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…