by Scott Rhoades
It's a little later than I usually post on my days, but it's still today, plus there was a great bonus post earlier.
I have a question for all of you: How historical do you need to be in historical fiction? How historical is historical?
I love reading and writing stories that are based in a particular time and place, and I try to be as historical as possible when I write historical stories. But how much do readers expect.
Let's use a common example: the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages are a popular period for historicals, whether in fantasy, romance, or plain old historical fiction. It's also a period that I know a little about, as a lifelong student of medieval literature, especially from the Germanic areas. It's also one where people get things wrong. The reason is simple. The period we call the Middle Ages lasted more than a thousand years. There's not just a medieval period where people lived in castles and ran around in armor rescuing fair damsels from castles.
So, when I read a book set in the Middle Ages, I want to know when. The 13th Century seems popular in my readings, both in print and on Authonomy. So seeing things like plate armor, words like "mayhap" and "sire," and other things not authentic to a specific century or even half century, especially when they're stereotypes, make me distrust the author's research. I recently read a manuscript where Vikings were attacking a massive stone castle in England.
There are ways around it, of course. A fantasy set in a world based on medieval Europe can use whatever rules it wants, as long as it's consistent within itself. A romance set in an unspecified medieval period (suddenly, I'm thinking of Bill & Ted: "Dude! We're in Medieval!") is probably acceptable because, most likely, the reader wants the romance and likes the romanticized period of Medieval, and doesn't really care about the actual history. A book that purports to be a historical novel in a specified time with historical characters--well, I'll be pickier about that one.
It's not that I want to get all weird about it. It's just that, if I'm reading a book set in any historical period, it's because I want to feel how it was to live at that time. I trust the author to give me that experience, especially if I don't know the period very well.
Am I nitpicking? What do you think? How do you feel when an author of a historical novel gets the history wrong? How picky should we be?