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!
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?
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.