Finding the Balance with Historical Accuracy
October 11, 2017
When you’re writing historical fiction, you need to get your facts straight–right? But the important thing to remember is that you’re writing a novel, not a textbook. It can be frustrating to try and keep your novel true to life, while also not getting bogged down with so much detail it becomes problematic. Below we’ve shared a few of our ideas on how to balance facts with fiction–literally
What is historical accuracy in this context?
Amanda Mae: When you’re writing fiction, historical accuracy is your way of keeping your work realistic and giving it period-correct details
Anna: This is what makes historical fiction appealing. When we read it, we don’t want to stop every few paragraphs and wonder “was this really invented in 1812?” We want to be taken on a journey where we are learning and given insight into the world of a certain era. I don’t know about you, but once in a blue moon I’ve read a so-called historical novel in which I found inaccuracies. After that point, the credibility of the novel fell away. I no longer felt like I was reading a well-put together story. This is something I want to avoid happening to my own stories.
Why is historical accuracy so important?
Amanda Mae: As historical fiction writers, our goal is to combine our own creativity with the past. If you’re passionate about historical fiction like we are, then you know just how powerful it can be. Not only can it teach people a lot about how the world was, but also how we experience the same, relatable things that those before us did. That’s beautiful, right?
The moment you go mucking about with that is when things can get problematic. You don’t have to be obsessive about historical accuracy, but purposefully ignoring massive details because they’re convenient is also a disservice to your readers and your craft.
Anna: Some of my favorite historical novels are ones which give me the satisfying sense of having learned something.I can walk away from the book feeling like I’ve gotten a little bit closer to understanding people from the past than I did before.
Who will be able to spot my inaccuracies, and why does this matter?
Anna: One way to approach those pesky details is to think a little about your target audience.
Amanda Mae: Every project is different and every piece of fiction is going to interest different readers. I hate to say it, but not everyone is going to like your book. But trust me, it’s actually better that way.Every writer needs to know who their ideal reader is. Your ideal reader might be a well-read historical fiction reader or history buff. That means you’ve got your work cut out for you. You have to be committed to making every detail count because in theory, a majority of your readers will tear apart your novel if you take a misstep. On the other hand, if you want your writing to be accessible to a younger reader or a reader who just doesn’t know as much about the period, then you’ll be able to lose accuracy here and there without losing the reader.
Anna: The fact is that no matter how much we comb through drafts again and again, there is always going to be that little thing that evades us. There is always going to be that one snide comment about the protagonist’s car model not having been invented yet, haunting us. It happens to even the best writers.
Amanda Mae: The goal is to stay accurate, but when you’re writing, the story comes first. So sometimes you have to stop doing that crazy researching thing we do and just write the book.
How do I pick details that are the most impactful?
Anna: Interesting, accurately researched details are often the key to bringing a setting long-past to life again. After all, it’s rather bland to say that your character went to see “an opera” when we could tell our readers that they saw “Tristan and Isolde.” If you’re like many writers, you love your research and details. Maybe a little too much . . . I’ve had to stop myself because I realize I have been trying to track down a specific play that could have been shown in a specific year and city–for well over an hour.
At this point it may be worth it to consider the impact this detail makes. Will it come up more than once? Will it make a statement about my characters’ development and go on to influence the plot? Or is it just a one-time reference meant to enhance the texture of the setting? If the answer is that it’s a one-time tidbit, these can be rationed to maximum effect. Unless the detail accents a major plot point or instance of character development, it may be worthwhile to save these marathon research sessions for a more impactful moment.
What can I do when the details I want to include aren’t historically inaccurate
Anna: Every once in awhile, we learn that we’ve unintentionally written a historical inaccuracy or contradiction into our manuscript. One of my more frustrating examples involved placing an iconic statue in a part of a city in which it wouldn’t be located in for another seventy years. For a little while, I considered leaving it anyway. Why? Even though I had clear evidence that the statue was not where I had placed it in my manuscript, my reasoning was that the statue did not impact the plot.
It was not a terribly well-known detail–after all, I had only come across the fact of its location after researching my setting for over two years. I could confidently say that the majority of my readers would not know the difference. If your own small details are similar to this, then I don’t think leaving them in for the sake of your fictional narrative will make or break your novel. You can also consider how many of these inaccuracies you are willing to leave in. One or two might slip by, but the more they add up, the greater the chance of them being noticed.
In the end, I chose to remove my references to the statue. It involved taking out a few scenes that I was very pleased with, and didn’t come easily. My choice came down to my own personal preferences as to what I wanted my novel to be. No, the statue’s location was not going to make the whole book appear poorly researched and sloppy. But I did want the book to be authentic to people who were familiar with the setting and time period. Also, since the statue was not vital to the plot, it could indeed be taken out quite easily. When deciding whether to leave or to cut, thinking about your target audience and the impact of the inaccuracy can be helpful. Sometimes you may find an alternative that fits just as well.
Amanda Mae: We’ve all experienced these problems at least once if not a thousand times. One of my more current examples is when I so kindly arranged a marriage that complicated my whole plot in a brilliant way. Eventually though, I’d need to get these two characters divorced, but that wasn’t historically possible for the couple. I had the option of allowing for a divorce in my manuscript. I just wasn’t willing to budge on the accuracy. How these two finally break off their marriage is a spoiler, but using out of the box thinking helped to make my manuscript ten times more exciting.
So, while the research can be a little bratty sometimes, it can challenge you to consider different outcomes. Don’t give up immediately. Sometimes a little rearranging makes everything slide into place. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have the option of being a little inaccurate. Sometimes you’re going to have to lose accuracy for the sake of dramatizing a situation whether that’s in combat or an extremely uneventful royal ceremony. It’s okay to be creative in situations like this, especially if your story demands it.
Problems with historical inaccuracies are always going to crop up during your writing. It’s important to keep in mind that maintaining a balance between historical immersion and an entertaining plot should be your focus. Straying too far from either can break the trust your readers have for you. Accuracy keeps a historical novel authentic, and does justice to all those long hours of research. At the same time, try keeping in mind the ideal historical novel you would want to read yourself. It’s still a fun read, right? It’s up to you to take your readers on that same journey.