Friday, February 19, 2010

Historical Fiction: How Historical Do You Need To Get?

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?


Tiffany Dominguez said...

I agree that certain things need to be consistent, but I think it also depends on, as you said, the genre. If it's fantasy, those historical elements don't matter as much. However, I do really like to read a historical novel where I actually learn something about the time period. If it's a romance, nothing matters less than the historical elements :)

Scott said...

But what if it's a fantasy that claims to be set in, say England in 1250? Wouldn't you expect that to accurately reflect the world of 1250 England, with the addition of appropriate fantasy elements?

I have a personal interest in this one. I'm shopping around a book set in the Viking period, around 799. It has several fantasy elements, but they all fit within the mythology and culture of the time, except for the time travel that got my main character there.

I was very careful about remaining historical, even in a fantasy. It's entirely possible that I have a slip somewhere, but I've even run it past people who would be likely to find those.

Obviously, a fantasy set in a fictional world similar to 1250 England would have different rules.

Tiffany Dominguez said...

I think bottom line is, if you use elements like say a castle and armour, you have to make sure you use them correctly. You need to consider your audience--if it's YA, are they going to care that there was irrigation farming at the time? Probably not. But if you include a famous historical figure or a famous battle, the publisher and audience are going to expect you to have done your research.
I don't think it would hurt to point out your credentials in this area of history when querying.

Paul West said...

I think an author is disingenuous if he/she fudges on historical or any other kind of settings. Even modern day settings need to be portrayed accurately. I think most readers can tell when a writer is making up facts and that writer will eventually lose his/her credibility.