Historical Accuracy in Historical Fiction

Both on this blog and on other sites I’ve visited, the question of historical accuracy in historical fiction has come up. As I said in one of my earlier blog posts, I think it’s the reader’s ultimate responsibility to check the accuracy of what he reads. Historical fiction, after all, is exactly that–fiction.

By saying that, however, I don’t mean to let writers off the hook, because I think that a writer of historical fiction has a responsibility not to distort known facts to suit her purposes—or at least if she does, to let the reader know what has been done. To me, it’s an ethical obligation. That’s not to say that it’s an obligation that should be forced upon novelists–it couldn’t be without imposing some degree of censorship, and that’s certainly not what I or any other sane author or reader wants.

Ideally, the marketplace would reward those novelists and other storytellers who adhere to this ethical code (and, by the same token, penalize those who don’t give a flip for accuracy). More often than not, it doesn’t. The historical inaccuracies of Braveheart, for example, have been pointed out countless times, and I doubt its producers have lost a penny as a result. (Hey, they even got my penny–through ratings figures–the other night.) And readers, of course, don’t always appreciate accuracy. Take a look at the Amazon reader reviews for Virginia Henley’s historical romance The Marriage Prize. Several readers gave Henley two- or one-star ratings simply because she followed history in killing off Simon de Montfort. Of course, romantic fiction has a convention where one doesn’t kill off the hero, but Montfort wasn’t the hero of this particular novel.

There’s a core of readers who both want accuracy and appreciate it, however, and I’m one of them. How to make our voices heard? Post–on our blogs, on Amazon, anywhere. Praise an author when he makes an effort to be accurate, criticize him when he deliberately distorts and leaves the reader in the dark that he’s done so.

If nothing else, do this: Buy Mr. Accuracy’s books new, buy Mr. Inaccuracy’s books used.

That’ll show ’em.

5 thoughts on “Historical Accuracy in Historical Fiction”

  1. I don’t mind authors changing a date by a few days or weeks to accommodate a storyline, changing names of minor characters to avoid confusion (definitely not major historical figures, though) or simplifying extremely complex politics so the reader doesn’t get lost. What I hate is when the momentum of the plot or a major event turns on an inaccuracy – I’ve read a couple of novels on Edward II (‘Vows of the Peacock’ and ‘Isabel the Fair’ IIRC) where Eleanor and Hugh’s marriage is placed in about 1321 to provide the catalyst for the Despenser War. They married in 1306!!

  2. Well, it may not show ’em, if those of us who value historical accuracy are in a minority. But we can certainly do as you say – email authors who have websites and thank them for treating the past with respect (pointing out that accuracy was a major reason we bought their book, thereby giving them something to point to if their agents/editors pressure them to ‘improve’ on reality), post comments on blogs, reviews, forums, discussion lists…. I’ve seen some of those reviews on Amazon and simply shrugged them off as silly, but you’re right, we ought to at least try to be heard. Otherwise we can’t complain if books go the same way as films.

    I don’t object to the inaccurate novels existing, since there’s clearly a readership that prefers them. I’m with you on abhorring censorship of any form. I’d just like to be able to spot them in advance so I don’t waste my time and money on them – I’m a great fan of the Author’s Note for that reason. I like to know what I’m getting.

  3. I’m a firm believer in author’s comments, too. 🙂

    I admit I have predated the marriage of Heinrich of Saxony and Mathilda daughter of Henry II a few years because it’s such a nice way to get Roderic to Germany in her entourage. But it’s not that I base an entire plot on that one.

    And none of my Mediaeval characters eats potatoes. *grin* The book were that happend hit the wall.

    I also don’t have problems with inventions that, while never discussed by historians, could still be possible. Fe. I have King Alaric of the Goths poisoned. The sources mention a short illness, most researchers today think it could have been malaria. But there was an anti-Alaric party among the Goths (some of them, like Sarus, fled to Rome, but others remained), his successor Athaulf was assassinated by a member of that disgruntled group, and the Roman sources didn’t know what was going on in the Gothic camp. They were just glad the guy who sacked Rome was dead. So it is not totally impossible that Alaric’s death wasn’t natural. Also, Gothic healers were not moderns forensics to detect ricin in the king’s body. And the outcome remains the same historically.

    Now, if someone presented me with a version where Athaulf poisoned his brother in law, I would be peeved, because there’s no proof that the two didn’t get along; and the group around Sarus and Sergeric hated both kings.

    Same with the way how the Goths got into Rome. There are three different versions in the sources, all include some sort of treason inside the city – I don’t think anyone can accuse me of being incorrect if I come up with a modified version of one of the known variants. Betcha none of the sources has it right anyway, they were written a hundred years after the incident. 😉

    I really hope a publisher will allow me to have a comment section where I can explain such changes, though.

  4. You can set up your own author website independently of the publisher, Gabriele, where you can say what you like and readers can write in with questions. I’m reviewing a book at the moment where the author’s done just that.

  5. Ohh, I could make a board in my Writing History forum: Disucss my books. 🙂

    Well, first I have to finish the dang things, then find an agent and a publisher, and sell a few.

    (Sorry if this comes through twice, but suddenly the whole comment thing froze.)

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