Historical accuracy in fiction: more than just potatoes

Posted: June 13, 2012 in Trivialities, rants & other ephemera

Somewhere between the crowd with the banners screaming ‘IT’S FICTION!’ and the mob with the ones emblazoned ‘IT’S HISTORICAL!’ is a middle ground where most good, rational writers with integrity and respect for their readers stand. Of course there has to be ‘fiction’ in historical fiction. I’ve said this before, I’m sure I have: conversations, relationships, the actual writing of actual events, people’s thoughts and motivations – all these are fictional, even if the events themselves, or the people, or the marriages, or their actions, aren’t.

There’s been  smattering of blog posts about this lately, and they all seem to say similar things. The same kind of things that I’ve been saying, but…

There seems to be something of an obsession with potatoes! Now, I understand this to an extent. The latent (and sometimes not so) pedant in me sometimes silently screams at incorrect detail. I get this from my father. There used to be a tv show here in Australia called… oh, something Force, kind of a war drama, with spies, I think, something like that, anyway. Well, my Dad, who was in signals during the War, *sigh* the Second World War, got up and left the room in disgust at one point, vowing never to watching Something Force ever again. “They didn’t have that kind of receiver in 1943. Those weren’t made until the 50s.” No point explaining to him that maybe the props department had done their best. No, he was through with Whatever it Was Force and never watched it again, despite having enjoyed it – with no complaints – up to that point. (We didn’t have a television in our house until we were well into our teens. I just think Dad never quite got the hang of it.)

But that brings me to my point about potatoes. These emblematic tubers are so often called into action in discussions about historical accuracy. “When I see a Norman sit down to a plate of roast beef and mashed potatoes, I put the book down in disgust” kind of thing. Well, it would certainly make me blink and look twice, and possibly (if it was close to the beginning) proceed with caution, but I wouldn’t quite write the book off just yet. I’ll certainly forgive an anachronistic serving of potatoes before I’ll forgive an event moved out of its proper time, or a man with no hint of scandal attached to his name turned into a violent brute, or a queen passing off her secret lover’s child as her husband’s. But I might just be a bit trepidatious for a while after that particular meal.

When I talk about historical accuracy, it’s not these little details that bother me. For other people it is exactly these little details. For yet others it’s both the big things and the little. Sure, I think I’d get a bit irritated with a 15th century family who sat down to a hearty serving of spuds every night, but the occasional lapse can be forgiven. I think it’s because I’m not a details person in the first place. Intricate, down to the last seed pearl, descriptions of clothes have me skipping paragraphs, the same goes for rooms and wooden doors (the first 10 pages of The Name of the Rose, iirc). Other people love this, can’t get enough of it. “I loved the descriptions of the clothes,” they’ll write in a review, “right down to the last seed pearl!” I wouldn’t mention that in a review coz while I don’t revel in it, it probably wouldn’t stop me enjoying a well written book – no need to mention it. (I was going to writher ‘otherwise well written’, but this is an opinion piece and my opinion about excruciating detail doesn’t render it bad writing.)

What will turn me off a book is inaccuracy in the big things. Events moved in time and space; people being where (according to known records) they weren’t; adulterous love affairs conjured out of thin air… What’s the odd potato or two in face of that?

What all this tells me isn’t that my opinion is correct and everyone else is wrong. No, what it tells me is that the world is full of all kinds of people with all kinds of taste, preferences and opinions. ‘I don’t care about the history, I just want a good story,’ the IT”S FICTION! crowd might say. And ‘I hate it when the writer deviates one iota from what is known,’ the IT’S HISTORICAL! posse might say. What I say is: Please don’t disrespect the lives of the people you’re writing about. Please don’t think you can rearrange those lives to better fit the story you want to tell. If you think you have a better story in you than the ‘real’ one (‘real’ being a non-finite term when it comes to all kinds of things, including history and reality), then write it, but please try and resist telling everyone that it’s any kind of accurate.

Oh, and stuff about language, but it’s probably best not to get me started on that…

  1. I admit to being sometimes irrational in my criticism. For example, I recently read a novel where the author insisted on making an English lady wear a hennin of a type only worn by extreme followers of Burgundian fashion. And although I really couldn’t find much else wrong historically, that little detail bugged me, because it was a bit like having Maggie Thatcher dressed as a punk rocker. It was really quite trivial I suppose, and given the author had got most important things right, I should have let it pass. But sometimes this ultra pedant comes out in me. I don’t know what to do about it, I think it’s probably some kind of syndrome.

    • anevillfeast says:

      I do understand, Brian, but because I’m fashion-blind such things would pass me by without a breath of wind. I say I understand because that’s how I get with language. Universal translators dealing with totally unknown alien languages? Give me a break!

  2. I find that I have different expectations of different authors, depending on perception etc. However, the potatoes tend to just make me giggle (before proceeding through the rest of the book with caution). It’s just so easy to make a small slip like that (and without realising until it is too late), that enjoyment of many books could be lost if we all got hung up about it. Great post, btw!

    • anevillfeast says:

      Thanks, Hannah. It just made me chuckle that three blogs recently all brought up the potato example. I mean, it’s a good one which is, I guess, why they all did. I just loved the synchronicity of it.

    • Esther says:

      I agree with you in having different expectations, not only of different authors, but also of different types of historical fiction. I really get annoyed when I find small slips in works by writers who hold themselves out as historians or claim other expertise in the subject about which they are writing. I am also much more tolerant of errors where the “load” of the story is carried by fictional characters, as is common in “historical whodunnits” than when real people are involved (Ellis Peters’s “Brother Cadfael” series is a sterling example of the first type; Karen Harper’s series where Elizabeth I solves mysteries is a bit much, IMO).

  3. Susan Higginbotham says:

    I agree, for the same reasons. Food errors and fashion errors don’t bother me overly (except if they really start to multiply, as in one novel I read set in Edward II’s reign that had everyone dressed in the height of Tudor fashion). I can usually groan and move on. In addition to tubers, tea seems to be the downfall of many novelists–I guess they assume that if it’s England, everyone has to be drinking tea, even in medieval and Tudor England!

    My favorite blooper of this type, however, is in a nonfiction book that had Jane Grey being taught to waltz and being made to wear jockey silks.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Oh, waltzing, such fun! I must admit, one of the first HF novels I ever read (I was young and knew nothing, please forgive me!), set in the 15th century, I pictured all the dancers waltzing. I’ve learned a bit since then!

  4. Great article, Karen. As you know, I’m of the ‘IT’S FICTION’ group, but I think unless you’re very (very) good, you still have to get the facts as right as you can. There’s an author’s note by Patrick O’Brian where (I’m sure you know) he begins: ‘Great men can afford anachronism, and indeed it is rather agreeable to find Criseyde reading the lives of the saints or Hamlet going to school at Wittenberg; but perhaps the ordinary writer should not take many liberties with the past. If he does, he sacrifices both authenticity and the willing suspension of disbelief, and he is sure to receive letters from those with a greater love of precision than himself.’ That pretty much nails it for me. When I’m shouting ‘IT’S FICTION’ I’m saying that fiction follows different rules than history, and I’d judge a novel more on the fictional rules than the history rules (drama, character, dialogue, plot et al) – not that fiction gives you the excuse to get stuff wrong. I still find (for example) Conn Iggulden’s Rome series marred for me despite the excellent story telling because he scrambles the history (and mentions it in his notes). I think I shouldn’t mind (and he hasn’t got it wrong: it’s intentional), but I do. My personal hobby-horse with accuracy btw is not the verisimilitudes (seed pearls et al) or scrambled history (undocumented infidelities et al., or people who fight battles when they’re already dead) that particularly bother me, it’s mis-imagined mindsets. I dislike all the secularists you find in hf, the feminists, the socialists, the Freudians, the rationalists etc. Fine, of course, in their correct historical contexts, but so often lazily (or crowd-pleasingly) imagined way out of context. Thanks for the article!

    • anevillfeast says:

      Thanks, Richard. I do tend to find the IT’S FICTION! cry tends to follow a mention of some inaccuracy or other. I’ve always understood it to mean what you do, the drama and stuff. And while I know pretty much as much as I can about the people in my current wip (though there is a chunk of material held at Cambridge I can’t get my hands on that would round that out), there are huge gaps, tantalising glimpses of something started where I can’t find a resolution, or if there is one, just when it was resolved. Two examples are the ransom money owing to Robert Willoughby’s widow that may or may not have been drawn to her second husband’s attention and may or may not have been paid, in part or in full. I either have to leave it out or find some logical and plausible resolution for that. IAnd as Maud is stony broke at the start of my story, it’s a rather lovely thought, giving her all that lovely money!) The second is the return of her dower lands, illegally taken from her in 1453 and returned some time before 1459. I have no idea exactly when! But as her second husband styles himself ‘of Erseby’ in 1459, I have to find a way to resolve that as well. There were a lot of strong women in the time I’m writing about who did things that were outside the normal range of female activity, but they do them because they have to, not because they’re trailblazing feminists, so yes, that misunderstanding bugs me as well.

  5. I don’t think any 21st century writer can entirely exclude modern attitudes from their work because so many of those attitudes are unconscious. However I try, I cannot think like a medieval person. I can of course use real life examples and say, ‘Well look, Lady so-and-so said something along these lines in Paston Letter 342 (or whatever)’ but that’s as near as it gets. Of course one *ought* to try to exclude concepts like feminism and socialism from a medieval novel, but some of the aspects that flow from post-Enlightenment philosopy are so ingrained in our minds that I doubt we can ever be completely successful in this aim.

    Secondly, there is that little thing called reader expectation. For example, modern readers (especially women I suspect) don’t generally care for passive and submissive heroines. Yes, there were powerful and even scary medieval women, including some in the middle-class, but there’s quite a skill in writing someone like this and at the same time not turning her into a proto-feminist. Personally I think the works of Christine de Pizan are a big help here as she draws the lines beautifully. More generally, many of the attitudes our ancestors held are not always palatable today, whether it’s bloodsports or the prevailing view of war or religion. If you are trying to write a sympathetic character it’s not going to be popular with most readers if you show them (for example) enjoying a good bull-baiting or denouncing Jews as agents of the Devil. Hence the temptation some writers yield to when they show a hero/heroine who is a vegetarian or one who has incredibly tolerant religious opinions.

    Finally, all authors make mistakes. No one can be a complete expert on all the many aspects of a particular period of history. Even experts in these specialised fields (say archery or falconry) do not always agree with one another. I once wrote about the attachment of a lady’s sleeve using the best sources I could find – I have now been told that quite recently experts have come to the conclusion that another method was used. Does it matter? Maybe not, but it made me tear my hair out!

    • anevillfeast says:

      Well said, Brian! I put an utterance into one of my male character’s mouths that had me shuddering for the rest of the day, but I’m pretty sure it gels with the prevailing view of a woman’s (even a queen’s) place. When the countess of Salisbury sets about preparing to defend her home in her husband’s absence, I’ve tried to create an atmosphere where people listen to her because she is the current authority without having her humph around being bitter that, as soon as her man comes home, she’ll be back in the solar. In fact, that prospect is more than a little appealing to her. She’ll do it if she has to, and people will take her orders if they have to, because what on earth will he say if he comes home to a pile of smoking ruins? She’s no ‘plucky heroine’ though, no proto-feminist, just a woman who gets on with things that need to be got on with.

  6. Marina says:

    Funny, I never noticed potatoes. Perhaps I just didn’t know to look for them.
    I wouldn’t stop reading a good book over tiny stuff, but big things, like awful characterisations and a Mary Sue-ness of the main character will turn me off a book in a moment.
    What does bother me, details-wise, is guns and handguns and the use of “seconds” where clock haven’t been invented yet.

    • anevillfeast says:

      I think there’s something that even the most dismissive of details people fumes about. With me, it’s language. Languages being called the wrong names in the wrong times, people who really would have been bilingual ‘translating’ things in their heads. Anachronistic words don’t bother me too much – though I think I’d blink at ‘ok’ or ‘dude’ – because all HF is in translation. I wasn’t the first to say this, by the way, I heard that phrase first from Brian Wainwright. But he’s spot on.

  7. Elizabeth says:

    Great article and I have also enjoyed reading the responses. I tend to have a foot in each camp at one point or another – perhaps it is a bit of a character flaw that I just cannot stick one way. I find the more historical non-fictions and biographies that I read, I get a bit more touchy on particular things and the ‘It’s fiction’ idea takes a back seat. Medical practices and clothing seem to be my pet peeves, but also what Brian mentioned about post-Enlightenment ideas creeping their way into earlier generations and civilizations tends to make me cringe.
    Anyhow, really enjoyed this post.

  8. Philippa says:

    I enjoyed reading Virgin Widow by Anne O’Brien so when I discovered The King’s Concubine I bought that too. The subject of first book is Anne Neville whilst Alice Perrers is the subject of the second. Both books open with the heroine aged 14 rising 15 but the differences between the two stories show why this discussion is about more than potatoes.

    Virgin Widow opens in April 1469 in a boat off Calais with Anne assisting her sister Isabel in labour.
    That event is documented and it contributes to a small but nevertheless readily accessible corpus of information about Anne’s life. It is reasonable to assume that any author writing good historical fiction will have researched that information and will incorporate those known facts into the novel.

    The writer of a story about Alice does not have the same factual base to draw upon and so I am prepared to accept a greater measure of literary licence. The King’s Concubine opens with Alice as a 14 year old orphan and noviciate at Barking Abbey; what is known about her adult life means she was born in the late 1340s and so her family could have died in the Black Death resulting in her being placed in the care of the nuns as she is in the book. During the fictional meeting with Queen Philippa the Queen says she is 48 which then puts the story in 1462 which agrees with Alice being about 14 and with Alice being Edward’s mistress during the later years of the Queen’s life. Alice is back at Barking after the death of her elderly husband who has just died of Plague, the Medieval Combat Society website confirms there was an outbreak of plague in London in 1461-2. All three examples show that where Anne O’Brien can base her story around known facts she has done so and this adds a greater measure of authenticity to those parts of her novel that have to be purely fictional. That, for me , is what makes a good work of historical fiction – an author who can be accurate where the facts are known and plausible when they are not.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Philippa, I think your final sentence here hits the nail squarely on the head! “an author who can be accurate where the facts are known and plausible when they are not.” Very well put! There are certainly parts of Thomas & Maud where ‘plausible’ has had to come into play.

      I haven’t read Virgin Widow yet (and I won’t read that or any other WoR fiction while I’m writing), but it’s on my list.

      Your correction of dates (I’m forever doing this!) is noted and appreciated.

  9. Philippa says:

    My apologies to Anne O’Brien and The Medieval Combat Society, I should of course have dated the outbreak of the Plague as 1361-2.

  10. Philippa says:

    Thanks for that, it was also very charitable of you – and anyone else who may have noticed – to overlook the fact that in my enthusiasm to prove Brian’s point about dropping clangers I made Queen Philippa aged 148. (oops.)

    I’ve been following the posts about Maud Stanhope with keen interest and I like the way that the foundations for the story are built upon what is known about Maud. May I suggest that you don’t omit those two events where you cannot prove what took place but devise sensible but plausible explanations of your own. If the only records that can prove it are held in the archives of one of the Colleges of the University of Cambridge I think you are reasonably safe to assume that you won’t be inundated on this blog by people rushing to declare that you are factually wrong.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Philippa, finding plausible explanations for those two events is just what I’ve done. They’re both far too good and far too important to leave out! The unfolding of Maud’s story has been quite n adventure for me. The work of Dr Rhoda Friedrichs, who has had access to the Magdalen Miscellany, has been invaluable in this. Apart from that, the mentions of Maud (and Thomas for that matter) in secondary sources are scant and sketchy. If I was the praying kind, Dr Friedrichs’s name would come up a lot!

  11. Gillian Laughton says:

    Potatoes are an obvious give away as to the amount of research that has gone into a work. The one that really struck me however, was a novel set the Richard III’s time that has its working class heroine sitting down to cups of tea. I only finished it to see which way the writer would jump about Richard III.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Oh yes, Gillian, nothing a nice cup of tea!
      I’ve started to put together a ‘to do’ list just in case of unexpected time travel:
      Things to do if my 15th century hero is transported to the 21st century: 1. Explain potatoes.
      Things to do if I am transported back to the 15th century: 1. Express astonishment at the lack of potatoes.

  12. jayne62 says:

    I like HF books and tend only to notice the mistakes in the history that i know. Don’t mind if a date is slightly moved by a couple of days if the author tells us they moved it and why. If the athor admits to making mistakes then thats fine, but have to agree with most of the other comments made by you and the other readers

    • anevillfeast says:

      Thanks, Jayne. Not sure what justification a writer could make for moving a known date that might convince me it’s ok. And mistakes – we all make them and most can be forgiven.

      • mmgilchrist says:

        I had a brief correspondence with Graham Shelby over his turning Conrad of Montferrat into a sexual sadist and poisoner… for which there is no evidence whatsoever.

  13. anevillfeast says:

    Then there’s the writer who, with no evidence whatsoever, turned Morton into a altar boy defiler; Hastings into a rapist and murderer; and various other people into various other nasty things.

  14. J Holdstock says:

    Loving this. For the reason that it’s non specific. It’s as non specific as I get when describing which things bother me and which don’t. When someone says ‘there are less people’, no there are fewer but does it really matter?
    Kindred spirits.

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