I’m a history geek, have been for as long as I can remember. I think it must’ve started with my mother introducing me to the Little House series. Or maybe it was all those family vacations to museums and historical sites around the country. Whatever the cause, the past is my most lasting passion. I read histories and biographies for pleasure. (The photos in this post are some of the shelves of my personal research collection.) I’ve toyed with the notion of going back to school for an MA or even a PhD in history. Whenever I see reenactors, I think, “That looks like so much fun! I’ve GOT to find the time and money to try that someday.”
So it should come as no surprise that in the great debate over the importance of accuracy in historical romance, I come down on the side that favors more rather than less. As Kalen Hughes put it on History Hoydens last year, I think of myself as an author of HISTORICAL romance rather than historical ROMANCE. And while I’ll make the occasional exception for an unusually well-written but inaccurate book, in general that’s what I look for as a reader too.
This is a big and often controversial topic, and I may blog about some of its nuances in the future. But for now I’ll say that in my observation my kind of historical readers are looking for a sort of mental time travel. Since Doctor Who is unlikely to show up with the TARDIS to take them to, say, 1815, a well-researched and compellingly written novel set at Waterloo is the next best thing. Other readers, however, are looking for more of a timeless and glamorous Not-Now. They might not care one way or the other how accurate a romance’s historical background is, or they might actively prefer a less accurate story that meshes better with their own fantasies or sense of what’s romantic.
Until recently, I didn’t understand the second group of readers. I did my best not to judge them, because I don’t believe in doing that. When it comes to books, your pleasure is your pleasure. If a story makes you happy, for you it’s a good book. Period. But I still wanted to take those readers and say, “But don’t you care about history? What could be more awesome than history? Try it. You’ll like it.”
Then I became a fan of the TV show Castle. I started watching for Nathan Fillion but stayed for the appealing characters, the witty banter, the sexual tension, and the overall sense that everyone who makes the show--actors, writers, what have you--is just plain enjoying the telling of a fun story.
The thing is, though? As a cop drama, Castle isn’t even remotely accurate. In fact, Lee Lofland of The Graveyard Shift reviews each episode partly to point out everything the show gets wrong so writers won’t repeat the same mistakes in their own works.
And I don’t CARE that Castle isn’t accurate about police procedure. That’s not what I watch it for. If you pointed me toward another show and said, “You should watch this one instead. It’s better because it’s more accurate,” I would say, “I don’t WANT more accurate. I want the fantasy of a mystery writer hanging around cops and helping solve murders, which is kind of like my own fantasy of going back in time to research my books and hang out with cool dead people, only marginally less impossible. And I want to know what’s going to happen next with Castle and Beckett. Leave me alone and let me enjoy what I enjoy.”
Now, I’m not always the most self-aware person on the planet. But I couldn’t help realizing I’d taken the exact opposite side of the accuracy debate on Castle that I take on historical romance...and that’s OK. I’m allowed to be passionate about history and how it’s represented in fiction, while not particularly caring how my favorite cop show measures up to real police procedures. And someone else has every right to care about getting police procedures right, while having no especial interest in whether the romance novel they’re reading accurately reflects the mores of its time period. Neither of us are wrong. We just have different passions. And it’s a good thing we live in a world with enough variety in storytelling to satisfy us all.
Mind you, I do still think history is worth knowing for its own sake, and I reserve the right to be appalled when I see it botched, especially outside of fiction when someone is spouting bad history out of ignorance or in order to willfully mislead others. But that’s mostly a separate issue.
What about you? What has to be right for you to enjoy a story? And what stories do you enjoy despite or even because of their inaccuracies?
Susanna Fraser writes Regency romance with a focus on the Napoleonic Wars. The Sergeant's Ladyand A Marriage of Inconvenience are available now from Carina Press.