Over the past few days, more debates on the "accuracy" problem have come up on various venues that deal with certain kinds of fiction, mainly historical fiction. One aspect of this debate has been blogged on here and has inspired a number of comments, including one from Yours Truly. Another, on Susan Higginbotham's blog, deals with word usage in historical novels. There seems to be a rather sharp division of opinion about how much "accuracy" should be in novels with a historical theme. On the one hand, the husband of one of the bloggers, takes the position that "it's a novel", and therefore, the "accuracy" issue isn't as important to him as "a good story". On the other end, there are extremists who insist that the writer must get every detail "absolutely right. I'm somewhere in the middle, I guess. For me, "story comes first", especially in situations where, as in the time period I'm writing about, there is little information on some of the historical characters that appear in my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece, and in some cases,no one really knows what happened to them. On the other hand, I try to be as accurate about what is known about them as I can, getting them in the right places at the right times, as far as is known. And especially since I am not, and probably never will be, writing biographical fiction, I do feel I can "invent" certain things, either when little is known about a real person, or when I have my fictional characters react to a real situation. Since some of them have "crash landed" but are on a mission from a nearby planet in the galaxy(and they look an act perfectly human, though they aren't exactly "modern" humans), they can and do have attitudes that are not of that time and place, though they try to adjust their actions to the realities of that time and place. What I don't do, insofar as I can avoid it, is have the people who were born and raised in that era, act like "modern" people of the 21st century. Their motivations and thoughts are quite different, in some ways, from ours. This, I think, is a reasonable approach to historical fiction(or, in my case, a "hybrid" that hopefully will appeal to those who like science fiction and those who like historical fiction as well). I don't think it's a reasonable approach to insist on "absolute accuracy" in situations where many of the characters, particularly the main ones, are inventions. It's also one of the reasons why I'm not writing biographical fiction; I've seen the efforts of some writers who are trying to write this kind of fiction, and the results are, well,episodic. But again, for me, "story comes first". But also, this is not an excuse for a writer not to do his or her research -- and BTW, this applies not just to historical fiction, but all fiction that has a "background" or "theme" of some kind.
Let me give an example of what I mean here. I'm currently reading the mystery novelist Nevada Barr's Winter Study. It takes place on Isle Royale National Park in winter, naturally. Ms. Barr makes the conditions under which this ongoing study takes place abundantly clear. The team studies the conditions under which the famous wolves that live in that park, and their prey, the abundant moose,exist in winter. No visitors are allowed in the park after October(it's frightfully cold there in the wintertime (but wolves and moose have fur coats, at least). It's just the researchers, the wolves, the moose, and whatever other critters live there in the wintertime. She also mentions that this study has been going on for 50 years, and lots of people follow the ups and downs of the wolf and moose population. She also mentions the canid specialist Rolf Peterson, and the "granddaddy" of this ongoing study, David Mech. These are all real people, the study is real -- they even have a website(try Googling for Isle Royale National Park some time, and you will probably come across it. And Rolf Peterson wrote an Introduction to the book, which I will be reviewing when I finish reading it.
Ms. Barr has quite clearly "done her homework", and it shows. She also knows a good deal about how the National Park System works, and what she knows, figures into her mysteries, which make them very, very interesting, especially for me, because as I've mentioned elsewhere, I'm "into" wolves, and, by extension, "natural history" and environmental studies. Though her situations are fictional, the background is quite real, and fairly easily verified.
The same is true when writing historical fiction(or,for that matter, science fiction based on speculations derived from the study of molecular genetics, as the sci-fi writer Greg Bear has done). It is imperative to get the basics right; if you don't, somebody will notice, and complain! Writers who don't get the basics right, often end up with glaring anachronisms or mistakes; I once read a very shoddily-researched romance(among other things, the names were all wrong for the period) that put a real historical person in the wrong part of England! Ugh. But that kind of egregious error is probably partly what prompted me to start writing this Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece in the first place(plus making Neandertals respectable).
On the other hand, some people can and do go way off the deep end, in the other direction. I think I've mentioned elsewhere, that Sharon Kay Penman, good writer that she is, has a tendency to "write forsoothly", which often makes me grind my teeth, because,at least for me, "forsoothly" language is just too distracting. Which brings me to the subject of Susan Higginbotham's blog -- language use. She, herself, prefers modern language, because she notes, quite correctly in my opinion, that use of some words and phrases commonly used in the time she's writing about, would be quite confusing to a modern reader. One example she gives, is a historical character referring to his "mother-in-law". "Mother-in-law" is clear enough to a modern reader; the trouble is, this term was used for stepmothers(and presumably stepfathers) in the 15th century. So she has this historical character refer to his "stepmother" rather than his "mother-in-law". She also mentions that she feels silly using words like "certes", which is something Ms. Penman does all the time. In this case, it would make absolutely no difference for Ms. Penman to have her characters(even if they're talking in Old French or Middle English, to just say "certainly", or "for certain", as the situation demands. There are plenty of other ways to suggest the time period(e.g. referring to certain kinds of armor as "hauberks"), or describing something about the living conditions. She actually does a lot of this, and quite well, and I think that's enough. But she, along with some other writers of historical fiction, tends to be what Nan Hawthorne refers to as an "accuracy nerd", and to me, at least, this is silly.
For me, the bottom line is: strive for overall accuracy in at least the basics(timeline, organization of national parks, molecular genetic studies, etc), and, if you're writing historical fiction, be sure your characters are in the right place at the right time, and are in the proper relationship to one another(yes, I've seen a lot of egregious mistakes here, too). Get the details right as best you can, and do your research! Beyond that, again, at least for me, "story comes first"; write the best way you know how. Don't strive for a "style" , but write clearly and interestingly. If you can do this, there is no guarantee that you'll get published, but at least you have the satisfaction of knowing that you gave the best shot to your effort.