Thursday, May 13, 2010

How accurate does a historical romance have to be?

This is a bit of a grumble, so be warned!
At this year’s Romantic Times Booklovers’ Convention, I picked up half a dozen historical romances to read. At these conventions, free books abound, and it’s a great opportunity to try a new author. Some conventioneers come home with 60 books, so my haul of 20 was quite modest. I have weight restrictions to think about, and in any case, I read mostly in ebook these days.
The historicals didn’t come home with me. I read at least three chapters of each one, and skimmed some of them to the end in the vain hope that they might improve. They were from big publishers and small houses, and no, I’m not going to name them, because I think they’re representative of what is happening in some parts of the market. And some sell in the thousands.
They’re misnamed. They’re not historicals. Please stop calling them that. At this point I’ll pause, because some people might enjoy these books and the last thing I want to do is to spoil your enjoyment. If you feel that way, leave now, because the rest of this post won't interest you. Trust me.
This is my plea for more good historical romances, so that I can start reading them again.
While paranormal romances are sometimes seen in British bookstores, as are Harlequins and some contemporary writers, historicals are rarely, if ever, seen. They don’t travel. The mistakes made in these books are so elementary, they’re almost offensive. No, strike the “almost.” To take a few of the more frequently used errors –
Another book featuring a duke, and I swear I’ll scream. There were only around 25 dukes in the Regency period. They weren’t always the most powerful peer, it didn’t work like that. A marquis or an earl or a humble Mr. could be more important in terms of wealth, power and political influence.
A duchess is never called “my lady.” She’s “your grace,” or even “ma’am.”
Peers can’t give away their titles. Before the 1960’s they couldn’t resign a title, either. Once a duke, always a duke.
Peers had jobs, often complicated. It involved husbandry, financial management, politics and legal concerns. It was a full time job, more akin to being a CEO or chairman of the board than pure privilege.
If a woman slept around, or lost her reputation, especially if she were unmarried, that was it. She was disgraced, gone. That didn't mean that they didn't do it, and some didn't care, but they did pay for their behaviour. It's the author's job to get around these problems in a plausible way, such as making the woman masked, or unlikely to enter polite society, but she couldn't go from whorehouse to duchess and be accepted by society. It never happened. And if she wasn't accepted, that could be a serious business impediment to her husband. And, of course, it would affect their children, too.
No more Regency spies. Please, especially the aristocratic kind. Spying wasn't an honourable profession until the advent of James Bond. It involved lying and cheating, and no gentleman would do that, not even with the enemy.
Inappropriate names. Regency dukes called Taylor and Tanner. Heroines called Shirley and Vivien. The first two were possible if the hero took his mother’s surname as his first name, but to me they sound wrong, more like cowboys. The second two were men’s names in the Regency. That is annoying because the name is repeated throughout the book, and so it’s not just one error, it’s there throughout.
There are many who who argue that historicals don’t have to be accurate. You’re right, they don’t have to be. There’s no law that says so, and editors generally don't insist on it. It’s largely up to the writer. But please, could they be called “historical fantasy” or something of that nature? Then I’d know they weren’t for me, and others would sweep them up by the thousand.
I’ve heard various arguments against using accurate history. One is that we can never know everything about history. No, but there’s no reason to stop trying, or to throw everything out. Some facts are known and immutable. Others are less well known. Yet more aren’t known. But by a careful study of the times, the attitudes and all the background information, a lot can be inferred.
Another argument is that too much history can drown the romance, and bore the reader. That is called an infodump and whatever the genre, it’s best avoided, whether it’s the history of a country house or the way a space ship works.
And I’ve heard that readers don’t care. Why should they? Indeed, why should they, but intelligent readers know when something is “off.” Many readers of Regency romances are knowledgeable and will not hesitate to correct an author. Some will avoid buying the “wallpaper historicals” or “Regency lite,” and that could be a restriction of the market. It certainly shuts some readers out. As long as a publisher reaches its target sales, and while the author is regularly achieving that and more, nobody is concerned, but the historical could be even more successful if history was used in the stories.
It’s also a matter of respect. I would love to see the romance genre given a bit more respect, but even amongst writers of other genres, it’s disparaged and put down. The inaccurate hsitoricals just provide fodder for the arguments that romance is frivolous and throwaway genre. I’ve read some profound and moving books in the romance genre, where the quality is easily as good as anything produced elsewhere.
And let’s end on a positive note. I’m thrilled to be writing here, along with authors I respect and enjoy. And I was also thrilled when, earlier this year, Laura Kinsale released her first book in years. “Lessons in French” continues her wonderful books, and long may she continue to write. There are great writers of moving, breathtaking historical romance out there, and thank the gods of publishing for it.
This post was inspired by a discussion on a private yahoo list about accuracy. Authors Elizabeth Chadwick and Sharon Kay Penman added superb posts, and while SKP’s reply has to remain private, Chadwick gave permission to quote her post. So here’s a bit of it, because there’s no way I can improve on her words, nor would I want to.

“You do as much background research as you can, both the narrow and the broad into the person their lifestyle and the times in which they lived. If there's not a lot available about them, then you research the people who interacted with them - their lifestyles and the people who in turn interacted with them.
"You dig and then you dig some more. This way you build up the layers in the picture and get a feel for what's right and what's not. When I was researching A Place Beyond Courage, there were half a dozen differing and sometimes conflicting accounts of the Empress fleeing Winchester and what happened on the road, with various people appearing in different places. I had to make an executive decision based on reading all the accounts and piece together a plausible series of events. A great deal of this didn't go into the novel, but the accounts gave a solid platform to my thought processes.
"If you do the research in enough depth, your story will have the integrity that does history, you, and the reader justice. How you utilise your research in the novel is down to your personal skills as a writer. Both story and history need to come alive for the reader and shine. No one can be 100% accurate and as writers our imagination is perhaps the most essential tool in our kit, but integrity matters I think. If you are writing about someone who actually lived, then you keep as close to their personality as you can and portray their world as it actually was - or as close as you can get, and that includes attitudes as well as furniture. If your characters are imaginary then the same.”

I believe that history is there, not for our entertainment, but for us to be proud of. If we write a book set in a certain period, then it should respect its origins and try to be true to the time it's set in.
Thanks for listening.


kate tremayne said...

I give you a standing ovation for this post Lynne.

Gemma said...

I wholeheartedly agree that a historical author should at least *try* to get historical behaviours right. I quite like your idea of Historical Fantasy as a compromise genre. :)

I'm really posting to say that I have actually found some historical romances on sale in the UK in my local WH Smith. They have a section (in my medium/large town) actually called "Romance" (!) and I have found contemporary and historical romance (and sagas, of course) filling a couple of shelves. (e.g. pretty much all of Stephanie Laurens' Cynster novels; a couple Mary Baloghs; a couple Julia Quinns; etc).

It's not enough for a historical romance junkie such as myself, not by a long shot, but it is refreshing to find at all. As a reward to WH Smith, I have been buying the Cynster novels (which I'd never read before, and am enjoying) one by one from them, even though I could no doubt get them cheaper online.

Maisie said...

Wonderful post, Lynne! I grew up reading Victoria Holt, Jean Plaidy and the fabulous Georgette Heyer and they fostered in me a great love for historical romance. These masters of the genre managed to deftly combine accurate historical detail with a wonderful love story. The history always accenutated and enhanced the story - it certainly never hindered it and the power of these stories is such that even know, many years after they were written they are still in print and are still enjoyed.

It's a shame that so many of the historical romances being published today are not anywhere near that standard of excellence. Luckily, the Historical Romance UK writers never let us down!

Jane Jackson said...

Excellent post, Lynne. I agree with every word.

Jane Holland said...

I'm unsure about this. I agree that a category such as Historical Fantasy would be a good compromise, but I don't feel it's necessary for historicals to be 100% accurate. Goodness, I don't imagine Hey was always accurate, and indeed we know she made up plenty of Regency sayings and practices, or embellished them tremendously, thus creating a sub-genre all her own.

It's really a question of how well that kind of fudging is done. A good writer will fudge without the reader noticing or earn forgiveness for other excellent qualities or a general readability. Let's not throw out the storytellers with the history rejects.

But yes, some awful writers will leave me cringing. I'm afraid, and I apologise wholeheartedly to all those I am about to offend, but when I find some ludicrous and utterly impossible situation or unlikely conversation or laughable character name in a novel set in Regency England, when I turn to the biog. I invariably find it was written by an American. I'm not sure why this is, since theoretically it should be just as easy for an American to imagine Regency England as for a British writer. It's just something I've noticed and wondered about. Maybe it's just that there are so many US writers writing in the Regency period now that British writers have been outnumbered, and so the odds on it being a US writer are greatly increased anyway.

Having said that, my own latest ms posits an utterly impossible situation. But it's a fun story, not meant to be taken that seriously. And there you have the crux of it. If a novel is intended to be seriously, even academically, sound in terms of historical accuracy, it's perhaps drifting away from romance into the more rigid demands of readers of straight historical fiction. And I would rather read a slightly fantastical romance than a more 'correct' but perhaps less fun tract on how Regency men and women genuinely conducted their affairs.

Philistine, I know. But I do respect the opposing view too. It will be interesting to see how the genre develops over the next few decades.

Jane Holland said...

Sorry, that should have been 'Heyer'. Rubbish keyboard!

Fenella Miller said...

I agree with Lynne but also with Jane -there's room for both sorts on the bookshelves. I'm as accurate as I can be with my Regency romantic adventures - but sometimes have to stray from the actual truth in order to create an exciting story. I've had a peer working as an agent and am about to embark on, hopefully, a series with a wealthy man as an agent.

Amanda said...

The title and cover of a book usually give a good indication of content and readers soon discover their favourite and TBA (to be avoided)authors. I don't see why books about Dukes or spies should be disallowed just because they're not text book accurate. After all, they're not text books, they're works of fiction.

I think readers need a wide choice of books so that they can choose the ones that suit them. I would be sorry to see books about Dukes and spies disappear, just as I would be sorry to see entirely accurate books disappear. As Jane Austen said, One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other half.

Lynne Connolly said...

@ Amanda : When I write about an unusual situation, and let's face it, that's where a lot of the most interesting books lie, I try to find a real life example. Usually, it's not difficult, and yet again I wonder why people don't just trawl the archives for good stories.
Regency dukes is an example. There weren't any. There were diplomatic spies (but dukes didn't become career diplomats, although some career diplomats might become dukes), there were fewer dukes in the army, where most other spies concentrated, and in that case, they were more interested in discovering how best to undermine the fort rather than a Secret Bit Of Paper.
And in any case, as a reader I'm tired of them, to be honest.

@ Jane - actually, I agree with you in a way. Heyer did create her own world, but there are 6 (or is it 5) mistakes in 40 books, which is pretty good going. But she works on the margins. She took the slang as used by contemporaries (Pierce Egan and Grose) and exploited it to the max. But it existed, and we know that there was a weird, exclusive slang used by the Devonshire set in the period - it happened, so Heyer can use it. You have to have an opinion, a view, or the books won't hold together so well.

Thank you so much Kate, Gemma, Maisie, Jane J, Amanda. I just want more historical romances to read, but for now, I'll stick to Mills and Boon, where the history is generally of a high standard. It was disappointing to pick up the new, much promoted writers on my recent visit to America and to find them unreadable, for me at least.

No, we're not writing text books, if we did, there'd be fewer conversations and more passives, but we are claiming to write history, so maybe it deserves a bit of respect.

Use the different and the unusual. Kinsale's "Flowers From The Storm" uses the imperative to make an heir at any cost and the Shoreditch Quaker community brilliantly. People doubted her history, but it was there and she only used it as background to add colour to her romance, which remained at the centre of the story.

Lynne Connolly said...

Should have been "Regency duke spies" of course!

cazcherry said...

I agree whole-heartedly! I gave up reading RR when I felt that the wit and sparkle of Miss Heyer's work was no longer considered as important as pages of steamy sex. Not that I'm a prude, you understand, but to me the genre is about sharp, witty dialogue, a heroine giving her hero some of his own medicine and a few hiccups along the way to make the reader yearn for that happy ending rather than know it's a dead cert from page 1.

Whenever I see a story about spies, a heroine who is a courtesan or a award winning biologist, a gentleman called Lord Travis Oglethorpe who is a rogue who is then tamed by said courtesan, I want to scream. The hero never falls in love with with her as a person, it's always done by the passionate way she behaves in bed.
They then become soft porn books for women, which although I'm sure have their place, to me they do not fit the genre that I fell in love with as a teenager.

Many modern RR authors take modern characters and drop them into a Regency setting. Their voice is all wrong, the way they behave is all wrong and as a result the stories don't ring true at best and are ridiculous at worst.

OK, rant over! Think I need a cup of tea and a lie down...

Gentle Petal said...

I've been a great fan of Regency romances for many years but it's sad to see the alarming drop in standards. The Regency romances I've been reading lately are written by Americans who haven't got a clue and it's most frustrating. Americanisms are peppered through the stories. Some of them have been so bad the only phrase missing is 'have a nice day now, ya'll'! I'm sure it will pop up eventually. Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen would be spinning in their graves.

Anonymous said...

Hello. This is a fascinating discussion. As a history geek from the UK, I have to say that sadly, while Georgette Heyer may have been well versed in historical detail of the period, the picture she presented of a consensus based society with a contented, happily servile working class gives a completely artificial view of the UK at the period. It is, I think, linked in with the reactionary political views for which she was notorious. This was about the time of the 1818 Peterloo Massacre, after all. This was a time when life for the majority of the population was short and full of grinding poverty and labour and where the streets were filthy and the death rate for babies horrifically high. Hygiene was poor, and even the leisured classes avoided bathing often. While people may not wish to read of such things in historical romnances, completely to ignore them is to buy into a highly reactionary view of my country's history.