Keeping it Real

How accurate does historical fiction need to be? Even in a fantasy?
There’s a reason they tell writers to “write what you know”—if you write what you don’t know, you’re much more likely to get it wrong. With historical fiction, unless it’s recent history, none of us have hands-on experience. You can do research, but unless you’re an expert in the era, you may get some fact wrong and someone will reference your book (or mine) with comments like “I couldn’t possibly take him seriously after he got X wrong.”
While research is terrifically important, there’s only so much time I can afford to take before I start writing. Unless it’s a subject I know really well, at some point I’m going to have to trust and hope that I know enough to pass muster with most readers. With experts? That’s another story.
If I had to think about it, readers can be grouped into several levels:
•People who will believe almost anything. Assuming you can build a readership entirely on gullible people is a big mistake. That’s not to say a book loaded with errors won’t sell (Da Vinci Code, anyone) but it’s a long shot.
•People who know basic stuff. For example, every British schoolkid knows the Norman Conquest and the Battle of Hastings were 1066 but they may not know any details beyond that (for convenience I’m ignoring the question of how much they want or can find out through Google).
•Well-informed laypeople. By which I mean someone who knows the history of the period well enough to spot obvious and even not-so-obvious errors. “Basic stuff” would be knowing the Assassins were an Islamic sect who killed people; “well informed” would be knowing they did not kill Crusaders but only other Muslims, and that many of the stories about them are almost certainly myths.
I think if I can get to the point a well-informed layperson finds my story believable and fits with what she knows, I’ve done okay.
•Experts. Historians, for example, or hard-core history buffs, military re-enactors, etc. It’s quite possible even if I do a great job of research, some of them will spot flaws. But while I hate to think of even one person having that reaction, in most cases that’s going to be a small portion of my readers. So it’s an acceptable tradeoff for not devoting my life to historical research.
Other factors to consider:
•How important is a particular bit of research to your plot? If you only allude in passing to one Victorian character fighting a case in chancery court, you don’t have to worry too much; if the chancery court case is central to the plot, better get the details spot-on.
•How good is your story? If everything else about it is entertaining, a certain amount of error is more forgivable. I found the handling of Kate Hudson’s writing career in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days pretty ridiculous, but I still liked the movie.
•Your readers may be wrong. In The Hollywood History of the World, George MacDonald Fraser references one critic who dimissed the movie Shalako on the grounds (among other things) that Sean Connery’s Scots accent made it unbelievable—are we supposed to believe there were Scotsmen in the Wild West? (Yes. There were).
For other thoughts on realism and fantasy, here are two past posts.

4 Comments

Filed under Writing

4 responses to “Keeping it Real

  1. Pingback: Authenticity, canon and Arthur | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. Pingback: Illogicon, Monster Earth and Things Not Being Coincidental | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  3. Pingback: Errors I Spot | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  4. Pingback: The little things: Georgia O’Keefe and Sherlock Holmes quotes | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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