Monday, June 06, 2011

When I care about accuracy...and when I don't

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.


Tia Nevitt said...

Oh, man ... another friend who watches Castle. Resisting ... no free time to spare ... but it is Monday ...

I'm in the "not now" camp--heck, it's part of my author brand--but I am mostly looking for atmosphere. For that reason, I'm open to ANY timeframe. I love it when an author can capture the atmosphere of another time and place.

HOWEVER, once you snare me with the atmosphere, I'll hit the history books for a closer look. I have three of Will Durant's History of Civilization, covering a span of time from ancient Rome to the Reformation.

So I seem to be a little of both!

Taryn Kincaid said...

I've learned some tidbits of history from novels, and from movies and series such as Poldark and Sharpe, but mainly I'm reading or watching for the entertainment, for the adventure, the love story, not for the history lesson, such as it is. A strictly historical novel is one thing, a romance is something else. Sure, do your research, if you like, but please do not clobber me over the head with it. A dissertation on the Corn Laws sandwiched between the meet and the HEA will not make me a fan, will not tempt me to pick up another book by that author. I've been to school. Quite a lot of school, actually. That is not why I pick up a romance novel. It's for the sparks, the sizzle, the ahhhhhh. It's for the romance!

Wendy Soliman said...

I'm in it for the escapism too. My first book, published by a British house, had a section set in Alexandria, Egypt 200 years ago. I diligently researched the history of the area and produced several pages of dialogue between the h/h showing off my new found knowledge, believing that it added authenticity. My editor told me to cut it. 'This is a novel, Wendy, not a history lesson.' She was right. I hated doing it but cut the passage from six pages to two, which moved the story forward and didn't bore the reader. I've never forgotten that 'lesson' and believe it's stood me in good stead ever since.

Susanna Fraser said...

But see, when I say I want the historical romances I read and write to be historically accurate, I'm not saying I want a history lesson. Done right, I think accuracy enhances the adventure, drama, and conflict of a story by bringing the setting to life.

I mean, if you tell me a book is set in 1815, but it feels like it could be any time between, oh, 1700 and 1900, or if there are glaring errors of fact or the characters act like 2011 people in costume, it spoils the escapism I'm looking for by not letting me mentally time travel to the very specific moment in time that was 1815.

I also don't have a different standard for accuracy between genres. To me, a historical romance is a historical novel whose primary plot is a love story with a happy ending. A historical mystery is a historical novel whose main plot is identifying and bringing to justice a murderer. And so on. Even if it's historical fantasy, if it's actually set in our world (as opposed to a wholly invented fantasy world) but with dragons or our world but the Confederacy won the Civil War, I want to feel like the author really knows the history she's changing.

J.A. Beard said...

Everyone has their tastes, but the thing I find particularly off-putting is just anachronistic thinking. A good chunk of what I find interesting about historical stories (romance or otherwise) is making interesting and engaging characters for modern readers in the context of different social environments.

If they are basically just modern people in period dress, it pulls me out of the period. I'm reminded of an argument I had with someone once. I read a lot of fantasy, and this man insisted that fantasy wasn't worth reading because "If you want to be taken to another place, you should just read historical fiction." I still disagree with the guy's take on fantasy, but I did like the idea that good historical fiction sweeps us away to a world just as different as a pure fantasy story.

On a semi-related note, there's also the issue of people who want accuracy but don't actually truly understand the period and so complain about something being inaccurate because they've formed their knowledge of the period from flawed sources.

I had someone complain once to me about a one- line whist reference in a Regency book insisting "Any sort of proper Georgian women would never play cards. That was considered improper."

I pointed out that Pride and Prejudice has an entire whist chapter in which a clergyman (admittedly a loser one, but a clergyman nonetheless) and several wealthy, respectable people participate) and Jane Austen's personal letters contain several (and sometimes amusingly snarky) whist references.

They said something like, "Well, I've just never seen Regency or Georgian women playing cards in the [modern-written] historicals I've read."

Susanna Fraser said...

J.A., flawed sources of what's accurate can definitely be a challenge. In my latest WIP, I have a hero and heroine who marry hastily as near-strangers (combo of deathbed promise and convenience) and are then separated for several years. A reunion story, basically. It makes most sense for both characters if they don't consummate their relationship when they initially marry, but I know a big chunk of readers will think they should be able to annul the marriage. Which wasn't the case at all at the time. They could get an annulment if he were impotent and therefore incapable of consummation, but of course he's not. I'm going to write it the way that makes sense for the characters and story, but I'm expecting my share of "Couldn't he just ask her to grant him an annulment?" comments.

I read a lot of SFF, too, and I definitely get a similar satisfaction as a reader in discovering a richly developed fantasy or SF setting as a historical one. You know, I don't generally list "setting" as one of the most important aspects of a story for me, but I probably should. I want to feel like I'm going somewhere *solid*, whether it's England in 1817, George RR Martin's Westeros, or Lois McMaster Bujold's Barrayar.

Claire Robyns said...

Oh, Wendy, been there, done that :) Interesting, though, no matter how little of the research actually makes its way to the page, it's easy to spot when that research hasn't been done.

My main concern when reading historical is that the atmosphere must take me into that time period - the rest is up to the author's imagination. I don't want my reads to be too close to real life - I'm already living that and it's not nearly as exciting as I expect from my entertainment, lol

And, ooh, Castle *drool*