

Because an awful lot of us know the difference (unfortunately).

We all accept fictional people and a fictional locale because of all those legal and other issues.

But "things" come under a "either you did your research and you know, or you're a dumb-a-lina" category.

So folks who know roses, for example, will go spastic if you start talking about yellow climbing roses in the Regency or Hybrid Teas--which didn't even exist until the later half of the 19th century after they met the challenge of hybridizing European rose varieties with the remontant China roses.

More than you wanted to know, right?'s always a difficult subject for any author and it always generates a response on both sides.