Friday, July 21, 2017

History Happened. Really. So Get it Right.

Allow me to jump back into the blogosphere with a short rant about historical accuracy.

I like writing with historical settings. I have written fantasy and struggle with consistency. I have to draw maps and create cultures and magical systems and naming traditions. When writing with a historical setting, it's all been done for you. Thank you, people who came before, for laying it out for me.

That said, research is required. No matter how much I think I know, I am constantly second guessing and double checking. Whatever the era, there is a plethora of resources available (online, for free!) to help fine tune the details of your novel. You don't want to fudge because you lose credibility as a writer, no matter how great your story may be.

The following points stand out to me both as a reader and a writer.

1. Language
When writing a story set within the Elizabethan Era, I found myself looking up the word Machiavellian. Certainly Machiavelli had existed and been published prior to this time. But even though the educated may have read his work, would his name have been equated with the theme of his writing? No. It's a more modern term and would be inappropriate to use. Word choice matters when it comes to making your setting real. I just read something set in early Victorian where they used the word "perp" in reference to the bad guy and it broke me out of the story completely.
To become comfortable with the word use of your chosen era, read work (primary sources) from that time. If you are uncertain, Wikipedia is a decent and easy resource to double check (I once looked up "cunt" because I wanted to confirm period crude slang for that particular body part. The table full of youth pastors meeting behind me became suddenly silent when it popped up in 100 pt font on my screen. Good times.)
Whether or not you choose to write in dialect (I did originally, but then an acquiring editor at Avon told me to nix that), make certain the speech patterns are consistent with the era, the class, and the setting. Consider period slang, contradictions, and forms of address while still making the dialogue accessible to the reader.

2. Names
I have found church records for marriages, baptisms, etc... from the years I write online. Even if you cannot find direct resources of the names of commoners, looking at the names of the royal families of  will tell you the trends of the time (people tended to name after the people in charge in homage/butt kissing). Depending on your era, historically people were not creative in the name department. Even today there are some countries that have lists of approved names. Learn about the culture of your setting. Are sons named after fathers? Do children take their mother's maiden name as a middle name? Does their birth date figure in to their naming (saints days)?
This can be frustrating because it limits creativity OR it could be a relief that you don't have everything to choose from. I've seen many authors nod to historical naming with the character's given name and then play with nick-names. Personally, I'd rather read about a real guy with an old fashioned name like Edwin than an archetype who goes by Rogue (just in case we didn't understand the archetype)

3. Norms
This is the biggest challenge for me. You want to write something historically accurate that the modern reader can relate to. If your main character is a woman (and mine always is) you have to be careful not to give her modern thought processes. Women's rights were limited but for a woman in that era, that would be all she ever knew and would be, if not content, at least resigned to her lot in life. Depending on the era you are writing there are very specific thoughts about religion, ethnicity, and class systems. Modern readers may see oppression or racism or elitism while the historical characters see it as the way of their world. How you write it will make all the difference. For the historical characters, these aspects of society were normal but can be off-putting for a reader. Finding the balance between historical views and modern sentiment is tricky. Have fun with that.
Being consistent with social norms extends to casual interactions, introductions, conversations public and private, forms of address, seating at the table, manners, class distinctions, etc... It's the biggest aspect of historical setting and what gives the read a feel of authenticity.

4. Costumes
Again, as with norms, it's hard to make historical fashions something the modern reader can comprehend. People have preconceived images of what is attractive now and it's hard to merge modern aesthetic values the historical. Consider your characters from the skin outward, being sure to include their undergarments (or lack thereof) and the correct names for the items. I read a book where the corset was referred to as a busk (a busk is the solid, removable insert in the center front of an early corset). It may be sexy by today's standards to have your heroine forgo her chemise beneath the corset, but consider that the chemise protects the outerwear from sweat and the skin from the coarse, heavy, boned corsets. Research. Look at portraits from the era, look at patterns for construction, and read about the way the garments would have been worn. You can find primary source fashion plates but many of the reenactor websites can be a good resource (they take their attention to accuracy very seriously).
I have to be careful not to make my books a treatise on historical costuming because I love the details. I end up trimming my descriptions down to the bare minimum. I want the reader to picture the character in the gown and how she feels, the impression she leaves, rather than the pleating at the waistband or the embroidery on the shoulder epaulets. It's actually hard for me, but no one wants pages and pages of dress description, they want the story. The dress only matters in how it furthers the character and plot, but it should be accurate.
One positive in understanding all the layers and the way they fasten is that it will help you also undress your character later. :)
The only area where (my personal feeling) it's okay to deviate from historical accuracy in costuming is in the area of hygiene (especially if your work is sexually explicit). Enough said.

1751 Countess of Coventry
A renowned beauty

Ultimately the story has to take dominance over all these details, but working in the true flavor of your chosen era will make the story richer and let the reader truly immerse themselves in your world. Granted, not every reader knows whether or not cotton would have been worn by medieval Scottish peasants (it wouldn't have) but you still owe them accuracy rather than hoping no one will care/notice. It's your name on the cover and your credibility at stake.

You may be asking what gives me to right to lecture on attention to detail in historical romance. If you don't want to take me seriously as a writer (I get that), at least consider this from a reader's perspective. I never read another book by the author that called a corset a busk.


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