Nan Hawthorne has again brought up the problem of how "accurate" a historical novel must be, in order to be called a historical novel. It's an interesting question. She gives several examples, all of which she has read of novels that "change" historical events to greater or lesser degrees.
I want to start this off,though, by sharing several things I've learned: If someone reads a historical novel, and happens to be knowledgeable about the period the author is writing about, the reader is likely to notice even minor inaccuracies, be much more "critical", and in some cases, even reject the novel.
Some readers claim to insist on "absolute accuracy". So do some writers, and this group tends to "prefer" either fictional biographies of the type written by Sharon Kay Penman(who is very good at what she does, BTW, but more details about her in another blog at another time).
A fair number of readers(and again, some writers) seem to like what I call "forsoothly" language to suggest a past time period. One writer I recently read, calls this "gadzooks" language. These readers feel using this kind of "olde tymey" language is more "accurate". Usually this "olde tymey" language isn't anything near whatever the characters spoke in that period, and it's hard to do this well. Most of the time, it's just plain annoying(at least to me), and it's probably better to use modern standard English(or modern standard of whatever language the writer is writing in). By this, I don't mean slangy expressions, just plain standard formal English(or whatever)! It's not as "accurate", but it may be less annoying to many readers. I should mention that one of the few times I've seen this use of "period" language done reasonably well was in the young adult novel Octavian Nothing. But the author was replicating 18th century English, which, after all,is pretty close to our own.
A fair number of writers, mostly of historical romances, fail to do proper research on the time period they're writing about, and this has tended to put historical romances in some disrepute.
Some writers(here Rite of Conquest, by Judith Tarr, comes to mind) take some "legendary" material and try to fit historical characters into this legendary material, giving them characters and motivations that as far as I can tell, they didn't have. In the case of Rite of Conquest, it was um, an interesting read, but it sure wasn't history. To be fair, I found this book in the sci-fi and fantasy section of a local bookstore, and the local libraries counted it as s-f/fantasy. I guess you could call it "alternate history", another subgenre I generally don't like, but it is a genuine subgenre, and many readers like this kind of thing.
For the record, I have my opinions on this. My Invaders trilogy -- I'm finishing the first draft of the last book, and writing the second draft of the first book -- is kind of a "hybrid". It could be called a "historical novel" because I've set it in historical time, and built it around actual historical events. A lot of the characters were real people, including one of the main characters: I've written this person as an "antihero", who wants to marry the principal female character,and who is decidedly fictional. She is a Neandertal from a nearby "refuge" planet, but none of the real or fictional "earthly" characters are aware of this. She and her companions have some, um, unusual abilities,as well. This is pure fantasy, but in the heroine's case, I've tied it to a known medieval legend. I have also introduced scientific and anthropological material, but, I hope, in such a way that the fictional and nonfictional medieval characters are not exactly aware of it. For example, I describe DNA, but I give it another name, and again, the fictional and nonfictional medieval characters aren't exactly aware of it. I try to stay "true" to the actual history, but I am not precisely writing a "historical novel". On the other hand, if someone picks up the book and reads it, my hope is that they will learn something about the period and events of that time, and, if interested, try to find out more. So I try to stay accurate in that sense.
However, I know some writers are not so "accuracy obsessive"; Nan Hawthorne gives an example of a series where the hero of that series somehow is involved in and influences historical events. Is this going too far? Well,I don't know. I suppose it would depend on how the series was written, and for whom.
I've also seen egregious errors like technologies that were not known at particular periods, or sacks of potatoes on Viking ships, or 15th century ladies drinking chocolate. I've seen even worse than that. These authors just aren't thinking or they have become very,very careless in their writing. I must say, however, that most writers trying to write historical novels, or novels of any genre, set in a historical period, at least try to be more careful than this. Again, more on this in another blog.
Finally, there is the whole question of whether or not the characters have the proper attitudes for their historical period. This is really a very tricky question. First of all, historians and historical writers, are writing about the past form their present. The attitudes of the historian's or historical writer's present cannot help but influence their writing, in my opinion. There is absolutely no way anyone can get away from that, though I think it is incumbent on the writer(and here we are talking about historical writers), to try to be as objective as they can, and at least attempt to replicate the attitudes of the time they are writing about. will, once again, offer my own writing effort as an example. Illg(the heroine) does not have a "medieval mindset". She never entirely gets it, though she does adapt in certain ways, as do her "spacefaring" companions. After all, their mission is to influence, but be inconspicuous about it. However, the medievals, as far as I understand, and can get them to do so within the context of the story, have "medieval" mindsets. However, I also bear in mind(as should any historical writer), that there were probably as many mindsets as there were people living in medieval times -- meaning that all people -- even the powerful -- didn't necessarily all "think the same" about any given subject. Some historical novelists are incredibly obsessive about this, insisting that their characters would or wouldn't do things, based on the "mindset" of the period they're writing about. And some book critics jump on the bandwagon. I read a review, a few years ago, of the young people's book Sarah, Plain and Tall, where the critic claimed the heroine would simply not have done some of the things she is shown as doing. Maybe she wouldn't have done these things in 19th century Boston, or even 19th century Seattle(if she was part of the "right" crowd in early Seattle), but on a farm in Iowa? This, to me, is carrying the "mindset" idea way too far.
In the end, I think any historical fiction is going to end up being a blend of fiction and fact. This is true even for fictional biographies, for often there are periods of the subject's life(even if that person is a very well-known historical character), that simply aren't available in the record, for one reason or another. So the author has to invent, often quite a lot. An author of historical fiction can invent, especially things like dialogue, and sometimes situations, and I think it's permissible in such cases, to rearrange minor historical sequences to get a better fictional "flow", or invent something plausible to fill in the gaps. if little is known about the character in question. This, in my opinion, is not "going too far". It is "going too far" to have characters meet who never met(if this is known), as per one of Ms. Hawthorne's examples, and have a grand romance. It is going too far to have characters acting in implausible ways for their time, place, and character. But it is not "going too far", to write an enjoyable piece of fiction that weaves actual historical events into the lives of fictional people. After all, isn't that fiction has always been about?