The Perils of Navigating Historical Accuracy and Genre Expectations

Hello! I’m gearing up soon for my latest release, and this time it’s a time travel set in Scotland! Because the research and editing for this is fresh on my mind, I thought I’d chat a bit today about some of the challenges authors face when penning the books you love (or hate!). Much like the navigator of yore, we must navigate the tricky waters with our tools and best judgment in hand. I’ve visited this topic in the past elsewhere, but it was before I was published. It was interesting to reread that post from four years ago! I think the major difference with me now, is that I do have a little more tolerance as a reader than I did then, because I know how hard it is now as an author.

A lot goes into writing a book that we have to consider, beyond characterization, pacing, and plot. I know you know this, but I thought it might be fun to show you some behind-the-scenes choices to give you a little taste ūüôā Because sometimes, well, we’re not accurate on purpose ūüėČ You might wonder–shouldn’t a writer who sets a book in the past strive to make their book as accurate as possible? It might come as a surprise to those who know me well (since I’m a history buff) but the answer is not always Yes. Don’t get me wrong, most of the time I strive for that goal, but as you’ll see below, it’s not always clear cut.

NOTE: when I say “reader” and “readers” please know I’m not saying¬†all readers, but since it’ll be cumbersome to keep saying “your average reader” or “most readers”, etc. throughout this post, I’m taking that shortcut.

Are there historical truths?

Before I get into the genre¬†expectation part of the formula, there’s also the question of whose¬†history are we following? There’s a reason why historians say that the winners get to write history. What’s recorded is filtered by the biases of the witnesses. On top of that, historians going over contemporary accounts of a past event are biased as well. So, unless we¬†could fire up that ole time machine, we can’t actually¬†know 100% what for-real transpired.

As the character Malcolm Reynolds says in the movie Serenity:

Half of writing history is hiding the truth.

Sigh. I miss the characters from¬†Firefly/Serenity.¬†Anyway, my point is, as authors, when we go to research our era, we can find conflicting accounts, so we’ll need to weigh the source, check if there are primary documents we can verify against, etc. But in the end, there are two things working into our decisions: 1) we’re writing fiction whose purpose is to entertain (and sometimes enlighten) and we need to consider our story’s needs, and 2) we’re not writing our Ph.D. dissertation on the subject ūüôā I know that sounds snarky, but it’s true. And it’s something I have to remind myself when I start to get too anal at the expense of story.

History vs. Story Needs

I have several quick examples to show you what I mean here. The first is actually from¬†Must Love Chainmail, set in 1294 Wales. I hired an expert for that time period and culture to read it over, and she made this note about my use of the word “pinkie”

pinkie would be fine if you are in her pov [Point of View] but you are in Robert‚Äôs and the English and Scottish call it the pinkle because the Dutch call it pink ‚Äď pink meaning little finger

I did debate with myself on whether to change it to “pinkle” but in the end I stayed with pinkie. Several things went into this, but there were two main considerations for me. First,¬†none of the language for his scenes was what he actually spoke (Norman French) since a) I can’t speak or write in it, and b) that’d be seriously narrowing my reader audience ūüôā I made the decision, however, to try to restrict the English words used¬†to ones¬†he’d have an equivalent word for in his language, and pinkie fit that parameter. What I was writing was English, but they were conversing in Norman French.

The other consideration was one of taking a reader out of the story. I worried that a reader would stumble on pinkle, or worse, think it was a typo.

But, funnily enough, I did get a reader complaint! She told me she enjoyed the story but that my use of pinkie pulled her right out of the story and spoiled it for her. I felt bad, and I wrote back explaining my reasoning, and she was understanding. But I still feel like it was the right decision as I think more people would have been pulled out of the story if I’d used “pinkle.” Maybe not. Who knows? But see, these are the things that keep us authors up at night, LOL!

The other example is from¬†Must Love Kilts.¬†I have the story start at in inn on Loch Cluanie (the setting is an actual one–I stayed in the room I described!) but when she goes back in time, there might not have been an inn there. Unfortunately, the Highland Clearances destroyed much of the infrastructure as well as the records. My Scottish editor I hired wanted me to move the inn to a large town like Inverness, because she said there weren’t inns in that area, but that didn’t work for my story needs, so I kept it. Sorry! I also didn’t have them sleeping in a room at the inn with a bunch of other people, though that would have been more accurate.¬†I’m fully aware that there will be some readers and writers who would disagree with my choice to put my inn where I did, or will be miffed my couple had their own room. And I have to be okay with that.

On the flip side of this, there are historical details that can yank a reader out of the story that wouldn’t have affected the character or plot to have gotten right, and these are the bits I try to make sure are accurate¬†(or that I hope my editors and Beta readers catch). These help create the fictive dream we weave for our readers. So my Highland warriors don’t have their swords strapped to their backs, a la Braveheart, for instance.

Genre expectations and reader beliefs

Over time, a core set of expectations evolved with certain genres, and readers can feel unfulfilled if they’re not met.¬†The close cousin to genre expectations¬†are events and mores that a reader¬†believes to be accurate because it’s been standard in fiction for so long, but doesn’t actually hold up when studying that time period. And woe betide¬†the author who is actually historically accurate, but it butts up against these beliefs.

I’ve definitely grappled with both of these issues with each of my three time travel romances–one set in 1834 England, one set in 1294 Wales, and one set in 1689 Scotland. As promised, here’s a few of these to illustrate.

Reader beliefs

This is pretty common in Regency romances, and I’ve talked to some authors who write in that time who say they have to weigh this factor in when deciding whether to be historically accurate. In other words, there are customs and beliefs readers think are accurate for that time that actually aren’t. I won’t spend too long on this, but I’ll give one quick example that relates to my books–bathing in the Middle Ages. The belief is pervasive that in the time I wrote for Must Love Chainmail (1294) people didn’t bathe at all, or hardly at all, and the fact is that’s not true. Part of what motivates me in writing is to help dispel some of these beliefs. But I take the risk that I’ll get called out for not being historically accurate, even though I am.

Did you know there were no set tartan patterns for clans before the late 18th century?

This I classify under genre expectations. It’s pretty standard for the heroes in our Scottish historicals to be identified by their tartan, but back in the day, this wasn’t actually the case. As Michael Newton states in his excellent book, Warriors of the Word: The World of Scottish Highlanders:

…weavers in particular areas tended to use particular patterns and thus you could infer the place to which a person belonged if you were familiar with the local styles of tartan. This is quite different from the claim that each clan had its own tartan.

Plus, the belted plaid apparently didn’t even evolve as a thing these hunky Highland men wore until around the 1500s, though there are folks who hotly debate this. So Braveheart was not running around in a kilt apparently ūüôĀ

But as readers, we¬†want¬†to see our heroes in kilts, even if they’re in the 1200s, and that’s okay! It’s part of our fantasy and as authors of romance, that’s what we deliver. Long ago, this was one of the things that would draw me out of a story, but now I roll with it because I now want to buy into that fantasy when I read that type of book.

However, I did have this as something my heroine gets confused about as she navigates that world because¬†she’s from our era and believes clans could be identified by their tartans, and so it provided a bit of fun for her to meet with puzzlement. It also helped the story because it showed her (and the reader) that she needed to tread lightly so that she wouldn’t give herself away as being “not from around here.”

Dinnae fash, bonnie lassie!

I didn’t know that a lot of the speech we associate with our hunky Highlanders is actually Lowland dialect! I only found out when the Scottish editor I hired to read¬†Must Love Kilts for historical, linguistic, and cultural accuracy (she has a Ph.D. in Celtic Studies) pointed out to me that when my hero was saying “bonnie”, “lass”, and “dinnae fash” that these were Lowland words and speech patterns. A Highlander thought in and spoke in Gaelic, not English. As she put in her notes to me:

People who visit the east coast of Canada will see and hear all sorts of names from the Highlands of Scotland and wonder why they don’t sound Scottish. You won’t hear ‘wee’ or ‘bonnie’ or ‘de ye ken’ ever. The reason is because they came to Canada speaking only Gaelic.

So here I compromised, because readers do expect to hear these words when they read a Scottish Highlander historical. And, since he’d be speaking in English to the heroine, and had gone to University in Edinburgh, I figured it was safe to have him use it when he’s speaking to her. I tried to limit its usage for his thoughts, but I wasn’t super strict. Again, I weighed it against genre expectations and genre expectations won out for me.

Final thoughts

As readers of my series know, I do try to be as accurate as possible, but the truth is we can’t be 100% accurate, either because we don’t¬†really know because we weren’t there, or because we weighed in genre expectations or the story needs won out. The problem we face, though, is that each reader is different and, like the lady who was upset by the pinkie, their thresholds can differ from others. In the end, we strive to make our stories enjoyable for the majority of our readers, all the while knowing that there will be some who won’t agree with our choices.

Unlike how it sounds above, though, my editors¬†do make many (many) suggestions that I incorporate or fix. And I research my settings and time period beforehand as well. It makes my stories richer and more authentic, and I’m extremely grateful for their guidance and expertise. I feel that¬†striving for authenticity is one of the¬†promises I make for my readers, and I do my best. But I am human, and so I may not always succeed to everyone’s satisfaction, or, like in the cases above, I made a decision contrary to historical accuracy for the sake of story, genre expectations, or readability.

What do you think? I’m curious to know where you fall in your tolerance for authenticity. It’s not an easy line to straddle, that’s for sure. And authors, do you have any stories and opinions to share?

 

Angela Quarles

Angela Quarles is a RWA RITA¬ģ Finalist and USA Today bestselling author of time travel and steampunk romance. Her debut novel Must Love Breeches swept many unpublished romance contests, including the Grand Prize winner of Windy City‚Äôs Four Seasons contest in 2012. Her steampunk, Steam Me Up, Rawley, was named Best Self-Published Romance of 2015 by Library Journal. Angela loves history, folklore, and family history. She decided to take this love of history and her active imagination and write stories of romance and adventure for others to enjoy. When not writing, she‚Äôs either working at the local indie bookstore or enjoying the usual stuff like gardening, reading, hanging out, eating, drinking, chasing squirrels out of the walls, and creating the occasional knitted scarf.
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Angela Quarles

Angela Quarles is a RWA RITA¬ģ Finalist and USA Today bestselling author of time travel and steampunk romance. Her debut novel Must Love Breeches swept many unpublished romance contests, including the Grand Prize winner of Windy City‚Äôs Four Seasons contest in 2012. Her steampunk, Steam Me Up, Rawley, was named Best Self-Published Romance of 2015 by Library Journal. Angela loves history, folklore, and family history. She decided to take this love of history and her active imagination and write stories of romance and adventure for others to enjoy. When not writing, she‚Äôs either working at the local indie bookstore or enjoying the usual stuff like gardening, reading, hanging out, eating, drinking, chasing squirrels out of the walls, and creating the occasional knitted scarf.

11 thoughts on “The Perils of Navigating Historical Accuracy and Genre Expectations

  • June 22, 2016 at 7:51 am
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    You said it, sister! I am forever butting up against those exact same reader expectations in my Historical Western novels. So many readers of the genre forget that it was called “The Wild West” for a reason and only want to hear the Dr. Quinn, Little House on the Prairie side of things. But facts are facts. It’s a challenge to tell the truth and a good story at the same time. But you always do! =D

    (P.S. Thanks for the shout-out about medieval people bathing! ūüėČ )

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  • June 22, 2016 at 8:26 am
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    This was an excellent post. I am somewhat tolerant of anachronisms or historical errors in books if they enrich the story, as you mentioned. Reading something that appears the author simply didn’t do his or her research, however, annoys me. I stopped reading a well-known author because her books contain so many lazy errors. Like you, I strive for accuracy in my writing. Mine is a little easier than your time period (I write western historicals set in the late nineteenth century) but there are still many differences between accuracy and, for instance, the movies.

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  • June 22, 2016 at 9:00 am
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    I think it’s important to remember that we’re writing fiction and not academic historicals. Creativity and reality are both vital to a story, and a good writer will ken to use both when the story calls for it ūüôā I’m adding the book recommendation to my reading list!

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    • June 22, 2016 at 9:08 am
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      Yep! To me story and characters are the most important thing to nail. We can have the most accurate story we can get, but if the story itself fails… This was a vital lesson for me as I come from writing non-fiction (history) and I had to remind myself–this is fiction!

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  • June 22, 2016 at 9:23 am
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    Wonderful post. I do strive for historical accuracy but do bow to what my readers expect. Interestingly, the biggest “ding” I received from a reader was one of my contemporary westerns. The male protagonist is a Naval Aviator tasked to the carrier Ronald Reagan. He is stationed out of a base in central California, near Fresno. The reader sent me an email about her review to explain why she gave it one less star. She said there was no base in the farmlands of California and it I should be more careful in future books. She “expected” all Naval bases had to be on the water. My response was to send her a link to the base website. Not only is managing data tricky in historicals, but also in contemporaries.

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  • June 22, 2016 at 9:56 am
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    Great post! It’s always a struggle deciding between what is “known” to be accurate and what is “believed” to be accurate when I’m writing my time travels. Of course, even historians often disagree and with each new archaeological find, what is “known” can change, even if what is “believed” doesn’t!

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  • June 22, 2016 at 10:31 am
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    Hey Angela! A number of people need to loosen up, given what you talk about here. There are things that have been omitted from the historical record, as you said. Some things have not been told because an entire people were kept illiterate, as in my case, since I write about African Americans. Some of that cry for “historical accuracy” just reads as, “your version of history should match what mine is.” And I’m sorry, whether it’s non-fiction history or not, that isn’t always possible.

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  • June 22, 2016 at 4:51 pm
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    Thanks, Angela. Helpful article!

    My take: not all anachronisms are created equal. I can tolerate one if it’s a mere detail, such as (an actual example I’ve read) it’s England in 1400, and the heroine buys a gift for her beloved and pays in guineas.

    Big deal, the author isn’t up on the history of the monetary system in merry old England. If the story grabs me, I’ll forget this error and read on. Most of the deliberate anachronisms you discuss are probably this type.

    But if the author, for any reason, incorporates into her story a “fact” fundamental to the story itself, one that cannot be dismissed so easily—well, Houston, we have a problem. With me, anyhow. Such as the idea that in Regency Great Britain, a woman’s father could legally force her to marry against her will.

    How many Regency romance plots would fall apart if the authors were up on the marriage laws of the time and place? Or if their readers were.

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  • June 23, 2016 at 3:36 am
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    While I appreciate the problems and issues, and in fact, I’ve given workshops on striving for historical authenticity (note, not accuracy), there are certain allowables here that really pull me out of the story. These are usually the stereotypical depictions which I know to be wrong. I feel quite strongly (as a writer of HF myself) that we should not allow ourselves to be squeezed into the mould of wrong stereotypes simply because they are expected. That just reinforces the myths. If I’m challenged on something I’ve written that runs contrary to expectations for me the important thing is that I can defend my choice by pointing to the evidence on which I based my choice.
    Living in Scotland (and with a background in Linguistics) I am driven nuts by lowland language for highland characters and vice versa. I have stopped reading a number of first in series books simply because the language is wrong, with the knock-on result that I won’t read any further in the series. The issue of kilted highlanders well before the invention of the kilt (especially with naked torsos) is another absolute turn-off for me. And perhaps the most serious effect of these stereotypes is that I have become generally wary of Scottish historical fiction coming from the US, unless it is by a writer I already know I can trust, which is a shame because I’m sure there is lots of good stuff out there. Writers of the calibre of Sharon K Penman don’t allow themselves to be squeezed into the mould of wrong stereotypes and I don’t think other HF writers should either. (Sorry!)

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  • June 23, 2016 at 10:58 am
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    I agree it’s about making choices, sometimes tough ones. While I believe in historical accuracy, sometimes the details about long-past days can speed-bump the flow of a novel. I’m always more interested in the representation of historical events, cultural attitudes and mores, and how individuals behaved in a particular time. Whether some guy wore a kilt in 1380 or 1680 isn’t such a big deal to me. (After all, when isn’t a good time for a romantic hero to wear a kilt? I’m sure Adam rocked that fig-leaf look, but Eve might have been even happier to see her man in a kilt!)

    When I’ve read your stories, Angela, I’m never drawn out of them by the historical choices you’ve made. I truly appreciate an author using due diligence to research an era and then represent those people well on the page.

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  • June 26, 2016 at 7:54 pm
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    As a reader, I understand walking into a FICTION novel that the charismatic settings of the time period is most certainly subject to the discretion of the writer. Shame on any reader that criticizes a fictional novel (be it set in a historic time frame or completely fabricated) whom might think any creative words should be exact. Buy a non-fiction novel by gosh. Lol, If I get pulled into a historical time frame which is unknown to me in a novel I’m reading, I simply research the era and facts for accurate details. I would NEVER assume to recieve such witin a fictional historic novel. Nor would I particularly care that they are. After all, I love the genre for the dreams and enlightenment they prevail.
    So…with that said, I am in the process of trying to publish a decade long writing series and I thank you all as published authors for ANY feedback. Thank you Angela for a thought provoking post. ‚ô° ur words. T.

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