Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Monday, January 12, 2009

Obsessive veracity v. storytelling in historical-themed fiction


An interesting discussion has been going on among subscribers to the Historical Novel Society e-mail list .  Its about historical veracity.  I’ve written about this here, here, and here.  I’m not going to repeat what I’ve said in these posts; those who wish to read and link to the above-mentioned posts,will find my feelings quite clear.  What I find interesting to observe is, that there seem to be two camps among readers of historical fiction, and very few, like me,stand with a foot in both of them.  One camp, as one reader/writer put it, though not in exactly these words, likes a good story, with decent historical accuracy, but in which the story and its characters are the most important element, not the “history”.  If they want “history”, these folks will just get a history out of the library or buy one at  The other camp is larger, or at least more vocal:  these readers/writers insist that all detail be completely accurate, that the plotline follows the “history” exactly, and, in some cases, there should be no “afterward” explaining how the author “bent” the history for the sake of the story. 


I’m not going to make a judgment here.  To each his or her own.  At the extremes of each camp, there are writers who do things that essentially totally turn me off.  I’ve read all too many romance “writers”, who just set their novels in some historical period, yet had their heroines acting like “modern” woman.  Even allowing for the fact that, in every historical period, there are as many “takes” on whatever society you’re living in, as the people living in it, the writer has to understand that there are always certain limitations.  Suppose, 100 years from now, somebody decides to write a novel set in 1950’s suburbia.  And let us further suppose that this writer has people watching digital color TV, listening to the radio in stereo, and sending e-mail on computers. Anybody living 100 years from now, who read such stuff(probably on some future version of Kindle or the like), who knows about that time, will see the egregious mistakes and, if they’re smart, end up throwing said book at the wall(or at least deleting it from their files and cursing the money they spent getting it in the first place).  More subtle mistakes would be having the wife just up and leaving her stupid husband(if he is stupid, that is), and ending up as the top executive of some multinational company.  Heck, even today, there’s a “glass ceiling”, despite the fact that Hillary Clinton ran for President of the United States, and similar “ceilings” exist, to greater or lesser degrees, elsewhere.  It is easy to see why, therefore, some readers and writers get turned off by this kind of thing. I certainly did. That’s one reason I don’t read many romances any more.


But there is an opposite side of the coin.  My sense of the “veracity” issue is, that a lot of people who read historical fiction, really want “history” in a fairly easily digested form.  This is fine, if that’s what they want.  The trouble is, I haven’t seen it – yet – done in a manner that completely engages me – sweeps me away, turning page after page, wholly invested in the characters, with perhaps one or two exceptions, which I’ll discuss in another blog.  The writers at this “obsessively accurate” end of the spectrum often have many fans, and some of them write what is essentially fictionalized biography, which I have also discussed elsewhere.  But I don’t want to read fictional biography!  If I want that, I’ll just go to the library and check out a book on that historical figure.  On the other hand, a lot of people obviously do, otherwise, there wouldn’t be a plethora of “Tudor themed” books out on the market and in library shelves. Nor do I want to read some book that is as obsessively detailed as the writings of Dorothy Dunnett(I will discuss her more in another blog entry).  I have, in fact, read some of the writings of this author, and have found a lot of this detail just exhaustively offputting, at least to me.  She has legions of fans, however.  My feeling is, this amount of “veracity” and “detail” is simply just too much.


However, I think I see something going on here.  Historical novels are just as much a genre as, say, mysteries or science fiction, and all genres have basic rules and formulas. Historical fiction seems to have such rules, too, but they haven’t, in my opinion,  at least, until recently, been overtly articulated.  I believe that the “obsessive veracity” crowd is actually trying to articulate such “rules”, just as people who read and write the romance genre have begun to do, and they’re pretty clear for romance fans.  Violate some of them(e.g. have a “downer” ending to a romance novel), and you are likely to alienate a good portion of the readership of any particular gen, re.  Obviously, as the genre matures, more flexibility comes into play, but the modern historical novel, at least the more recent ones, have only just begun to articulate the “rules”, let alone allow for flexibility within them.  So the “veracity freaks”, again in my opinion, are actually doing this genre a favor; they are attempting, for better or worse, to lay out what the “rules” for writing such novels actually are.  That there is debate about how “rigid” these rules ought to be is, in fact, a good sign, because it suggests there is a wider variety of readership out there for good writing and well-crafter, well-researched work.  This can allow for the tastes of those for whom “story” comes first, while accommodating those who prefer their fiction about the past, to be as accurate as the writer can make it.


I will be writing more on this, and other related subjects somewhat later,

Anne G

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