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Monday, September 08, 2014

Alison Stuart: Historical accuracy in novels

I have been considering the vexed question of historical accuracy in novels recently and our responsibility as writers to present a fair and accurate picture of history in the books we write.

What fluffed my feathers was a recent re-release of a historical romance by a relatively well known author who will remain nameless. It caught my eye because it was written by an American but set in my home town of Melbourne, Australia - which I thought was kind of flattering. There are not many historical novels set in Melbourne (although there should be). After the first few pages I flung the book at the wall (figuratively speaking because I have too much respect for my Kindle). It was evident that the author had not even done such basic research as WHEN Melbourne was settled (1837 if anyone is interested). It was NOT a convict colony, the outback does NOT start 20 miles north of Melbourne and the Yarra River has never run dry… and if the heroine had really been there in 1838 (one year after settlement) she wouldn’t have been tripping past “saloons” and visiting dressmakers in preparation for balls. It was a frontier town comprised of bark huts and tents. Anyway you get the picture? That in itself was bad enough, but what upset me were reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads thanking the author for introducing them to Australian history.

In my opinion the author was cheating the readers by presenting complete fantasy dressed up as fact.

What is a historical writer’s obligations towards historical accuracy?

I write historical romantic fiction and good research is integral to my work – I stake my integrity as a writer on it. While I cannot say that everything I write is completely 100% factual, I try very hard to ensure that the background I set my characters against is consistent with the period of history.

BUT, and it’s a big BUT, there is a flip side. Personally I don’t want to give my readers a history lesson. I think there is a kind of a 1:10 rule for every 10 facts I research, maybe 1 may pop up in the story. How many of us have read books where the writer feels obligated to tell us everything that he or she has learned about a particular subject? Not only is that tedious for the reader, that’s showing off!

History is history… and while I cannot know every small nuance of daily life in the periods of history I write about I think, as a writer, I owe a duty of care to my readers to ensure that what they are reading is as accurate a portrayal of the time as I am capable of conveying. Dates of key historical events are immutable (such as the date of the settlement of a major Australian city!!!)

Where I deviate from strict historical fact (as I did in SECRETS IN TIME - over the change from the Julian to Gregorian calendars), I will add an author’s note to that effect and I am not saying I am perfect. There will be occasions when I don’t get something quite right and for that I apologise. However when it comes to important details like what a little town called Melbourne might have actually been like in 1838, there is no excuse for getting that wrong. It would be like me setting a book in New York in 1485… insulting and inaccurate.

As you can tell, I am deeply offended…

What do you think a writer’s obligations are for historical accuracy in the books that they write?

I am very happy to give away a copy of my latest English Civil War story CLAIMING THE REBEL’S HEART to a randomly drawn commenter.

I love writing stories set in this period because it is in my DNA… and I think I can say (with my hand on my heart) that it will be a nice introduction to a difficult and interesting period in history that’s not often the subject of historical romance, while having some fun along the way.

As the English Civil War divides England and tears families apart, Deliverance Felton will do whatever it takes to defend her family home against the royalist forces ranged against it. Anything she needs to know about siege warfare she has learned from a book...but no book can prepare her for Luke Collyer, soldier of fortune and a man with his own secrets.


Where history meets romance. Alison Stuart is an award winning Australian writer of cross genre historical romances.  Whether duelling with dashing cavaliers, wayward ghosts or in search of a murderer, her books provide a reader with a meaty plot, historical accuracy and characters who have to strive against adversity, always with the promise of a future together. Alison is a lapsed lawyer who has worked in the military and fire service, which may explain a predisposition to soldier heroes and men in uniform.  She lives with her own personal hero and two needy cats in a historical area of Melbourne, Australia. Alison loves to hear from her readers and can be found at her website, Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads

***Alison's winner is Jo Ann Butler!  Please email totebag@authorsoundrelations.com with your mailing details!***

13 comments:

erin said...

I"m with you... they have to make an effort to at least match major facts. I realize that creative license does come into play, but there's a difference between creative license and rewriting history... in which a disclaimer needs to be made. Thanks for sharing!

Alison Stuart said...

Hi Erin. Indeed there has to be creative licence and at the end of the day, it is about telling a great story. However there is no excuse for passing off pure invention as "history" without some form of explanation. That really is cheating the readers.
(I had to smile... I posted the link to this blog up on my Facebook page and I have a lively discussion going on there...:-) )

Joanna Lloyd said...

Yes! I agree with all you have said. I hate reading a historical novel with key facts not researched and also with a clumsy attempt at the vernacular of the day. I cant keep reading if it is too prevalent throughout a book. Good post!

annabelfrage said...

I totally agree. IF you chose to set a novel in a historical setting, you must do your homework! It's like another book I recently read set in 10th century Ireland - and they were eating potatoes... The creative licence is there for us to fill in the gaps, so to speak. Take the life of women, generally sadly unrecorded by the male chroniclers of the past. There a writer must use imagination - but within the boundaries of the logical (unless one is openly adding a fantasy element).
Tweeted this!

Mary Preston said...

I do understand that ''poetic licence'' will be taken by the author, but I do think that in the case of historical stories that it should very much a case of write what you know. The research taken by the author, so that they DO know, is truly appreciated.

The book you read set in Melbourne would have riled me. I love books set in Australia. I think our history is fascinating.

Alison Stuart said...

Clumsy vernacular and another pet peeve... names! Anachronistic names drive me to distraction... Regency heroines called Brandy or Cherry and heroes with names that aren't much of an improvement on Dwayne...

Alison Stuart said...

Potatoes in 10th century Ireland? Like Christmas trees in the Regency or "Thanksgiving" in Regency England. I think where there is little written record, a little common sense can prevail. Women had set roles in society and few women transgressed the boundaries. Filling in the blanks is not such a stretch of imagination or credibility.

Alison Stuart said...

I so agree Mary. I would be all at sea writing historicals set anywhere else except the English speaking world because it is so out of my experience. One day I will write a proper historical set in Marvellous Melbourne!

Jo Ann Butler said...

I invented a family and background for Herodias Long in Rebel Puritan, but put extensive notes in the back to clarify what was known from records, and what I created. So far, I don't think I confused any genealogists ...

Marianne Theresa said...

AN interesting topic Alison and one that does pop up time and again on Historical accuracy.
If I cannot retell a stage/scene or moment in history enough to hold credit with my story, I prefer to leave it out rather than distort the truth to the point this scenario is likely to happen.
EG: I live in Sydney - I roam the Rocks etc every opportunity I can, but I know nothing of Melbourne (YET) so I would not dream of trying to disguise the early days of that city in a story till I found out more.
And really - we're only 200 yrs young with www. and other resources it wouldn't be that hard, I wouldn't imagine, to recreate the scene?
Thanks for bringing this to my attention regardless, it keeps me on my toes as a historical writer.
I like your 1:10 rule :)

Alison Stuart said...

Thanks Jo Ann. It comes down to honesty an integrity doesn't it?

Alison Stuart said...

The book I refer to was a reprint of an early 90s book but even back then there were basic research tools available to the writer... they were called Libraries! if it wasn't for the reader reviews the set up was so bad it was funny... but reader deception is unforgiveable.

Rebel Hand said...

Whimper! It's painful, isn't it.