While this article was written to address historical do and don't questions, it could apply with any form of fictional world-building.
Historical authors really love history. We can easily obsess over details that are endlessly fascinating―at least to us. However, do readers really want that deep of an understanding of the past? After all, you are not writing a non-fiction, historical book, not even a historical fiction novel. It’s Historical Romance. As when you pronounce a word, certain syllables are spoken softly while one is accented; when you say Historical Romance always put the stress on ROMANCE. Never lose sight of that. My wonderful editor at Kensington Books, Hilary Sares, says readers are tired of “clanking swords, that history is stale, cold, while romance is timeless.” In this, she touches on the heart of what historical romance is―history is the lesser of the ingredients in the mix, while love carries the story.
Once a romance author accepts these boundaries then they are left with just how much history do you add? History is a background for the tapestry you weave. It should give the reader a sense of period, but never intrude upon the romance, never stall the story out pausing to explain historical details or to give a history lesson. After the author reaches that level of what will be good threads and elements to craft into the story, they next face a final hurdle―to weigh the importance of details, the minutiae that draws the historical authors to share their love of the past.
Only here is where it can get tricky. Sometimes, what readers believe is accurate often is not. “Bad” history, incorrect word usage, or even how time has changed the meaning of words can stymie the author. Take the word acquaintance. Noun – “a person known to one, but usually not a close friend.” That is how it is accepted in today’s usage. However, years and years ago the word meant something different. Surprisingly, when a man was “acquainted” with a woman, he was saying he had been physically intimate with her. See the problem? If you are going for historical accuracy and you say “Mr. Overton was acquainted with Miss Marple.” in the historical sense you would be saying Mr. Overton had indulged in sex with Miss Marple! Will today’s reader understand without you having to stop the story and TELL them that? Will a reader, lacking this crumb of knowledge, understand what you said, or will they just believe you are saying Mr. Overton has met Miss Marple, but they are not good friends? If the author puts that sentence out there and wants the reader to comprehend what they are saying, then they must stop the flow of the plot and the scene and say, “Of course, we know acquainted means he has had sex with her.” Even then, the reader might scratch their heads and go, hum, it does? In that instant, you have taken them out of the story simply by using a word correctly, but not “right” in today’s eyes. Right is wrong. Rarely is one single word ever that important to risk using, when it can pull their reader away from the imagery to ponder if you are correct or not.
If a historical romance came along and used Irish Gaelic spellings instead of Scots Gaelic, and this book using the wrong form of the language was a bestseller, then people often assume that book to be correct. Then other authors come along using the correct form and people automatically presume they are incorrect. So when readers hit the difference they often believe the right spellings to be wrong! Okay, what then? Do you knowingly use the wrong spellings of words to conform to what the readers have accepted as correct, or do you go ahead and be accurate and have readers think you are wrong?
Another complexity in to be or not be historically accurate―authors who set their novels in real places, such as the castles of Scotland. Often, instead of world-building and creating their own castles, some pick out a very famous castle for the setting of their stories, even put the wrong clan living there, totally disregarding most castles have a very detailed historical record. For someone not familiar with Scotland’s past that might not be a problem.
However, the author runs into the sticky wicket of having readers who do, and once more, are taken out of the story because they know the true history. We must remember it is fiction. Authors are allowed to bend history a wee bit if it serves to make the story stronger. I won’t go as far as Randall Wallace did when speaking of the many historical inaccuracies of his screenplay for the movie “Braveheart” and say history should never get in the way of a good story. Still, authors should be able to present a romping tale without worrying about being 100% accurate on every single detail.
Another is nationality. It can come into play in perceptions of what is wrong and right. Take the simple way you name the floors of a building. In Britain and Europe, even today, the first floor of a building is the ground floor. In America, you work on the first floor in New York, while in London you are working on the ground floor. The first floor in Europe is actually the second level. When Regency and Victorian periods were in flourish and they had their Seasons in London, they lived in fancy townhouses. The first floor (second floor to Yanks!) was where they did most of their entertaining. So if a woman entered the front door, and went “upstairs to the first floor” many Americans would assume the author is making a booboo, despite her being entirely correct!
These are just a few of the bumps facing historical authors when trying to keep the faith with history, yet also do a balancing act with the readers and just how accurate does readers truly want their historical romances to be.
© Deborah Macgillivray, September 2008