How historically accurate should historical romance be?

histgirl anac2The question in the title is a perennial favourite for readers and writers alike.

Should our characters, our backgrounds, and our plot details be scrupulously accurate to the period in which they are set?

Why write historicals if they’re not set in history?

I’m the first to put my hand up and admit I’m pedantic. I obsess over things like when and how the news of Trafalgar and Nelson’s death arrived in Bath (a plot point in Candle’s Christmas Chair). I’ve written blog posts about:

anachronism-6957-guy-whiteleyI care. If someone in a regency novel calls an earl Your Grace, or zips up his trousers, or has been christened Beyonce, I’m going to notice.

And other readers care, too. I was called out by one reader when a minor character in Candle’s Christmas Chair said he was okay. Quite right, too. Thanks to the magic of ebooks, I was able to remove a word that belonged decades in the future and on the other side of the Atlantic.

History Hoydens makes the following point:

To me, it seems ridiculous to even bother writing “historical fiction” (be it romance, mystery, whathaveyou) if the “historical” part is optional. I know, I know . . . in Romancelandia a lot of the history has become optional: our characters are abnormally clean, have perfect teeth, and somehow our heroes never have the ridiculous haircuts that were in vogue for their age (has anyone ever written or read a medieval hero with a bowl cut?). Is a man with Fabio-locks in the Middle Ages any less offensive than a red silk nighty in Regency England? I think they’re both problematic, both a betrayal of the entire point of the genre…

Perhaps I’m being ridiculous, but the willfully chosen error just gets under my skin and itches like mad! There’s something demeaning about it, something dismissive. Something about it says: It was too much trouble to find a way to make my vision/story work within the framework of history, and rather than alter my vision/story, I chose to alter history instead.

But we’re not writing history books

anachronismOn the other hand, we’re writing fiction, not history. And we’re writing fiction for today’s readers, for whom real historical accuracy might be a step too far, as this Heroes and Heartbreaker’s post comments:

…in some cases a too-strict reliance on historical detail can be just as off-putting. A classic example of this phenomenon is Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, in which hero Jamie gets fed up with heroine Claire’s bad habit of putting his men into mortal danger through her dangerously unpredictable behavior, so he beats her. He beats her! Gabaldon’s response to the clamor around this scene (paraphrased) was “I scrupulously researched every aspect of this book and Jamie’s actions and attitudes are fully consistent with those of a man in that time and place so obviously it’s all good because REALISM!!!” To which I can only reply…yes, from a historic standpoint, Jamie’s actions are unexceptional, but on the other hand this is a book whose plot kicks into gear when the heroine travels backward through time, so…well, I wouldn’t have missed that scene if it weren’t there, is all I’m saying.

Penetrating Analysis makes a compelling case for anachronism that makes the story better for readers.

…historical romance is more beholden to the constraints of the romance genre than it is to the reality of history. While historical fiction may generally aim to simulate the past for readers through painstaking attention to detail, historical romance’s overriding preoccupation is different. Emotional authenticity in the development of the relationship is far more important to the genre than strict fidelity to a historical or geographic setting.

ipad boyHistorical settings open up a range of concerns and possibilities to authors, some because they are similar to the present day and others because they are different. To cite just one example in the latter category, the consequences for unintended pregnancy were much different for an upper-class unmarried woman of Regency England than they are for most twenty-first-century readers. The elevated risks associated with extramarital sex can be used to raise the stakes for heroes and heroines in a way that would be out of place in a contemporary novel.

At the same time, historical settings provide a way to explore themes and issues that are vital to contemporary concerns. The remote past can serve as a safe space in which authors can tackle more sensitive topics without hitting too close to home for readers.

Heroes and heroines with postmodern sensibilities are a natural consequence of being written by authors of the twenty-first century. Expecting writers to purge their work of any trace of modern perspective is unrealistic in a genre predicated upon the reader’s connection to the novel’s protagonists.

And some anachronisms are not anachronisms at all

cookI’ve also been jarred by something in a novel, gone to check the facts, and found that my idea of historical fact was out of tune with what really happened. Perhaps a book has a hero using dental floss in pre-World War I Great Britain. Anachronism?

in James Joyce’s Ulysses, a minor character, Professor MacHugh, “took a reel of dental floss from his waistcoat pocket and, breaking off a piece, twanged it smartly between two and two of his resonant unwashed teeth”. This feels all wrong, and you’d be hard pushed to find any other reference to dental floss – pretty much, in any literature ever – but there it is, in a book produced in 1918-20 and set in 1904. [Guardian article on anachronisms that aren’t]

I’ve recently had this experience with Candle’s Christmas Chair. Many reviewers have commented on Min’s profession. (She designs and makes invalid’s chairs.) To some, she is reflecting the start of feminism. To others, my choice of career for her is ridiculous, and a total anachronism. Working class women, of course, always held down an income-earning job or range of jobs. But women of the tradesman and merchant classes, according to my reviewers, stayed at home and managed the servants.

Both types of review see history through a lens of Victorian middle-class sensibilities. I’m not going to write here about the invisible women who thronged the trades, crafts, and professions from medieval times until the Victorian era. That’s a topic for another blog post. Suffice it to say that we should be cautious about labelling something as an error, either intended or unintended.

Do you care?

Different people are annoyed by different things. I got this neat chart of allergens from a thoughtful digest of posts on Likes Books.

Allergens: Which of the following items are you sensitive or allergic to?
  • Americanisms in UK dialogue
  • Anachronistic inventions or discoveries
  • Anachronistic language
  • Anachronistic modern psychology
  • Anachronistic names
  • Anachronistic technology
  • Astronomical errors
  • Asteroids with breathable atmospheres
  • Big lumps of information
  • Combat errors
  • Confusingly similar character names
  • Contrived character actions
  • Costume errors
  • Culturally inappropriate names
  • Dance errors
  • Ecological errors
  • Etiquette errors
  • Excessive repetition
  • Excessive use of long sentences
  • Excessive use of short sentences
  • Excessive use of slang
  • Facial hair style anachronisms
  • Form of address errors
  • Generation-inappropriate language
  • Genetics errors
  • Geographical errors
  • Geological errors
  • Grammatical errors
  • Hairstyle errors or anachronisms
  • Head-hopping
  • Historical errors
  • Inappropriate regional dialect
  • Inappropriate use of cant
  • Inheritance or entail errors
  • Internal inconsistencies
  • Legal errors
  • Malapropisms
  • Martial Arts errors
  • Medical errors
  • Military errors
  • Misuse of foreign languages
  • Morals and mores errors
  • Punctuation errors
  • Religious doctrine errors
  • Science errors
  • Story elapsed time problems
  • Succession errors
  • Time zone/timekeeping errors
  • Title of nobility errors
  • Translation errors
  • Transportation errors
  • Typos
  • Vehicle description errors
  • Weaponry errors

So what do you think? Do you hate historical inaccuracy in books? Does a book blurb that refers to Richard III as the King of York remove any desire to read the book? Or do you not care as long as the story is good?

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12 thoughts on “How historically accurate should historical romance be?

  1. Head hopping which includes minor characters is a major bugbear of mine, as are punctuation errors that interfere with the sense of the story and force me to reread a line. Surprisingly this happens quite often, especially when reading an ebook. Somehow, lines of dialogue get lost in translation and attach themselves to one another so you read it all as one characters statement, and then think, huh?? I also get annoyed when writers rewrite history to allow a female character to do something you just know would not have been possible. To me, that is lazy plotting.

  2. I enjoy historical romance novels and the time period that they represent and, thus, it’s fun to read non-fiction about those periods. For instance, I just finished reading “Life Below Stairs – True Lives of Edwardian Servants” by Alison Maloney. As there seems to be more books written today of that time period, probably with the influence of Downton Abbey, I found this book to be totally captivating.

    To answer your question, if an author adds something like a zipper in Regency times, I would probably just chuckle to myself. It certainly isn’t something to detract from the story for the talent of the author.

    • We writers certainly need to focus on writing gripping stories with interesting characters, Connie. And then, perhaps, we can be forgiven our occasional lapses. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Great piece! As a historian (loose term with exception of having studied history at university), as a book reviewer, as a publisher, as an author, the best advice one can give to authors and aspiring authors, is “Research, Research and Research again. Never take anything at face value on a first round of research”. Accuracy is important, and such is better drip-fed rather than dumping info onto readers in the manner of a guide to historical accuracy. Authors don’t need to talk-down to their readers, because one can educate the unknowing with accurate portrayal of the past as it was, not as it is imagined. The best way to depict a specific era is to read diaries/journals, letters and stories/plays written within your chosen era. Let the people of the past tell you how it was, and assume nothing! .

    • Very good advice. And if you cannot find anything to support or deny something you need, then make your own decision. For example, I tried really hard to find a contemporary account of when and how the news of Trafalgar got to Bath. I know it did. And I know it was published in the Gazette on the day after the news reached (and was published) in London. It reached London in the early hours of the 6th, and was published in a special edition of the London Gazette later that morning, after the King had been informed. So, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, I’ve assumed that one or more of the travellers on the regular London to Bath coaches brought the news, and that it arrived in Bath on the 6th and was announced immediately. I may be wrong. But what I’m saying is not inconsistent with the historical facts that I could find.

  4. I know I’ve made historical errors. (I’m going to have to fix the shirt thing. Thanks.)

    I try to make them as historically accurate as possible, but I’m not perfect. I’m hoping I’m erring on the side of human nature, because that doesn’t change much. I’m also hoping that the story is good enough to forgive my errors. I write historical romantic comedy. I also place my stories in small villages. There are landed gentry but very few people with titles. I couldn’t keep the protocol straight and was terrified of being butchered in reviews for it.

    The whole did she or did she not wear drawers in 1820 makes me crazy because I find research on both sides of the isle but nothing definitive. This is currently keeping me up at night.

    So I’m going to beg for forgiveness in an author’s note. 🙂

    • Probably both practices prevailed, Eileen. From what I can gather, pantaloons were considered quite racy, but were necessary under the flimsier fabrics and slimmer lines of the empire gowns. And weren’t they called pantaloons or drawers (plural) because they were two separate items, one for each leg?

  5. When I’m writing, I try to keep things as accurate as possible, though I’ve also learned that at some point I need to concede defeat if I can’t find a certain piece of information. However, as a reader I’m pretty forgiving, or at least I thought I was until I read a book where the hero was lifting hay bales to build upper body strength, about a hundred years before the machinery needed to make square bales was invented.

    • It’s not the things we know that trap us. And it’s not the ones that we know we don’t know. We can look those up. But we fall on our faces over things we don’t know we don’t know.

  6. Historical inaccuracies drive me CRAZY! I just picked up a book set in 1895 that had a man smoking while talking with a lady. I was like … what???

    But you’re right – there are also those times when something seems sooo wrong. Like Shakespeare in “The Tempest”: “Why, as I told thee, ’tis a custom with him,
    I’ th’ afternoon to sleep. There thou mayst brain him …”

    And here I thought “braining” someone was modern teen speak!

    • Men in their shirtsleeves drive me crazy. Okay, I just reread that, and I didn’t mean in a good way. 🙂

      Historical fact. Shirts were underwear until the 20th century. When cuffs and collars were first allowed to show, it was considered very racy, and not quite polite! No pre-20th century gentleman would show his shirtsleeves in the presence of a lady (outside of the bedchamber).

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