Tuesday, November 13, 2012

[Guest Post] How Accurate do your Historicals need to be?

Angela Quarles - Geek girl romance writer

Angela recently signed with agent Maura Kye-Casella at Don Congdon, Assoc. for her time-travel romance MUST LOVE BREECHES, featuring Ada Byron Lovelace as a major secondary character. She's written two other novels and a novelette, and is currently working on her fourth novel. She's an avid reader, a Jane Austen nut, and a proud Browncoat. She lives in an historic house in the beautiful and quirky town of Mobile, AL, and enjoys the usual stuff like gardening, reading, hanging out, eating, drinking, chasing squirrels out of the walls and creating the occasional knitted scarf.

Find her on twitter or visit her blog


Title: Beer and Groping in Las Vegas
Author: Angela Quarles
Publisher: Secret Cravings
Release Date: December 19, 2012

Book Description:
Can a djinn and a magic slot machine bring two geeks together?

Riley McGregor is a geek trapped in a Good Ole Boy body and as owner of a microbrewery, smart chicks never look at him twice.

Rejected by a geek who wanted to “trade up,” Mirjam Linna would rather immerse herself in work than be the girlfriend-of-the-moment. Stranded in a Vegas hotel, she makes a wish—a night of hot sex with the man of her dreams. It's granted. She agrees to dinner, but afterward, she’ll say thanks, but no thanks, and see what’s on the SyFy channel. But when they meet, they're surprised to find they had a shared connection in their past. Sparks fly as these two learn to be in the moment, be themselves and find love.

Fans of Star Trek, Star Wars, Monty Python, Firefly and Marvin the Martian will enjoy this romantic comedy.

Guest Post:
Thank you Christina for inviting me to guest post! This is an interesting topic, and my original post two weeks ago on my blog generated a lot of thoughtful comments. I've updated my post to include the various opinions expressed in the comments section and to address aspects I forgot to cover in that post.
Opinions on how accurate an historical novel needs to be varies WIDELY. Since I write romance, this will be heavily weighted to the historical romance genre, but I think the principles and opinions are applicable across other genres set in the past.
The tolerance bar varies
At RWA I was talking to Regency Romance author Ella Quinn at a function and I said that the historical inaccuracies in one NYT Bestselling Author used to bother me, but her delightful writing and humor won me over. She stated she couldn't read her works because of the inaccuracies. She stopped by my blog and left this comment:
I am a very intolerant reader and an ever more intolerant writer. I tried and gave up reading several well known historical authors before I even thought about writing myself. I don’t get why an author can’t get the culture of their period correct. That includes, language, clothing, horses, carriages, food, you name it… The number one reason I’ve heard for writers allowing themselves to be inaccurate is: “But she’s a bestselling author and she’s not accurate.” I can think of two in particular to which the people are referring. And guess what? I don’t like their books.
I've heard others say that they don't worry too much about historical accuracy when writing because they consider the historical past a fantasy world.
As one person commented:
If we are writing historical romance, then there already is plenty of fantasy going on. The H/H’s hygiene, dental condition, levels of ecstasy reached in the love scenes, the amazing restorative powers when the H/H are injured, etc. I’m fine with taking some liberties, and I can forgive a miscue with a historical detail more than I can a heroine who was smacked around and then seems to function just fine the next day without any lingering physical problems.
I think I fall somewhere between, with my bar as a writer higher than as a reader.
Different for MG/YA writers
However, as one commenter pointed out, the ballgame completely changes if you're writing for young readers. Writers must have a bibliography to back-up their research for the story when submitting to publishers. And most list the liberties they took in an afterward.
The delicate balance between fantastical premises and historical accuracy
While I agree that the worlds we are creating for our reader are fantasy worlds, that fantasy world can be popped if we're too careless with facts. It's true that we write about situations and events that might not have happened, heck, I wrote a time travel,and we know there just weren't that many scorchingly handsome, progressive-thinking single dukes to be had in Regency England for our Bluestocking heroine. But I do think we have a responsibility to be as accurate as we can while still creating that fantasy world for our readers.
I feel like if a book has the basics down, I'm able to suspend my disbelief and immerse myself in the straight-up Regency with the aforementioned hijinks of the duke and heroine, or into the wonderful world of vampires, werewolves and tea in Victorian England, like Gail Carriger's wonderful Parasol Protectorate series. I wonder if it's the same level of tolerance paranormal writers talk about? You can have one made up thing/premise, but throw in more and you risk popping that bubble?
So if the premise is what we're making up, shouldn't we try to be as accurate as possible with the day-to-day, non-plot elements? Nothing yanks me out of that world than simple historical details that could easily be fixed without affecting the plot. Some things that yanked me out recently:
  • Addressing someone by the wrong title. It should have been Lady Something, not Miss Something
  • Introduction etiquette--who-gets-introduced-first type of thing.
  • Having the heroine refer to wearing bloomers (and using that word) in a Regency. Not only a problem with word choice, but they didn't wear pantaloons or drawers in the early Regency.
  • Having an historical character know that a Jane Austen novel was written by Jane Austen and the book is set prior to 1817. I blogged about fact-checking last year and about this particular date.
  • Using modern day valuations for transactions. I remember one historical where the hero gave the heroine like a 100,000 British pounds piece of jewelry. While yes, today, that would be extremely expensive and would show how wealthy the dude was, did the writer understand how freakishly, astronomically expensive that would have been in modern terms when converted to the valuation of the pound in the novel's time?
  • Using the word fiancé or fianceé in a Regency. They used the word betrothed until about the 1850s.
  • A Scotsman from the 900s wielding a claymore.
I know that there's way more than this that will yank me out, but that's all I can think of that I remember, or came across in my reading in the last week (wish I'd taken notes!). I also know we can't possibly get everything accurate, because sometimes even historians are divided about what really happened. And also because sometimes we just can't know. Or it's something that only someone with a doctorate in history would happen to know. After all, we're not writing non-fiction, we are writing entertainment. But for things that are basic, like what they ate and wore, etc., we should strive to be as accurate as possible. That's my take.


Also, others might look at some of my examples and roll their eyes as their tolerance as a reader is lower. And that's fine. It's all about the reader and what keeps their willing suspension of disbelief.
Elin Gregorycommented:
I think a lot of anachronisms occur with things that writers don’t even question. Stirrups, for instance. It’s almost impossible to imagine a time when such an obvious and useful thing didn’t exist.

Which underscores how important Beta readers are. I know mine have caught numerous historical inaccuracies and anachronisms in mine! (Thank you!) And Gail Carriger whom I mentioned above? She stopped by and shared some of her insight into this topic:
I suspect I could give an answer that would itself be a whole blog post, so I have *tried* to keep it short. I think most of us who write historical (regardless of genre) have areas of personal expertise versus gaps in our knowledge. For example, I know my food and clothing is as accurate as possible, as is my layout of London, since I use primary sources for all three, so if someone *tries* to call me out on those, I get tetchy. Sometimes, vocabulary in conversation, small technicalities, or long research requirements trip me up, information I can’t quickly access in my stack of books. Then I’m most likely to throw my hands up and hope betas catch it in edits. Alternatively, I have the luxury of steampunking it up the wazoo, and pulling my problem child out of reality. Sometimes it even becomes a plot point.
However, it’s nigh on impossible for any author to catch them all. In that, some research errors are like typos.
As a reader, I find some more egregious than others. I did a blog recently on Victorian money for this exact reason. My personal areas of expertise cause me to be extremely annoyed if someone misnames an item of clothing, for example. (One of my big ones for late Victorian is calling a corset anything other than stays. Or pretty much anything to do with pottery. I know, I’m weird.)
On the other hand, I feel I really could do it perfectly, if I took years to write each book. Unfortunately, the readers, the publishers, and my ability to eat regularly might object.
Besides, I did enough of that as an academic. I believe, as authors, we have to take the calculate risk that one reader out there will probably catch us out on whatever detail we got wrong –even the ones we didn’t know we could get wrong – and write an angry email. But in my experience, most won't (notice, bother to write, or care). In the end, I’ve found it’s the publisher’s choices, like going with American spelling, language, and syntax in a Victorian setting that seems to cause most offense. So in classic fashion, it’s always the thing you can’t control that comes back to haunt you.
It's not just details, but tone too
I hadn't thought of this, but writer Susan Koenig pointed out that she read an historical that took place in the 1950s that had all the details correct, but it just didn't "feel" like it was in that time period. It had "no emotional sense of the times."

This is a subtle but very astute observation. Each time period definitely had a tone, whether it was fatalistic, optimistic, carefree, you name it. If you can nail that tone, you've done well. Reading books written in that era, as well as journals and diaries, will give you a sense of what the era's emotional tone was.
You can also be too accurate!
What, you say? Yes. And for different reasons. Just as you can fling someone out of their reading world with an historical inaccuracy, you can also do the same by being too accurate.
How? Well, as brought up by different commenters on my post, there is a time and place for historical detail. A writer can definitely get too fact-happy and bog down the forward momentum of the plot with too much detail. As one commented:
 As a reader, I want to “feel” the era without getting stumped by the realities of said era. Does that make sense? If the hero and heroine are intimate for the first time, I don’t want to know the details of their garments, or how complicated her corset knots were.

Though, I could see a situation where this is still shown, but as part of the scene and characterization.

Can't you hear a hero cursing the layers or how complicated it is while he's trying to, you know…? It could be a great way to inject humor. But just like anything, it's the skill of the writer that comes into play in how deftly they can weave in these facts as part of the plot and characterization, without it reading like a history book.
Another way you can be too accurate is when some things that are right, just sound wrong. For instance, you'd be completely accurate to have a floor in your Victorian-era novel covered in linoleum, but most readers would think you were an ignorant doofus because it just sounds so mid-twentieth-century modern. In that case, it probably would be wiser to not be that accurate. There are other floor coverings to choose from J
One of the commenters was multi-published Regency romance novelist Miranda Neville, who shared why she chose to use the more familiar term fiancé instead of betrothed:
Sorry you don’t like fiancé. I struggled with that one but finally decided to use it because I don’t like the alternative. Referring to “my betrothed” or “my engaged husband” or whatever seems affected to me if it’s used too often. I write in modern English while trying to avoid anachronisms. My researches indicate that fiancé(e) is probably OK by the 1830s but I use it earlier. I give myself more latitude with foreign words because the educated English did (and still do) like to toss French phrases into their speech. I once had a very picky copy editor who insisted I italicize any foreign word that hadn’t yet been fully anglicized by the date in question. Well, OK. But overuse of italics annoys me too. We all have to make these choices and some people aren’t going to like them.
I agree that my tolerance as a reader is pretty broad. I notice things because I’ve researched them myself, but I accept that most readers don’t. As always, good story and characters come first. I’ve read some incredibly boring books that are “accurate.” Give me a compelling mistoical any time.

As with anything it's like a balancing act. As another writer commented:
My pet peeve is using words that didn’t exist in the period…Even here, there’s a balance. No one wants to read my medievals in Chaucer’s Middle English. And there are some words you just have to fudge.

Which leads into a great observation by writer E.P. Beaumont:
If you’re writing, say, in prerevolutionary Russia, you’re going to have traditional measures to reckon with. Should your characters measure their travels in versts, weight in poods, etc., or should you translate to English measure? How far should traditional titles be rendered? (There’s a title from the very rigid Table of Ranks that translates to ‘Your Luminosity’ and figures in at least one contemporary Chernobyl joke.)
How far a ‘translated’ detail will be jarring for a reader will depend very much on the expertise of that reader. I think that the key thing is to get the social rules right in their main lines; the rest of it comes down to a judgment call…It’s a precarious balance.

You're right, reader is wrong, but they think you're wrong

Another problem I've run into and forgot to mention in my original post is the problem when you have a reader who thinks they know the period and dings you on something, and you happen to be right. There are a lot of popular misconceptions out there regarding our past and a reader might be one of those. Like historical romance writer Merry Farmer commented:
I’ve thought a lot about this myself with both my Medieval books and my Western ones. The biggest thing that irks me that would fall into the category of historical inconsistencies in my Medieval novels is that a lot of readers have unrealistic expectations of what they think the time period was like. I have not one, but two degrees in history, have studied the Middle Ages as a hobby since childhood, and it drives me nuts when people assume that everyone back then was dirty, smelly, had bad teeth, and only lived to age 40. NOT TRUE! But since very few schools bother to teach more than the absolute basics about the Middle Ages, what people think they know is wrong. It’s like nails on a chalkboard when someone faults me for being right but not fitting with what they think they know about the time period.
That being said, I also included a lot of deliberate anachronisms in my Noble Hearts series because I was going for a certain feel. That kind of historical inaccuracy I’m okay with.
But Regency is another story altogether (no pun intended). It’s such a well-known, amply written-about period that I feel authors should know better.
Does it come down to craft and skill, just like other writerly stuff?
As one new writer commented, she admitted she could be inconsistent in what she tolerated, depending on how engaging the characters are or how much she knows the era. But now that she writes historical, she's found that she's more forgiving as she knows how difficult it is. Which made me wonder, in analyzing when it’s bothersome and when it’s not, whether it comes down to the writing itself? The recent published writer who inspired this post (and had several of the bullet points I mentioned), also had these inaccuracies coupled with lazy writing. For example, several times she used “discrete”instead of “discreet” or the writing just wasn’t very tight, or the characters weren’t very consistent. The one writer I allude to that I tolerate, and I know Ella doesn’t, could be because otherwise her prose and characters are so well done.

Another commenter raised some good points:
Hannah Howell is an example author who comes to mind that is pretty light on setting and detail. However, she is a fun read and with 16 books in one series (at last count), not doing too badly. I know enough about that period that I don’t need much from her or any other writer, as my mind fills in the details nicely. Perhaps leaving it to the reader’s imagination is better than getting it wrong?

As author Elin Gregory commented:
I’ve had long conversations with Alex Beecroft on this subject and we both came to the conclusion that if a story is exciting, absorbing and we really want to know what happens next we’re far more forgiving of anachronisms. If the story is boring us our brains look for reasons to be outraged so we can stop.

Anyway, this is an endlessly fascinating debate
and Christina and I are eager to hear your thoughts!



  1. Great post! I'm writing a YA time travel myself and you totally caught me on the whole fiance bit. I had no idea! Better go do some editing. Thanks :)

  2. Wonderful post, Angela. Thank you for including me.

  3. Hi Angela, so nice to see you here. You've been quite busy! I definitely don't want to be historically accurate as far as body odor, fleas, bedbugs and bad teeth are concerned. And I do appreciate finding progressive forward-thinking men whether dukes in Regency England or Philistine warrior princes. But I do like it to be as accurate in the surroundings and environment as possible. Great post!

  4. A fascinating post. As a long time reader and new writer of historical fiction, I'm highly tuned in to these issues. As a reader, I want (expect) the details to be accurate because one of the reasons I read this genre is to immerse myself in, and learn about, another time. However, the details shouldn't get in the way of the story moving, as you note. In her speech to an historical writers conference, Diana Gabaldon made the point that she lets her talk in ways that modern readers are going to easily understand because she doesn't want the story to get lost in Tudor speak. I liked that.

  5. Thanks for a great post, Angela. Historical accuracies do add to the flavor and tone of the time period, but it's a balance between being completely accurate and entertaining the modern reader. Regarding research, I'm convinced that some authors get their historical facts from movies and other authors' books rather than doing the hard research themselves. A few years ago, I heard of one author who purposely wrote specific inaccuracies into the setting of one of her novels because she suspected other authors were using her books as their research. Sure enough, other books popped up with those exact same inaccuracies.