My daughter and I recently went to the “Sherwood Forest Faire” near McDade, Texas. It was great fun! There were costumes, shows with everything from singing to falconry to jousting, and pineapple soft serve. Looking around at the various types of costumes, level of historical accuracy, and the relation between this and the enjoyment of the day made me think of writing historical fiction. Stay with me, I’ll get there.
There are two very distinct and frequently vocal sides to the “historical accuracy” argument when discussing the writing and reading of historical fiction. There is the side which proclaims that only by being PRECISELY historically accurate in EVERY detail can a writer do the historical period justice; on the opposite are those who say that NO MODERN AUDIENCE will read a truly historically accurate portrayal of times periods, which were to put it politely, racist and misogynistic in the extreme, so writers would not really try that hard, because readers don’t care. I would argue that readers prefer writers to be as historically accurate as possible, with a few caveats… I think it is possible to write historical fiction that is AUTHENTIC, as opposed to being pedantically accurate. Good historical fiction lies somewhere between David Liss and Bridgerton…
Often those who most vociferously argue for strict historical accuracy are worried about presentism–and they are not wrong. Presentism is when we try to cast modern views backward, or interpret the past through the lens of our modern sensibilities. It is important when writing History that we do not do this–judging the past by our current values simply does not work. If you reversed it and tried to judge the present by historical values, it would be equally impossible to do. However, this does not mean that we sacrifice the story in a historical fiction novel to the gods of either historical accuracy (always a dicey and subjective proposition) or political correctness. Neither of these approaches is going to work when writing historical fiction. This would be like making everyone who wants to wear a costume to Sherwood Forest Faire have to meet some historical accuracy test, or give up all the fart jokes because they are offensive. Some of the costumes were pretty accurate, some weren’t (I saw zippers), but the idea is to represent the period authentically and have fun. It’s fiction, not history. I mean I don’t REALLY want to be in the middle ages, but I want to have the experience of seeing, hearing, and feeling as if I were (sort of) there.
First, let’s look at historical accuracy. It is true that you want to render the time and place as accurately as you can. However, there are a few things that will probably not work for writers of historical fiction, no matter how accurate they are.:
- Dialogue— it is a safe bet that your dialogue is not going to be completely accurate. If it were, depending on the time period, your book would most likely be unreadable by a modern audience, except for a few people who just happen to be even bigger history nerds than you.
- The sheer difficulty of everyday life in most pre-modern eras. Lots of people died young, illness and uncleanliness were rife, and the majority of the population lived in abject poverty. These are not the ingredients for an entertaining novel. This is not to say that you won’t include a measure of reality, but the actual reality of the past would prove depressing for most readers. That isn’t why they read historical fiction. Occasionally an author will venture into this area, and many award winning books do, but it isn’t something most readers will want a steady diet of. And the stench…just imagine!
And what about political correctness? Like the reality of everyday life in historical eras, a little goes a long way. You may have some characters in your story who are ahead of their times, but everyone can’t be. That isn’t historical fiction, that is just wish-fulfillment. There is a balance, though, which a good writer can find. There are lots of unknowns in history, so there is wiggle room–we cannot always assume that everything relevant about the past has survived to the present. There is a lot of missing data. If you look hard enough, you can find the gaps and the outliers–and here is where a good story that will appeal to modern readers lives.
Next month: Finding the Gap and Outliers!