Eight things that really annoy me about historical novels

Posted: May 26, 2010 in Trivialities, rants & other ephemera

This is Karen the reader talking. Karen the writer may live to regret this post one day, when some eagle eyed reader spots one of the following in her work (should it ever etc etc). This is a risk she is willing to take.

1. Inaccuracies disguised as artistic licence
I’m not talking about errors and slips that could be put down to flawed research; or choices writers make between two or more possibilities; but deliberate changes (often flagged in author’s notes) introduced in order to sex the story up, or support the writer’s particular prejudices. They’re unnecessary and lazy, and alarm bells start to ring the moment one appears.

2. Jarring anachronisms
Sometimes writing anachronistically is a deliberate artistic choice (I’m thinking steampunk here) and it can work when it’s done well. But it’s the little things that can irritate. It’s not that difficult to check when important buildings were constructed; characters were born/married/died; technologies made their appearance on the scene. (Want to know my least favourite WoR anachronism?)

3. Fake Middle English.
Unless a writer is prepared to bite the bullet and use actual Middle English constructions (and just what version of ME would depend on the time the book was set), this should be avoided. I’m much more comfortable with non-jarring modern English: after all, that’s what the people at the time thought they were speaking! (‘Modern’ being one of these words (until the postmodernists got their hands on it) that kind of changes in reference almost every second.) Of course, the average punter doesn’t know a great deal about early English – why should they? A lot of people think, for instance, that Shakespeare was written in Old English, and most have never heard of Middle English, which is a bit sad as it was a hugely dynamic, shifting, defining time in the history of the language.

4. Modern attitudes and sensibilities
This can’t be avoided entirely, we all write through the filter of our selves, and that includes the time we live in, but we can at least be aware of it. There are so many false understandings of, say medieaval childhood that writers frequently don’t get, and often don’t bother researching.  Cecily Nevill, for instance, is criticised as a ‘bad mother’ in one book because she sent her youngest sons to Middleham.

5. Getting bogged down in detail
This is a very personal preference. I’d much rather get a sense of how a person or place feels through broad brushstrokes and fill in the detail myself. Page after page of minutely detailed, exhaustively researched descriptive prose irritates me. It’s hard to let go sometimes. The writer might have spent a long time researching how arrows are fletched and not want to waste a moment of it, but really it’s just a bit of background. (Think flint knapping and you’ll know what I’m talking about.)

6. Black hats and white hats
Sometimes good people do bad things. Sometimes good people have irrational prejudices, hatreds and blind spots. Sometimes bad people do good things. Sometimes bad people love their children and sometimes they’re capable of acts of extraordinary generosity. Then, of course, you have to stop and think about what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mean, in their various contexts and connotations. There’s nothing wrong with a villain, and morally ambiguous can be difficult, but even villains need light and shade. By the same token, there’s nothing wrong with a hero either, but flawed heroes are far more interesting.

7. Reviewers who get it wrong
When I see ‘authentic’ and  ‘meticulously researched’ on the back of a book, I expect it to be both authentic and meticulously researched. Now I’m a huge fan of wikipedia, but it does sometimes feel that the reviewer in question has checked the ‘meticulous research’ against that and walked away satisfied. A lot of readers really would appreciate a more thorough review.

8. Unquestioning acceptance of ‘received knowledge’
I don’t have an enormous WoR fiction library, but it is fairly well representative. I could pick up almost any one of them (even the ones I love), open it at random and find the same characterisations of half the major players and all of the minor ones. It would be nice, really really nice, to read a book that presented a more rounded view of (let’s say Anne Nevill). It’s like some of them just pop into existence, fully formed. There’s no sense that they had lives and childhoods that might have shaped them. They’re there to help the major characters fulfill their destinies, so why waste time and effort?

You’ll notice that ‘poor research’ didn’t make the list. Kind of goes without saying, really.

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