Thursday, March 19, 2015

Historical Accuracy: How far should the author go?

I take research for my novels very seriously.

I own more than two hundred books on late medieval England. I've spent time in the Newberry Library, where you submit requests for up to three books at a time instead of browsing through the stacks. I've waited for interlibrary loan for that hard-to-find tome. Once I even got permission to go to the Art Institute's library to use a book on stained glass I couldn't find anywhere else. And, of course, the Internet is at my fingertips. While much of that information is too general, some is helpful, such as virtual tours of sites and cities.

The theory I've heard in writing workshops and subscribe to is that even if something isn't common during your time period, if you can find it in more than one source it's fine to use. Sometimes books disagree on how or exactly when something happened, and sometimes they'll say, "No one knows" this or that. In those instances, I'm happy to fill in the blanks to suit my story.

So it can be frustrating if readers or contest judges question information I carefully vetted and use that question or disbelief to score down my entry or say my book is historically inaccurate.

For example, Richard, Duke of York, is a secondary character in more than one of my books set before 1465. A judge once wrote, "Richard was the Duke of Gloucester." There was of course a Richard, Duke of Gloucester, but since he was born in 1452, he wasn't the powerful commander in my novel, and in any case that didn't mean there wasn't also a Richard, Duke of York.

Another secondary character has a carpet on her manor house floor. A judge wrote something to the effect that carpets didn't exist at that time. It's true they weren't common and certainly peasants didn't have them, but this woman was shown as wealthy and I described it as "new."

The challenge sometimes comes in choosing how much detail and/or explanation to use about a historical event or item. If I'm describing a gown, for example, how much is just right vs. slowing the pace? Most readers probably don't want to know that this style of gown was first popular in Burgundy and came to England in X year. Others may have an image of "medieval" clothing from movies/TV shows, etc., and not know how much fashion changed over the centuries or how some movies/TV shows may be more generic rather than specific in their costumes. Or I might mention an object some readers assume wasn't invented yet, but I chose not to use precious page time convincing them.

Finally, word choice is a huge concern. Readers may say a word pulls them out of the story because it sounds too contemporary. I often refer to a great book, English Through the Ages, and online word origin sites. Even if a phrase or word exactly conveys what I'm going after, I won't use it if it's first known use wasn't in my time period. Since no one wants to read a medieval using the exact words and spelling in documents of the time in what is known as Middle English, to my knowledge it's become an accepted convention, for example, to use contractions.

This doesn't mean I or any author will never have an error that slips by us, beta readers/and or editors. Many authors, including me, include an Author's Note saying any errors are their own or that they tried to be as accurate as possible.

May I encourage you, gentle reader, to give the author the benefit of the doubt...and consider looking up any information that strikes you as nonperiod.

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