Redheaded Neanderlady

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

Friday, March 20, 2009

It all depends on what you're writing. . . .

There's been another round of discussion(or should I say, argument) regarding the whole question of "historical accuracy". I've discussed this elsewhere on several occasions, so I won't go into excruciating detail here.  However, there seems to be a division of opinion about whether "story" is primary, or "accuracy". If you're writing something that takes place in historical time,then you do have to be true to the period you're writing about. In other words, unless you're writing "alternate history" type fiction(and that's basically a kind of fantasy anyway), you can't have people zipping around in flying saucers in the time of Good Queen Bess.  But the discussion then devolved into how primary "story" is.  And if "story" is primary, can you alter facts slightly, in order to make a better story?  I think the majority of people(some of whom are writers), came down on the side of "story", with some vociferous objections on the part of people who "demand" a great deal of accuracy.  This is fine and dandy; if you're doing historical novels and you want to get it "right", you had better be prepared to do something more than superficial research. 


One writer claimed you could actually do both.  You probably can -- if you're someone like Dorothy Dunnett. For the record,the author I'm referring to, who is quite successful in her niche, admires Dorothy Dunnett, as do a lot of other historical fiction fans.  For the record, I'm not one of them, but now I think I know, at least in part, why she writes what to me, are such excessively detailed and "talky" stuff.  She was also a portrait painter, which may have given her an eye for a lot of detail, and many readers obviously like this, but to me, it was just a little too much(plus the fact that she often used obscure words that made a lot of people rush to the nearest dictionary).  This is, perhaps, a matter of taste, especially as she's not writing fictional biographies, as her writing admirer does.


If one is writing fictional biographies, one had better know a lot about the person one is writing about.  The aforementioned writer does meticulous research.  I've seen some of it. Furthermore, she has access to material that I can't possibly get.  The same woman does a number of things that I think probably influence her view of the whole "accuracy" discussion, for she thinks you can have both "story" and accuracy. 


But what if you're not writing fictional biography?  There were people on this same list, who absolutely insisted you have to be totally "accurate",no matter what, no exceptions allowed.  One person even  sounded as if they "worshiped" research!  I had to remind this particular person that research for historical fiction is a tool, not an end in itself.  I don't know how the person took that; they never replied, as far as I could tell.


As  the Gentle Blog Reader probably will guess, I come down pretty much on the side of "story".  After all, as someone else pointed out, it's fiction,after all.  You're not writing a history book.  I realize that this reply can also be,or seem like, an excuse to do "anything".  Again, for the record, while I consider the Invaders trilogy to be science fiction, it is set in a particular slice of medieval England, and I feel, based on what I've read about this period and how people operated in it, to be as true to that particular period as I can, given the fact that I don't have all the source material I'd like, and given the fact that there are plenty of gaps in my knowledge. It took me a long time to even start writing this trilogy, for precisely that reason.  I spent that time gathering information, which I continue to turn to, before I even dared start putting words into the computer.


if you're writing a novel set in historical time,whether it's a mystery, science fiction,or something else,  what you know about your period is important. Sloppy "research" will show.  I've seen it. But if it's not fictional biography, do you have to "count rivets" as I have discovered some readers of historical fiction seem to like to do?  Some of these readers, especially those who are "in love with" or "know"a period very well, will essentially throw a book at the wall, if it has the slightest "inaccuracy" in their view. They also tend not to like Authors' Notes as explanations as to why some of these inaccuracies are in the book. I, on the contrary, find these perfectly acceptable. After all, the author has taken the time to explain what s/he is up to.


In the end, however, as still another person(a writer) pointed out, agents and editors will often point out where things can be "fudged" or at least "fused" to make a better story -- a story readers actually want to read. If you're too busy "rivet counting", my feeling is,you can't really do this properly, despite the fictional biography writer's assertion that you can. For myself, therefore, I will wrap "history" around "story", while striving to be as accurate in my writing as I can. I think this is about all any writer can do, especially with a project like mine, which started out simple and got very complicated, very fast,once I really started plunging into the research.  But that is another  story, for another time.

Anne G


Anita Davison said...


I agree with you that sloppy research shows, but there is a limit to how much detail is required for a fictional story as opposed to an academic textbook. However, if an author doesn't keep the characters 'in their time' it can spoil the story as those who read historical fiction do so because they like history and often know something about it.
Then again, Phillipa Gregory doesn't let a few invented scenarios spoil her stories!!

Anne Gilbert said...


I'm not disagreeing with you on this, since there are indeed plenty of readers who know a historical period well and like to read about it. OTOH, there are also plenty of readers out there who just find the story or the character "interesting" on some level, but may or may not be interested in the "history" part of it. I feel this way about Tudor-era books I've read: if the theme is interesting, I'll read it, assuming it's well-written and has a premise that seems reasonable on some level. I'm a lot more "critical" -- at least up to a point -- about things that take place in the medieval era. I generally try to check up on those. I should add, for the record, that my own writing is a kind of "hybrid" of science fiction and history; I try to keep "historical" characters "in their time" as best I can, but part of the conflict in the story has to do with the struggles of the "science fiction" characters to adjust themselves to the social situation they find themselves in, so it makes for some interesting situations that might not please some people I've come to describe as "rivet counters". But as writers, we're all operating from our own perspectives and the needs of whatever story we're writing.
Anne G