Smart Girls Read Romance -- so do the bestselling and award-winning Authors who write this blog. Join them as they dish about Books, Romance, Love, and Life.
Friday, June 24, 2016
THE PERILS OF NAVIGATING HISTORICAL ACCURACY AND GENRE EXPECTATIONS
By Amanda Quarles
Hello! I’m gearing up soon for my latest release, and this time it’s a time travel set in Scotland! Because the research and editing for this is fresh on my mind, I thought I’d chat a bit today about some of the challenges authors face when penning the books you love (or hate!). Much like the navigator of yore, we must navigate the tricky waters with our tools and best judgment in hand. I’ve visited this topic in the past elsewhere, but it was before I was published. It was interesting to reread that post from four years ago! I think the major difference with me now, is that I do have a little more tolerance as a reader than I did then, because I know how hard it is now as an author.
A lot goes into writing a book that we have to consider, beyond characterization, pacing, and plot. I know you know this, but I thought it might be fun to show you some behind-the-scenes choices to give you a little taste Because sometimes, well, we’re not accurate on purpose You might wonder–shouldn’t a writer who sets a book in the past strive to make their book as accurate as possible? It might come as a surprise to those who know me well (since I’m a history buff) but the answer is not always Yes. Don’t get me wrong, most of the time I strive for that goal, but as you’ll see below, it’s not always clear cut.
NOTE: when I say “reader” and “readers” please know I’m not saying all readers, but since it’ll be cumbersome to keep saying “your average reader” or “most readers”, etc. throughout this post, I’m taking that shortcut.
Are there historical truths?
Before I get into the genre expectation part of the formula, there’s also the question of whose history are we following? There’s a reason why historians say that the winners get to write history. What’s recorded is filtered by the biases of the witnesses. On top of that, historians going over contemporary accounts of a past event are biased as well. So, unless we could fire up that ole time machine, we can’t actually know 100% what for-real transpired.
As the character Malcolm Reynolds says in the movie Serenity:
Half of writing history is hiding the truth.
Sigh. I miss the characters from Firefly/Serenity. Anyway, my point is, as authors, when we go to research our era, we can find conflicting accounts, so we’ll need to weigh the source, check if there are primary documents we can verify against, etc. But in the end, there are two things working into our decisions: 1) we’re writing fiction whose purpose is to entertain (and sometimes enlighten) and we need to consider our story’s needs, and 2) we’re not writing our Ph.D. dissertation on the subject I know that sounds snarky, but it’s true. And it’s something I have to remind myself when I start to get too anal at the expense of story.
History vs. Story Needs
I have several quick examples to show you what I mean here. The first is actually from Must Love Chainmail, set in 1294 Wales. I hired an expert for that time period and culture to read it over, and she made this note about my use of the word “pinkie”
pinkie would be fine if you are in her pov [Point of View] but you are in Robert’s and the English and Scottish call it the pinkle because the Dutch call it pink – pink meaning little finger
I did debate with myself on whether to change it to “pinkle” but in the end I stayed with pinkie. Several things went into this, but there were two main considerations for me. First, none of the language for his scenes was what he actually spoke (Norman French) since a) I can’t speak or write in it, and b) that’d be seriously narrowing my reader audience I made the decision, however, to try to restrict the English words used to ones he’d have an equivalent word for in his language, and pinkie fit that parameter. What I was writing was English, but they were conversing in Norman French.
The other consideration was one of taking a reader out of the story. I worried that a reader would stumble on pinkle, or worse, think it was a typo.
But, funnily enough, I did get a reader complaint! She told me she enjoyed the story but that my use of pinkie pulled her right out of the story and spoiled it for her. I felt bad, and I wrote back explaining my reasoning, and she was understanding. But I still feel like it was the right decision as I think more people would have been pulled out of the story if I’d used “pinkle.” Maybe not. Who knows? But see, these are the things that keep us authors up at night, LOL!
The other example is from Must Love Kilts. I have the story start at in inn on Loch Cluanie (the setting is an actual one–I stayed in the room I described!) but when she goes back in time, there might not have been an inn there. Unfortunately, the Highland Clearances destroyed much of the infrastructure as well as the records. My Scottish editor I hired wanted me to move the inn to a large town like Inverness, because she said there weren’t inns in that area, but that didn’t work for my story needs, so I kept it. Sorry! I also didn’t have them sleeping in a room at the inn with a bunch of other people, though that would have been more accurate. I’m fully aware that there will be some readers and writers who would disagree with my choice to put my inn where I did, or will be miffed my couple had their own room. And I have to be okay with that.
On the flip side of this, there are historical details that can yank a reader out of the story that wouldn’t have affected the character or plot to have gotten right, and these are the bits I try to make sure are accurate (or that I hope my editors and Beta readers catch). These help create the fictive dream we weave for our readers. So my Highland warriors don’t have their swords strapped to their backs, a la Braveheart, for instance.
Genre expectations and reader beliefs
Over time, a core set of expectations evolved with certain genres, and readers can feel unfulfilled if they’re not met. The close cousin to genre expectations are events and mores that a reader believes to be accurate because it’s been standard in fiction for so long, but doesn’t actually hold up when studying that time period. And woe betide the author who is actually historically accurate, but it butts up against these beliefs.
I’ve definitely grappled with both of these issues with each of my three time travel romances–one set in 1834 England, one set in 1294 Wales, and one set in 1689 Scotland. As promised, here’s a few of these to illustrate.
This is pretty common in Regency romances, and I’ve talked to some authors who write in that time who say they have to weigh this factor in when deciding whether to be historically accurate. In other words, there are customs and beliefs readers think are accurate for that time that actually aren’t. I won’t spend too long on this, but I’ll give one quick example that relates to my books–bathing in the Middle Ages. The belief is pervasive that in the time I wrote for Must Love Chainmail (1294) people didn’t bathe at all, or hardly at all, and the fact isthat’s not true. Part of what motivates me in writing is to help dispel some of these beliefs. But I take the risk that I’ll get called out for not being historically accurate, even though I am.
Did you know there were no set tartan patterns for clans before the late 18th century?
This I classify under genre expectations. It’s pretty standard for the heroes in our Scottish historicals to be identified by their tartan, but back in the day, this wasn’t actually the case. As Michael Newton states in his excellent book, Warriors of the Word: The World of Scottish Highlanders:
…weavers in particular areas tended to use particular patterns and thus you could infer the place to which a person belonged if you were familiar with the local styles of tartan. This is quite different from the claim that each clan had its own tartan.
Plus, the belted plaid apparently didn’t even evolve as a thing these hunky Highland men wore until around the 1500s, though there are folks who hotly debate this. So Braveheart was not running around in a kilt apparently
But as readers, we want to see our heroes in kilts, even if they’re in the 1200s, and that’s okay! It’s part of our fantasy and as authors of romance, that’s what we deliver. Long ago, this was one of the things that woulddraw me out of a story, but now I roll with it because I now want to buy into that fantasy when I read that type of book.
However, I did have this as something my heroine gets confused about as she navigates that world because she’s from our era and believes clans could be identified by their tartans, and so it provided a bit of fun for her to meet with puzzlement. It also helped the story because it showed her (and the reader) that she needed to tread lightly so that she wouldn’t give herself away as being “not from around here.”
Dinnae fash, bonnie lassie!
I didn’t know that a lot of the speech we associate with our hunky Highlanders is actually Lowland dialect! I only found out when the Scottish editor I hired to read Must Love Kilts for historical, linguistic, and cultural accuracy (she has a Ph.D. in Celtic Studies) pointed out to me that when my hero was saying “bonnie”, “lass”, and “dinnae fash” that these were Lowland words and speech patterns. A Highlander thought in and spoke in Gaelic, not English. As she put in her notes to me:
People who visit the east coast of Canada will see and hear all sorts of names from the Highlands of Scotland and wonder why they don’t sound Scottish. You won’t hear ‘wee’ or ‘bonnie’ or ‘de ye ken’ ever. The reason is because they came to Canada speaking only Gaelic.
So here I compromised, because readers do expect to hear these words when they read a Scottish Highlander historical. And, since he’d be speaking in English to the heroine, and had gone to University in Edinburgh, I figured it was safe to have him use it when he’s speaking to her. I tried to limit its usage for his thoughts, but I wasn’t super strict. Again, I weighed it against genre expectations and genre expectations won out for me.
As readers of my series know, I do try to be as accurate as possible, but the truth is we can’t be 100% accurate, either because we don’t really know because we weren’t there, or because we weighed in genre expectations or the story needs won out. The problem we face, though, is that each reader is different and, like the lady who was upset by the pinkie, their thresholds can differ from others. In the end, we strive to make our stories enjoyable for the majority of our readers, all the while knowing that there will be some who won’t agree with our choices.
Unlike how it sounds above, though, my editors do make many (many) suggestions that I incorporate or fix. And I research my settings and time period beforehand as well. It makes my stories richer and more authentic, and I’m extremely grateful for their guidance and expertise. I feel that striving for authenticity is one of the promises I make for my readers, and I do my best. But I am human, and so I may not always succeed to everyone’s satisfaction, or, like in the cases above, I made a decision contrary to historical accuracy for the sake of story, genre expectations, or readability.
What do you think? I’m curious to know where you fall in your tolerance for authenticity. It’s not an easy line to straddle, that’s for sure. And authors, do you have any stories and opinions to share?
Angela Quarles is an RWA RITA Finalist and USA Today bestselling author of time travel and steampunk romance. Her debut novel, MUST LOVE BREECHES, swept many unpublished romance contests, including the Grand Prize winner of Windy City's Four Season's contest in 2012. Her steampunk, STEAM ME UP, RAWLEY, was named Best Self-Published Romance of 2015 by Library Journal. Angela loves history, folklore, and family history. She decided to take this love of history and her active imagination and write stories of romance and adventures for others to enjoy. when not writing, she's either working at the local indie bookstore or enjoying the usual stuff like gardening, hanging out, eating, drinking, chasing squirrels out oft he walls, and creating the occasional knitted scarf.