One thing that comes up in many of our reviews is historical accuracy. That’s because Ludo and I are both major history nerds. I studied History and Prehistoric Archaeology because of my immense love for history, which I can only thank my Dad for. He let me watch history programmes every Sunday morning when I was a child and I think that’s when it started. I saw that one programme about the Titanic about a million times and the Titanic era is still one of my favourite historical periods to this day. Ludo got her love for history from her grandpa, who has been collecting history books and historical novels since the 1940s. So yeah, historical accuracy. That’s important to us and that’s why we get extra nitpicky when it comes to historical fiction. Here’s why it’s so important.
PRIM VICTORIANS – THE STEREOTYPE TRAP
I understand that many readers don’t really care about accuracy. When they read historical fiction it’s because they want an epic story, some drama and maybe a romance of historical proportions and that’s absolutely okay. Fiction is meant to entertain. But I still think historical accuracy is important. I don’t mean that I want authors of historical fiction to accurately describe every frill and bow on Marie Antoinette’s wedding dress or every shop façade on London’s Oxford Street in 1913. Researching and describing the look of things is nice but long detailed descriptions of what something looked like are what I like to call “dead history”. In other words, it’s hella boring.
Don’t get this the wrong way though. Describing historical fashion, furniture and architectural styles is not only a nice way of creating atmosphere, it’s actually essential. Of course I want to know what your protagonist is wearing in 1894 and what the city she walks in looks like. But bombarding the reader with pages of descriptions of historical London and the leading lady’s mutton sleeves does not a historically accurate novel make. In fact, it bores readers, even those who read historical fiction for the history. We want an exciting story set in front of a vibrant, historically accurate background. Not essays on historical fashion and architecture with some plot mixed in here and there.
No, the kind of historical accuracy I’m talking about here is more about the feel of a historical era than about cold facts – even though of course I always prefer the facts to be right as well. But researching facts isn’t that hard. Something either happened in 1774 or it didn’t. Something either existed then or it didn’t. In most cases it’s not too complicated finding out what you can or can’t write about (even though sometimes authors even fail to do that, more on that later). You can’t get every fact right and nobody expects you to but you can do your best. The really tricky research is about social norms and zeitgeist though. You might think “What, all that stuff is on the internet nowadays, I’ll just check Wikipedia for that!” and I don’t think that’s a bad starting point actually. But it should absolutely not be your only source of information regarding an era’s spirit, moral understandings and social norms.
The thing is, I’m pretty sure many authors don’t even go as far as researching these at all (at least judging by some of the books I’ve read) but to many readers of historical fiction, the portrayal of society and mindsets is what makes or breaks a historical novel. You might think “Everyone knows Victorians were prudish and repressed, can’t go wrong there!” but the truth is, it’s not that easy. The prudish Victorian is a stereotype and as we all know, stereotypes aren’t necessarily based on facts. They’re based in popular expectations from a historical era. And here’s the thing: You might want to fulfil these expectations at least some to keep our readers happy. But you should also try to take a look behind the curtain of stereotypes and expectations and add some more fact to your fiction. Researching historical zeitgeist and mindsets beyond well-known stereotypes will not only make your novel a more nuanced and interesting portrait of the period in question, it will also add a great deal of historical accuracy. Even if you get some of the facts wrong. Promise.
GRUNGE ROCK AT THE MOULIN ROUGE
Getting an era’s zeitgeist right goes a long way. Here’s a secret: One of my favourite films is “Moulin Rouge!” from 2001. Regarding cold facts, it’s not at all historical accurate. The Moulin Rouge never looked like that, fin de siècle fashion never looked like what Nicole Kidman is wearing and they obviously didn’t play Nirvana at the Moulin Rouge. But Baz Luhrman and costume designer Catherine Martin got the late Belle Époque era’s spirit absolutely right and that’s what makes “Moulin Rouge!” one of the most amazing films set in that era I’ve ever seen – and I’ve seen a lot.
“Moulin Rouge!”’s aesthetic is all about bohemian Montmartre, late Victorian burlesque and music hall and what it must have felt like to be alive during this era. The film gets the feeling of fin de siècle Paris absolutely right, even though most of Kidman’s costumes only vaguely resemble actual 1890s fashion. What’s happened here is a great deal of research and then a conscious decision to change the look and sound of things to make the watcher feel fin de siècle Paris instead of seeing it. Martin and Luhrman obviously know what the Moulin Rouge really looked like, what the city looked like, what 1890s fashion looked like but instead of just showing the watcher these things, they opted for making them feel it. And that’s a genius use of intentional anachronism in my opinion. They did the same thing with “The Great Gatsby” in 2013. Conjuring up an era’s spirit in a way that makes the watcher really understand what it must have felt like to live back then is a great art and it doesn’t really rely on cold historical facts.
Another film that did quite well when it comes to intentional anachronisms is Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” from 2006, allthough the use of intentional anachronism is a lot more subtle in this one. Most of Antoinette’s fashions and the look of Versailles in “Marie Antoinette” are in fact beautifully accurate but now and then you’re treated to some nicely used anachronisms, most famously a pair of pastel blue Converse just chilling between loads and loads of historically accurate slippers. This pair of Converse totally went over some people’s heads, judging by dozens of comments on the internet asking how they could overlook such a glaring mistake and making fun of the film for it. The thing is, this stuff happens intentionally. Coppola tries to show you that Marie Antoinette is a teenager when she arrives at Versailles and becomes Queen of France. Teenagers loved Converse in 2006. So there we go.
Coppola also plays with viewers’ expectations of who Marie Antoinette was a lot. Right in the beginning there’s Antoinette in lavish make-up, eating cakes whilst a maid in a completely anachronistic maid’s uniform fusses over her. That’s people’s expectation of Marie Antoinette. When the film tries to show who she really was, everything is nice and historically accurate. I think that’s amazing.
This technique doesn’t translate well to novels though because it’s very visual. Describing a pair of Converse in a Rococo setting won’t have the same effect on readers than it does just lying there in the background with no commentary whatsoever. I’ve mentioned it though because I wanted to illustrate how much more important than cold facts emotion and feeling are when it comes to making historical fiction work. Get the facts right, friends, do your best, but also let your readers immerse themselves in your chosen historical period. When I read a book set in 1770s France, I want to breathe Rococo, I don’t want to drown in pages upon pages of descriptions of pannier dresses and powdered wigs. When a book manages to make me feel like I’m actually there, I’m so much more inclined to forgive factual errors. Emotion is important when it comes to fiction, immersion is important. Let
them eat cake me immerse!
WHEN IT GOES WRONG, IT GOES WRONG AND WE MOVE ON
Not every anachronism is intentional though of course. I’m afraid most aren’t, especially in novels. I think publishers wouldn’t make a mistake if they decided to let historians edit historical novels as well as your usual editors and correctors. Editors are there to make the book better, to find logic problems and plot holes. Correctors fix spelling and grammatical mistakes. I do think there should be a person also trying to fix historical mistakes in historical fiction but that’s probably just me. The thing is, too many mistakes in historical fiction are grating for anyone who knows the historical era in question well. You don’t have to be a historian to notice them either. If you love historical fiction and have read a lot of it, you’ll start noticing errors pretty soon.
I’ve already said it before but it bears repeating: Minor errors or a few bigger ones aren’t that bad. There is no way of writing historical fiction and not making any mistakes actually. Unless you’re a time traveller and have the opportunity to go back to your chosen historical period and research on location, you’re bound to get stuff wrong. Some readers will notice and some readers won’t. If your book feels overall historically accurate though, most of your readers won’t mind. I once read a beautifully researched novel set in 1660s France. They had croissants for breakfast in that one. Croissants actually didn’t arrive in France until about a century later but guess what? I didn’t give a fuck. That book was good and the croissants obviously were a minor mistake. They happen. They’ll happen to you if you decide to write historical fiction. We can all deal.
The further back you go, the more obstacles you will have thrown in your way. I’ve been using the term “historical facts” a lot in this post but the truth is, there aren’t really that many historical facts. Some things we know for sure, others we guessed, others are pure interpretation and the further back in time you go, the more obscure the past will become. Writing about 5th century Britain is a bitch, really. There’s so much we don’t know about that period and even though I literally have a degree in Prehistoric Archaeology, there’s a lot I don’t know about ancient history because we can’t know everything. History is basically a map filled with blank spots. The further back, the more blank spots. The question you’ll have to ask yourself if you think about writing historical fiction is: “Can I reconstruct the parts that are missing?” When it comes to this, no one is asking you to deliver facts. There are no facts. It’s all up to interpretation and whether your interpretation is going to be believable depends on how much you know about the historical era in question. Research will help you fill in the blank spaces real history left.
But there’s a difference between doing your research and doing your best to make a historical period come to life and half-arsing it. Because many authors half-arse it. They rely on stereotypes way too much and the extend of their research seems to be watching two or three BBC period dramas set at generally the right time in history. I once read a Young Adult novel that was supposedly set in the 1820s but featured the fashions of the 1860s and the social mindsets of modern day Britain mixed with some obvious stereotypes. For instance, a young girl got stuck in a doorway because of her crinoline. Would have been nice and dandy, if crinolines had existed in the 1820s. They didn’t though, 1820s fashion is the opposite of bulky. Then they treated a twelve year old boy like an adult. Like, they decided to do business with him and stuff. The only explanation I can think of is that the author heard someone say “Before the Victorian age, children were treated as little adults” which is true enough. But instead of researching this historical concept of childhood further, this author really went to town with it. That’s one of the crassest examples I can think of right now. This book was published by a big Young Adult publishing house, by the way.
IDEALS ARE NOT REAL LIFE AND YOUR PAST IS A LIE
Other books might be more subtle. I can’t even count how often I’ve read myths about Victorian fashions (corsets didn’t torture women, by the way) and society (even though the Victorian ideal was being chaste and proper, that doesn’t mean everybody actually was, guys) by now. This is super prevalent with books set in the Victorian age so I’m going to use that as an example for my next point. I’ve covered confusing stereotypes with actual history, so now let’s move on to confusing historical ideals with actual history. Every historical period has its own beauty standards, social norms and ideals. These are researchable, we’ve covered that. And once you have researched them you will want to cast them aside.
I can hear you, guys. “But Ella, you said I need to describe social norms and stuff! You said that!” Yes, I did. And you do. But you also need to remember that social norms are based in ideals and no human being ever reaches the ideal. The stuff you’ve researched should always be at the back of your mind (or written down somewhere nearby, you know what I mean) but you shouldn’t build your characters on your new knowledge alone. Look, the late Victorian ideal of a proper lady is easily researched: Chaste, prim and proper, a loving mother and wife, not too opinionated and beautifully plump with an hourglass figure. “Easy!”, you might say. “I can write such a lady!” Sure, but you shouldn’t. She’s not real. No Victorian lady was all of these things or even any of them. She might have aspired to be some of those things though, or she might have rejected the ideal altogether but this ideal is what she would have grown up with and that upbringing would have affected the way she sees the world around her. An ideal is just an ideal though. Think of modern day beauty standards. Now think about how many people you know who actually fit each and every one of them. That person doesn’t exist, right? And they didn’t exist in the past either.
That’s why the trope of the strong-minded Victorian girl who thinks like a modern age teenager and rejects all of her society’s norms is so hilarious. This girl is often presented as the only girl different from all the other girls who are walking Victorian ideals. This kind of black and white thinking just doesn’t do historical people justice. No one was ideal. And no one was the exact opposite of the ideal either. “But why is that trope bad when it’s fiction?”, you might wonder. It’s not bad per se. It’s just boring because it’s in every second historical novel. And it’s a shame because some more research and a more nuanced portrayal of Victorian society, norms and people could have made the book and its characters a lot more interesting. Write your strong-minded Victorians girls, I’m all for it. But if you do, make sure you research what being an early feminist meant in the era you’re writing about. Don’t just apply modern day ideas of feminism to the 1800s because that will go wrong and it will go wrong badly.
CONCLUSION TIME! FINALLY, RIGHT?
If you’re thinking about writing historical fiction but the thought of doing research, having to work with what history gives you and doing some historical world building (because that’s what writing historical fiction really is: You’re reconstructing something that doesn’t exist anymore. You’re building worlds! Isn’t that cool?) turns you off, maybe it’s not for you. Alternative historical fiction is a thing that can be pretty cool and I might talk about that genre of fiction in another post someday, but basically my rule of thumb is: Don’t write historical fiction, if you don’t want to do the work or you’ll end up like the lady writing 1860s fashion into 1820s England and people will not like you.
This is actually a big problem I have with historical fiction, authors picking apart history. They’ll include what they like (fancy dresses, glamorous balls, charming gentlemen!) and leave out what doesn’t appeal to them (there was a cholera outbreak that decade, many people were racist and sexist and there was a horrible war). If you like the glamour of 1890s Paris but you don’t like the social norms and fashions, maybe don’t set your book in 1890s Paris. You might wonder “But why is that so important? Why can’t we just have fun?” Ey, I’m all for fun. If real history isn’t for you, maybe go for some nice epic Fantasy and build your own world from scratch! That’s fun! You can include everything from real history you like and no one can tell you it’s wrong. (This sounds horribly facetious but I mean this. I love epic Fantasy based on real history a lot.) But you’ve asked why historical accuracy, including the nasty bits as well as the pretty bits and researching social norms and zeitgeist well are so important to me. Here goes:
People will believe what you say is true. This goes for Young Adult especially, but for adult fiction as well. There are two options here: Your readers know the period you’re writing about well, notice you’re bullshitting it and probably won’t buy another historical novel from you because they care. Or they don’t care, love your book and take your word for granted. You’ll give them a false idea of history. Do you wanna do that? I wouldn’t wanna do that. “But if they believe everything they read that’s not my fault!”, you could say. Sure, true. Readers could do some research, couldn’t they? But if the author was the one doing the research, wouldn’t that be much better? That’s why historical accuracy is important to me. Especially in Children’s and Young Adult fiction. Your readers will trust you to know what you’re writing about. And if you don’t, they’ll either notice and be cross with you or they won’t notice and believe the wrong facts you gave them. I don’t think either of these options are nice, even if the second option might mean people love your book.
I think what it comes down to is giving your readers an opportunity to immerse themselves in eras gone by and maybe to learn a thing our two about them along the way. It’s called historical fiction. The important part is writing an interesting story. If people wanted to read academic essays on historical subjects, they’d do it. But it’s called historical fiction. The history shouldn’t just be a gimmick or background noise. People who read historical fiction want the history to be tangible. They want to touch and breath the history, immerse themselves in it and feel it. Let them do that. Give them some real history and an exciting story and characters. That’s why historical accuracy is important. History is never just a setting. History is also not just “some stuff that happened and doesn’t matter anymore”. The past influences the present and a good understanding of the past can help understand the present better. Historical fiction, while its first and foremost duty is to entertain, can help give readers that good understanding of history in one of the most delightful ways. That’s what I love it for.
That’s it for today but I’ll be back with more thoughts on historical fiction in the future. Leave us a comment if you wanna share your opinion with us, we like that!
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- “UNNATURAL” BY MICHAEL GRIFFO - June 17, 2017
- “ONE OF US IS LYING” BY KAREN M. McMANUS - June 11, 2017
- “SHALLOW GRAVES” BY KALI WALLACE - June 4, 2017
- “HERE THEY LIE” BY D.K. BURROW - May 28, 2017
- “TRIAL BY FIRE” BY JOSEPHINE ANGELINI - May 21, 2017
- “MEMORY” BY CHRISTOPH MARZI - May 14, 2017
- “JUST DREAMING” BY KERSTIN GIER - May 7, 2017
- MARIE ANTOINETTE’S CONVERSE – ON HISTORICAL ACCURACY - May 2, 2017
- “WISH ME DEAD” BY HELEN GRANT - April 30, 2017