Writers in the Storm

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February 18, 2013

Writing Historicals - How Accurate Must You Be?

Today's guest is my writing 'twin.' I say that because we seem to do everything together; we got agents, sold, got our covers, and will release our debut novels, all within a month of each other! She's an amazing author - remember, you heard of her here first! 

TaintedAngel[1]Anne has agreed to give away an advance copy of her Regency novel, Tainted Angel , due out in June, to one lucky commenter! (is that a gorgeous cover, or what?)

Take it away, Anne!

I’d like to thank the great and mighty Laura Drake for allowing me this opportunity to introduce myself—thanks a million, Laura!

I have two series debuting this year, a historical fiction series and a contemporary mystery series.  I’ve attended a few panels on the knotty problem of how accurate you have to be when writing historicals, so for those of you who read or write historical novels, I thought I’d pass along what I’ve gleaned.  I would also like to give away an advance copy of my Regency novel, Tainted Angel, which will come out in June.

In Larry McMurtry’s epic Lonesome Dove, the heroes drive cattle from Texas to Montana and never encounter any of the three intercontinental railroads they should have crossed along the way.   In his Comanche Moon, a character has a Winchester rifle even though the weapon was not invented for 10 more years.

The movie Braveheart tells us that the future Edward III was the product of a liaison between William Wallace and Isabella of France.  The problem is, Wallace was executed seven years before Edward was born, and Isabella of France was nine at the time Wallace was executed.

Are the stories any less compelling? The answer probably depends on your perspective. A history professor may reject such liberties, while to someone with a more cursory knowledge of the historical period, ignorance would be bliss.  The trick to writing a story from an earlier time period is to find the right balance between dry-as-dust history and an engaging story, and how accurate you need to be, I think, depends on who your readers are.

So--how accurate does your readership want you to be? If you are writing “hot” Regencies, the answer is probably not very accurate, because nice young ladies didn’t fool around (and were definitely never given an opportunity.)   Along the same lines, nice young ladies didn’t go west in the early-and-mid nineteenth century to stake out a homestead or run a cattle ranch; the huge majority were prostitutes.  This is probably not an interesting storyline for a western, however (unless you are writing “hot” westerns.)  Therefore, the question is not whether to take liberties with historical accuracy, it is how much liberty to take. My own rule of thumb is to never write anything that would “jolt” the average reader out of the story’s time frame—not the average history professor, just the average reader.

Here are some things to ask yourself:

(1)  Have you tied yourself down to a certain year? Is there a commonly-known historic event in your story?  If so, it is probably necessary to be a little more careful in your accuracy, which is actually a lot easier than you think, thanks to Google and Wikipedia. Were there gas stoves, yet?  Was Stetson selling hats?  And be especially careful about weapons--the gun people are sticklers.

(2)  Does the history overwhelm the fiction?  There is always a temptation to include all your bright, shiny, hard-earned research and bog the story down. Does the reader really need to know what kind of candles were used.

(3) What will you do about language?  Do you use the period’s awkward phrasing and now-outdated words, or do you update the language so the story moves along more easily? Do you use cant or slang phrases? My rule of thumb is to use period phrases and words, but only where the meaning is clear from the context—there’s nothing more wooden than having a character explain what she meant.

(4) What will you  do about societal strictures and sex? Courtship usually went according to a strict format—will you ignore this, or incorporate it into the story? One of the reasons we are drawn to the Amish stories, or even Pride and Prejudice, is because the context sets up an immediate tension—there were strict rules about interaction between the sexes.  Will you incorporate it into the story to create an external conflict, or will you inject modern manners into the past?

(5) In writing Young Adult, extra caution is probably needed because the younger readers may not have an understanding of the actual history, and may take whatever you say at face value.

(6)  Finally, will you confess any liberties you take with historical accuracy in an author’s note?  Again, this probably depends on what your readership is expecting. If they are expecting a loose rendition of history, there is probably no need. If they are history buffs, however, then they will expect a detailed author’s note.

What do you expect from historical novels? Can you think of any other examples where an anachronism “jolted” you out of the story?

author photo 1 Anne Cleeland holds a degree in English from UCLA as well as a degree in law from Pepperdine University, and is a member of the California State Bar.  She writes a historical fiction series set in the Regency period as well as a contemporary mystery series set in New Scotland Yard.  A member of the Historical Novel Society and Mystery Writers of America, she lives in California and has four children.

0 comments on “Writing Historicals - How Accurate Must You Be?”

  1. Reblogged this on jennajaxon - jenna's journal and commented:
    The subject of historical accuracy just reared it's head for me this weekend, so thiws blog post seemed rather appropriate. And I so agree with the answers or guidelines Anne Cleeland gives! Do you have questions about how far to go with historical accuracy?

  2. Way before I started writing Regencies, I was flung out of a story by inaccuracies so often I stuck to a few writers I knew were accurate. So, to me, yes it matters a great deal. I spend a great deal of time checking words, finding period accurate phrases and term, and researching customs and details. I write hot Regencies and it's not true that young ladies had no opportunity to get into trouble. Jane Austen will back me up on that. Also, over 50% of babies were born less than 9 months after the marriage. Once a couple was betrothed, they were allowed alone. Which is the reason a man could not end an engagement and it had such potential for scandal.

    I don't care how famous an author is, if he or she can't take the time to do his or her research and figure out how to incorporate it skilfully into a book, I won't read them.

  3. I have HUGE issues recently with language - I don't expect the language to be totally spot on, however - I do expect that the language will be free of modern phrases. I think that research is vitally important when you are writing in a period that is not 'known' to you - and the one thing that will turn me away from an author is the obvious clues that the research was NOT done.
    And that actually holds for me for contemporary stories - you can't have an accountant who cannot balance their own chequebook, or a dom who doesn't use a safeword - that's just ridiculous. And shows a lack of respect for your reader

  4. I want accuracy, too. I'm not knowledgeable enough to catch all errors or omissions, but when I DO catch them, or when the language is too modern, it draws me straight out of the story and chances are good I won't finish it. And while I'd never leave a bad review for anyone, I'd also never buy another book by that author. This is a great post.

  5. Anne, it's good to meet you. Maybe I'll see you at the HNS conference in June! This is such a great topic for a blog! My critique partners would disagree with the loose version of historical fiction; they won't let me get away with anything! 🙂 Of course, they are fellow historical romance/fiction writers, so have an insider's view. I think the hardest part of writing accurately is word choice b/c words we use every day weren't necessarily used during the time period or not used in the same way even if the word existed. Most words are easy to spot, but then words like "anyway" don't seem wrong to use, but in 1782 it wasn't a word. But then that for me is part of the fun about writing history: the research required to get it right.

    1. Thanks Betty! I just had to edit a refernce to "bed springs" out of Tainted Angel because they weren't invented yet--there's so much to watch for!

  6. Great post!

    I'm writing a historical romance right now (America, 1850-51) and I've run into my share of plausibility issues--like wanting it pre-civil war, but dealing with the weapons limitations that brings. I've tried to stay as historically-accurate as I can, but I've taken small liberties here and there. *shrugs* I'll probably include a disclaimer at the beginning.

    Of course, some research snags turn out to be plot helpers. The Native American siege of Fort Yuma halted the writing and changed my plans, but it added a intense scene to the story. 😉

    1. Thanks for the comment, Melissa. I took a small liberty in Tainted Angel (by referring to the penny post, which was not yet in place) but I liked the reference so I left it in--a good example of fudging .

  7. PS: Two examples of story yankers I can think of are 'like a powder keg' in a novel set in biblical times (gun powder wasn't invented until 800+ AD) and a comment about how it's the father's contribution determines the sex of the child in a 1800s historical (that's a 20th-century discovery).

  8. First Anne, let me wish you the best on your debut novels and say I am most envious of that bunch out there in Orange County. You couldn't find a better book mate than Laura. I don't write what would be considered "historicals" ... however ... my mystery series is set in the '60s with a heavy dose of info about the main character's interests in the Vietnam war. I've done lots of research for two reasons ... it's very recent historical for boomers and because I don't want to jar the reader. It's like using police procedures or naming certain weapons and not knowing squat about either.

    I don't like using any timely info and relying only on my memory. So a friend introduced me to a gun expert, a fellow writer is a military expert and I used her knowledge of the time to be sure the names and places in Nam were accurate. One of my BETA readers catches mistakes like mentioning a fashion designer who wasn't around in the '60s. So, for the most part, when I read any historical, I'd like not to get pulled out of the story by an obvious mistake in time frames.

    Thanks and good launch to you. I'll be looking for more from this amazing group 🙂

    1. Thanks Florence! my other series is set in New Scotland Yard, so I'm right there with you, trying to get the procedure right and hoping it's close enough!

  9. I don't remember who said it now, but another writer I know says that she tries to stay as accurate as possible so that when she has to take liberties, readers give her a little more flexibility. I know that might sound counter-intuitive, but I think the point was that if we take liberties everywhere, the reader will be angry that we didn't try at all. If we try to stay accurate, but need to flex the truth in a couple places for the sake of the story, the reader will be more willing to go along with it.

    1. Thanks Marcy, I think that's a really good point. If you establish your credibility, you actually have a little more wiggle-room, as long as you don't abuse it. That may be the appropriate time for an author's note.

  10. Absolutely agree. I try to include the mores of society, tweaking a bit to fit the story. Great post. What throws me out of any historical are modern phrases, like "whatever!" or "make my day." And modern names. I have found that loyal readers may forgive one or two flubs, but when it gets tedious...

  11. Anne, this post is very helpful. I have a question on your point #3, language. I write short stories and novels. Where does a writer go to find examples of the most accurate period language? Is there a reference book that you might recommend to find formal conversation or slang words? I hesitate to just read other period fiction by modern authors because I don't know if they are accurate. I do read some of the master authors in the period I'm working in, like Hawthorne or Poe, but their style gets in the way sometimes. Any suggestions? Oh, and I love the cover. Very mysterious. I would certainly pick it up in a bookstore and open the cover.

    1. Thanks, Paula. For me, I've read so many Regencies that you start to absorb the language and phrasing (or, I suppose, the modern authors' version of language and phrasing--its like a gentleman's agreement that this is what we use even if it's not exactly accurate.) If you read books from the period itself ( eg Jane Austen) you run into the problems I mention--the story is hard to follow, sometimes, because the language bogs it down. I suppose the best thing is to read modern authors who write the period and notice what they do--you are probably already familiar with some because we all tend to write what we like.

      For references and slang, I google websites and have had a lot of luck--I had to look up Irish slang and Regency slang (also known as "cant") and there is a lot of material. Then you run into the problem of trying to use it too much (because it's fun), so again, I try to use slang or certain phrases where the context makes it clear (eg, "a hole-in-corner marriage.").

      Hope this helps.

  12. Anne, such good advice! I have degrees in medieval studies, so I have to watch the inclination to drone on about details that don't matter to anyone but me! I agree with Marcy that one should be as accurate as possible and tweak when necessary.

    I love the cover, too!

  13. I think generally I'll let stuff slide. I'm usually not knowledgeable about any one period to notice and the important part for me is the story. Am I connecting to the characters, is the plot engaging, fast moving?

    I do enjoy seeing little bits of real history dribbled through a text. Probably part of the reason I enjoy Diana Gabaldon's stories so much. I'm sure she's taken liberties but if it works for the story, I'll forgive it 🙂

  14. As a reader, I only want excruciating accuracy if it's vital to the plot. Otherwise, this is fiction, right? FICTION.

    It's easy to spot historical fiction where the author is in love with their research. I have a library where I can do research. I'm reading fiction to be entertained, not educated (yes, you can do both at once, but the entertainment needs to remain intact.)

    For those who demand complete accuracy, any dialog over 150 old will be virtually unreadable to a modern reader. And what about fiction set in a non-English-speaking region? Having all the dialog in English, whether modern or ancient, is not accurate.

    You're exactly right, Anne: it's not about whether to take liberties, but how far to take them.

    For me, the answer is, as far as it takes to spin a good yarn. If someone won't read my fiction because I have six shots come from a 5-shot revolver, they weren't a real fan anyway.

    1. Thanks, Joel. I have to say, many of the authors that belong to the Historical Novel Society promote accuracy over anything else, and like I said, they tend to be sticklers. They will forgive you, though, if you have an Author's Note that details where you strayed from the facts. My next historical is called Daughter of the God-King and I had to include an Author's Note because I wandered off the historical timeline.

  15. I've always tried to do my research (I write westerns), and my belief is that if I've done enough then when I'm forced to "fictionalize" aspects of the story I can hopefully do it in an authentic way. Two words I watch out for-- "okay" and "teenager". Neither belong in the 1800's. But like any author I'm always learning, so I'm willing to forgive slip ups in other books. But if there's too many to count, it's annoying.

    1. Hey Ann. Thanks for blogging on this interesting topic.
      I tend to stay as accurate as possible on history. I think period slang esp for Western historicals sets the scene. I've found most historical readers of any particular period become well aquainted with the slang. Historical romance readers are fewer than most but know their stuff. Would I use thee and thou? NO. It would be too confusing. Would I explain how dirty and gross my heroine would be after a long day on the wagon train when she's snuggling the hero? No, But I would not have my characters use a gun or appliance that was not invented yet because readers would bang me over the head for it. 🙂 Should I stray at all, I'd write a short note to readers at the front of the book--to save getting nasty letters. One thing I've found though is that young editors these days don't always know their history -- at all! One questioned a baseball game in a small town in 1880 and I was very very glad I had references that said otherwise.

    2. You sound like Marcy Kennedy, above, and I think that's a good point. If the reader trusts you, you have a little more leeway as long as you don't go too crazy.

    3. I think that's the aim--don't have anything too obviously wrong, but the use of authentic language allows the reader to sink into the story.

  16. Great post! Thanks for tackling this question. I’ve talked with several readers who said that love reading historicals because they can LEARN history from them. They assume that the writers have done the research and since it’s published... Well, it’s a dangerous assumption, but one that writers should keep in mind.

    1. Thanks, Rebecca. That's true, people might come away with the wrong impression, depending on what the context is. It would be like those Oprah writers having to confess that they made it up.

  17. I hate finding what looks like a great historical and discovering nothing more than a shallow period piece where the characters talk, think, and act like modern people. Why even set your story in the past if you can't use the history as more than window-dressing or accurately depict social and cultural attitudes? An example that always comes to mind is JIllian Larkin's Flappers series, where she almost exclusively uses the word Black instead of Negro or colored, in the 1920s. Was she too afraid her young readers would be offended at the term that was used then?

    Overloading history is another problem. Somehow I find it hard to believe that a family or group of friends would find time to take part in EVERY important event or popular movement of their era. It feels gimmicky, cliché, and forced if you're writing about, say, the 1920s and including flappers, speakeasies, mobsters, eugenics, the birth control movement, nativism, the idle rich, séances, AND the dawn of television!

  18. Great post, Ann. I'm writing my first historical fiction novel right now and working my way through many of the same points you touch on here. As a reader of historical fiction, I expect the author to be accurate to the period (No Stetson hats if they weren't made yet), and I do my best to be accurate in what I write. I'm walking a line with the language, however. I don't want period language to get in the way of the reader understanding and getting into the story. So I'm going more casual than was probably the case. However, I'm being ultra careful not to use phrases from current times or reference anything that would not be accurate to the period. Balance seems to be the rule of the day. Congratulations on releasing your new book!

    1. Thanks, Carol. What I usually do is write the first draft, then in the second draft start checking for accuracy, and make revisions as I go along. That way, you get the plot down first, and worry about the details later.

  19. I tend to build and braid my characters and plot around my research so that the book is firmly grounded in its historical "reality". I may use a high concept premise, but I always make sure my characters are realistic for their time period. It also helps that I love reading biographies and memoirs--I can get a feel for how people in the Edwardian era might react to certain situations and conflicts through them. On how other authors may view this topic, I've learned to live and let go, especially if the voice is compelling enough to steamroll any inaccuracies and implausible situations that pop out at me.

  20. I'll be honest I'm loving the discussion! I cannot remember who linked me to your blog off of Facebook right now, please forgive me. (I opened the tab earlier when I had some time and now that the kids are in bed I'm finally getting back to my computer.) I'm trying to get back to writing as I did before kids. 🙂 I have always loved reading historical fiction and have contemplated trying to write historical fiction sometimes contemplating stories with a biblical bent, for example the story of the Samaritan Woman at the well. It is very intimidating from my perspective because I worry about jolting the reader out of the story because I have interpreted the research one way and they believe another. Other times as a newbie to writing historical fiction I wonder if I can come up with something new that others want to read.

    I hope you do not mind me commenting. Anne, I'd love to read your book the cover work is very intriguing and I'd love to know more about the story line. Now I'm off to look around a bit more and find a way to subscribe. 🙂

  21. I've been criticized for using too many period words and praised for pulling a reader completely into the story... yep... by all the period words. I know of other authors who have received irate emails because they fumbled some detail. I use the Online Etymology Dictionary all the time; I finally created a shortcut for it. 🙂 Thanks for a great post, Anne.

  22. Thanks for the excellent advice, Ann. A recent example of language: In 1934, the perfect response for a character of mine would have been "I'll have to take a raincheck on the sleepover." After some digging I found that raincheck dates back to the 1850s, but but sleepover popped up in the 70s. Assuming some readers will take umbrage, "sleepover," now colored red, still sits in the sentence waiting for me to find a less than perfect replacement.

    When I started this novel, which was not specifically about the 30s, I had no idea how much of such mundane research that it would involve.

  23. Thanks for the stimulating post - what a fascinating discussion. I am writing a Georgian romance set in the 1780s and find myself checking facts all the time. I have been debating about whether readers expect you to explain which characters/events are real and which are your own creation - I think that I am veering towards some kind of author's note. Thanks Judy for the mention of the etymology dictionary - I have noted it for future reference!

  24. Oh fascinating blog. I wrote a historical western and did a lot of research to see what was and wasn't around during the rought time frame I had of the late 1890's in Texas. Did prove to my husband there was silver and it was a major product for a long time. 🙂

  25. I could not agree more. My background is in Medieval Literature, so I'm very familiar with authors who took huge liberties with history and other 'facts.' Their reading audience--admittedly very different from today's audience--did not mind and almost seemed to expect such outrages to history. I wrote a medieval romance based on the issuing of a specific edict and changed the year in which the edict was issued. I had no problem with this, as communication during the time period made a delay in distribution plausible, even though such a delay was not part of the story. As you said, the anachronism did not jolt the reader from the story.

  26. Reblogged this on Rakes Rogues and Romance and commented:
    As a writer of regency novels, I strive for accuracy. There are some things that can't be changed: the years of the Napoleanic War, when the Prince Regent was in power, the names of famous places in and around London.
    But what about other, smaller facts? Regency England has a language of its own, and, it is hard to write in a time where there was no medicine, no lights, no toilets not much of anything. So many every day items we take for granted in our daily lives did not exist. Thankfully there are resources to fact check, and if that fails, there's always Ella Quinn. 😉
    As an example, I used the word nightmare. Ella informed me that that word had not been recorded prior to 1829, and my book is set in 1818.
    So for all of you historical novelists out there:
    How important is historical accuracy in your writing? do you take it to the nth degree, or di you cut some slack on certain things.
    As a reader, does it bother you if the writer is historically inaccurate?

    1. Nightmare is an old word. The sense "a bad dream" is what wasn't recorded prior to 1829. (That said, most words existed unrecorded for at least ten to twenty years before they hit print, in the past, which is why it wouldn't surprise anyone to find an earlier citation.)

  27. Great post, Ann. I'm writing a series set in 15th century Scotland. The political climate drew me to this particular point in time and it's been challenging to find good sources of information confirming clothing, methods of transportation, etc. As for words, I use my Mirriam-Webster android app to determine the origin and that helps me choose.

    I'm trying to balance the political history with the fiction and struggling to remember that just because I find it fascinating, doesn't mean a reader will.

    Congratulations on your debut! Tainted Angel will go on my TBR list.


  28. Thanks for reblogging this Nancy. Your blogs are always so informative. When writing my late Victorian series, I let vic have an electric refrigerator, and every single critter who read the story, challenged me on it. Sounds too modern, use an icebox.

    I didn't want to use an icebox. I wanted the reader to know the world had progressed even as the Victorians held to their prior mores, dresses and attitudes. Now sometimes I would have Vic acquire a prototype of something that would be patented a year later, but I still think that's credible. There has to be a time before the patent is granted that a prototype existed. In many cases, I'd expect it to exist several years before a patent.

    Also sometimes a person develops something and then does nothing with it. Aspirin for example. A man created it in the late 1800, then did nothing with it. Bayer reinvented it in the 1830's.
    So when I let Vic have an aspirin for the pain, some will object as too modern. But that's what I love about this time. It's becoming modern while the people cling to the past.

  29. Great post. For me as a reader, I want just enough details to be believable. I don't want Tom Clancy level detail, because story is king -- you're not writing a history book! Now, as a writer, I want enough detail that the narrative goes down smooth and easy -- and I want to know enough to make sure I don't make an enormous screwup that's noticed by everyone. 🙂

      1. well, maybe. i'm writing something set in 1931 Alabama, and it's definitely been fun researching the kinds of cars/trucks that might have been used, as well as what kinds of firearms and fashions. definitely a lot of work, but you learn some things.

  30. My problem is that I am a pefectionist, so when I started writing a story which wasn't from "nowadays", I found out how difficult it can be. I was always asking myself: "What if someone reads it and tells me that absolutly doesn's make sense?". But I did it. I think sometimes it's more interesting to read (or write) historical romans or something. The best thing is that you can learn new things about "the old times" by a "funny" way. I hope you understand what I mean (I am not from an English speaking country, so I am sorry if my language isn't so good.) :))

  31. A budding Regency author myself, I appreciate these clarifications. I especially like point #4, a good statement about the inherent tension in those societies. Thanks so much for this.

  32. Hello Anne and thank you for this great blog! I can really relate to tip #2. I am working on a middle grade HF set during WW1. I have found so many great articles written at the time, and I am totally enthralled by the names, dates, events, and even the real quotes by survivors. But how to include such tasty tidbits in a story for 8-12 year olds without the snore factor kicking in?

  33. Anne very interesting article. Thanks much for posing the issues. I think, though, that we might come to slightly different conclusions. I write historicals, as well as contemporary/historical hybrids, and I love the genre. I'm a bit of a purist, though. If I can reasonably ascertain that an event, or element, of my story did *not* happen/could not have happened, I cannot in clear conscience include it in my story (e.g., the movie examples you cite above). I've read some historicals that have done that (in one case the author stating in her notes that there is a 'technical' discrepancy--which is a step in the right direction, if you're not going to be completely truthful in the historical setting) and have enjoyed the story anyway.

    I must confess that I didn't understand why the author needed to contrive an anachronism to deliver the story, and it adulterated the enjoyment. I think we owe our readers better craft than that. I agree there's some subjectivity, and that's fine, but it doesn't follow for me that, "The trick to writing a story from an earlier time period is to find the right balance between dry-as-dust history and an engaging story, and how accurate you need to be, I think, depends on who your readers are....Therefore, the question is not whether to take liberties with historical accuracy, it is how much liberty to take."

    If you deliberately include a verifiable historical inaccuracy in your story, frankly you're lying whether it's to a history professor or an 'average reader'--it's the writer's integrity that's the issue, not the reader's acumen (it's a variant of "the end justifies the means," which demands strict caution in just about any application). Why does historical accuracy need to be at odds with an engaging story? In my estimation (and I don't mean to be harsh), it's shoddy writing to ignore or knowingly violate historical fact just because it doesn't fit the preconceived storyline. Let the story conform to truth--not necessarily mirror it, for that would be non-fiction--even be friends with it. It can do so without being *dry*, it just requires a little more imagination, a good exercise for the fiction writer. Otherwise, your readers unknowlingly walk away with a faulty knowledge of the historical setting, and that can come back to bite them. We're not doing them any favors by underscoring blissful ignorance with falsehoods.

    Again, I don't mean to be adversarial at all (really). I'm just concerned too much latitude given to historical writers may encourage sloppiness in research, a mainstay of historical writing. If we don't want to pay attention to fact, let us write fantasy--even historical fantasy--and call it that.

    Thanks for listening.

    Cheers! Bruce

  34. Anne, what a wonderful pleasure to discover another local writer (and fellow UCLA grad)! I agree with you 100% -- it's not whether you take liberties, but to what degree. I think finding a balance with "period speak" might be the hardest -- characters that sound too modern always throw me out of the story, but I don't necessarily want to decipher Old English if I'm reading a medieval fiction.

    Congrats on your publication (and gorgeous cover). Will definitely check out Tainted Angel!

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