Writing historical fiction can sometimes be a tightrope walk between presenting the past as it actually was, and presenting the past as people have come to believe it was. Movies are largely to blame for most people’s perceptions of the past. Set a story in any time period from the old west to ancient Egypt and readers will expect certain tropes thanks to TV and film. Who can imagine the 1950s without poodle skirts and a bunch of James Dean lookalikes, or hear the word pirates and not think about handsome swashbucklers like Johnny Depp or Errol Flynn? In reality, most pirates were dirty, desperate men and, as my mother who attended high school in the 1950s will attest to, girls did not walk around in poodle skirts.
Choosing between accuracy and entertainment wasn’t created by the invention of the motion picture camera. Shakespeare had this problem when he was writing his plays. He knew his audience, the Tudors, and he wasn’t against twisting history to make their ancestors look good. His desire to entertain often overcame whatever desire he may have had for historical accuracy. Poor Richard III’s reputation suffered for it, and will probably never recover, no matter what archeologists find under that parking lot in Leicester (read more about that here).
Sometimes these tropes can work in a writer’s favor by allowing us to establish a setting with just a few words. For example, if I say Colosseum, you instantly imagine a massive arena in ancient Rome. If I say Vikings you automatically think of warriors wearing horned helmets when in reality, there is very little evidence that they actually wore them. And there’s the rub. As historical fiction writers, when do we write to be accurate and when do we write to fulfill reader expectations?
I faced this challenge in an early draft of my ancient Rome novella, Mask of the Gladiator after my sister reminded me that the capital “C” Colosseum wasn’t built until 30 years after my story took place. This proved a bit of a conundrum. After all, I knew readers would expect to read about gladiators fighting to the death in an impressive arena and such a venue also added to the drama of my opening. So, after doing some research to back up my decision, I did a quick find and replace and set the opening in an unnamed lowercase “c” colosseum. It was historically accurate since there were large arenas in use by gladiators during Caligula’s reign. Also, by using the word colosseum, I instantly created a picture in reader’s minds, even if it may not be the exact, historically accurate one.
When to be accurate and when to write to readers’ expectations is a hard call, but in the end, I think the decision comes down to the story. As writers, when do you make the call? As readers, how accurate do you want your history, or do you actually expect certain tropes?