The Historical Novel Society e-mail list has been having another discussion on "historical accuracy" in fiction. It was generated by an article in Publisher's Weekly about an insistence -- mostly in some recent films, for "authenticity", and an insistence by some viewers(of film) and some readers, on "absolutes" in "authenticity". I can understand that many people who see a historical film or read a piece of historical fiction, want to have some idea about the times the stories being told. But the author of the Publisher's Weekly article seemed to think, as, to some extent, I do, that "story" was being sacrificed to "detail". This is tricky. Some authors can do this kind of thing very well, without sacrificing "story" at all. But usually being bogged down in too much "detail" will turn a reader off(it's more problematic in films, which was one reason why some people who know the period, roundly criticized the film Kingdom of Heaven a few years back. On the other hand, even if you don't know very much about the Third Crusade -- and I don't -- it sounded like an awful film just in terms of things like acting and storyline. But that's another problem. I'm talking about writing here. The discussion at the Historical Novel Society e-mail list devolved into a discussion of how much period detail certain authors put into their books. One author proudly asserted that they were so detail-oriented, that they were trying to find the brand name of some type of accordion that was manufactured in the early 20th century. What????? Would most readers of this story even care? This seems to follow a trend found in certain fiction set in contemporary times, where the personalities of certain types of characters, especially if they are supposed to be monied and "refined"(whether they are or not), are associated with the brand names of certain products(e.g. Rolex watches, certain brands of whiskey, etc., etc.). I don't know why the authors of these books(usually thrillers or mysteries) are so fascinated by these brand names, but naming the brands sometimes just annoys me. I"m reading one such book right now. It's otherwise quite good, and I'll have to admit the brand names do add a certain "color" to the story being told.
However, I think in historical fiction(or fiction of whatever genre, that uses a historical setting), this may be problematic. In the first place, many readers may not even care about such fine detail, and won't even recall it if asked. In the second place, if you go back far enough, you won't even find this kind of "branding"; it's a concept that took hold, basically within the last 150 years. So if you're writing a novel set in ancient Greece, you're going to be out of luck, although if you're really interested in such fine detail, there is such an abundant literature, and so many sources, on ancient Greece, that you can certainly put in a lot of fine detail if that's what you desire to do.
My own feeling on this is, that this kind of attention to historical detail may be more about what the author wants, than what the reader is interested. in. In other words, if an author is obsessed with learning all he or she can about a particular historical period, then every little detail will be important to them. Sometimes this is good. The trick, however, is to know where and when to stop. Some kinds of details can be hinted at or implied. In my own Invaders trilogy, the action really starts in a place called Boxgrove. This Boxgrove is a real place, and existed at the time I'm writing about, but the significance of Boxgrove has more to do with early human history, at least in England, than any "historical" significance. Yet it establishes certain things about the characters and their associations. One of the characters mentions, in passing, that "archaic" humans once lived there. This helps establish their own history, and also allows three of the important characters to meet(they end up going elsewhere, however). This is an important detail. Lovingly describing the style of a local church, for example, probably is not, though it might be if you were writing something about cathedral-building.
Still, I'm not sure that describing the brand of accordion somebody plays is necessarily the kind, or amount, of detail one would want to go into, even for a novel set somewhere, in the early part of the 20th century. It just seems, well, kind of obsessive-compulsive to me.
On the other hand, there seem to be basically two camps of historical novel readers(and writers). On the one hand, there are those who insist on as much "detail"(including things like the brand names of accordions), as possible, for the sake of authenticity. These people tend to feel, although they might not put it this way, that accuracy almost trumps story, and that somehow, you must be "100% accurate" in telling your story, otherwise, you, the critic, will not read or believe it. I am not talking here about obvious, egregious mistakes. I'm talking about how "story" fits with "history" when telling a tale. Some authors and readers insist on "no deviations whatever". All I can say is, some rule that says "to write historical fiction, you must be 100 % true to the period and 100% accurate") "whatever "being true to the period" might mean), is as deadly to an aspiring writer, as the advice "write what you know", without qualifications, can be to many aspiring writers. Because being "100% accurate" is an impossibility. This is true even in periods when there is abundant source material. It simply cannot be done, though it is quite possible to give an accurate flavor of any period, and at the same time put in some interesting, colorful, and accurate detail(but don't overwhelm the reader with it.
The other side says, and I generally agree, that "story" comes first. Because you can't have a historical novel or any other kind of novel, without "story". This is what readers care about, even if they are very interested in a particular historical period and want to read everything written about it. They will still be looking for a story. If it's not there, they might as well read a nonfictional history. However, this does not mean that a writer who is writing something set in a historical period should allow themselves to be careless, or not do any but the most superficial of research. In this sense, accuracy is very, very important. But a good writer knows, or learns, just how much detail to put in, and how much to simply imply. As for "being true to the period", I'm often puzzled by what this is supposed to mean. It assumes there would have been "a" mindset in the past that was universal for that place and time, and anyone who thinks about this, knows this is simply not the case. Again, this doesn't mean that people need to be presented as thinking "just like us" in some historical period, because people didn't. Something like same sex marriage, for example, would have been simply unthinkable 100 years ago. It wasn't even entirely "thinkable" ten years ago! So it wouldn't do to have some happily married gay couple in the 19th century, although there were men who lived with men and women who lived with women, and probably people "knew" what they were in some sense. They could get away with it as long as "they didn't do it in public and it didn't scare the horses", so to speak. There are plenty of other examples like this, but there are also examples of things some historical novelists insist people didn't do at a particular period, which is one reason I'm so leery about people pontificating about "mindsets" or "being true to the period".
In short, I think there are a lot of writers(and readers) who are attracted to historical fiction because they are very "detail oriented" in certain ways. This is fine, and can be a very, very good thing, in the hands of writers who know what they are doing, and where to stop. In other hands, it can become an "obsessive-compulsive" nightmare, and may turn off the very readers, or potential writers, that it's supposed to attract.