Thursday, May 13, 2010
How accurate does a historical romance have to be?
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.