The View from my Desk



So, the day is rainy and grey–my favorite weather–the dog is snoozing on his bed at my feet, and the tea is steeping in the pot. And because I have (as we all so often do) a deadline well past due, I am about to indulge in that most popular of internet phenomena (no, not porn, hush your minds): pontificating to my peers and superiors on a subject about which I know little (but on which I have many opinions), in this case, Accuracy In The Historical Novel.

“One moment,” you say. “That’s a rather broad topic, and a bit of a given. Of course we all want accuracy. This calendar is supposed to consist of brief, cheerful essays, not dreary lectures on something we all know is important. Coals/Newcastle, preaching/choir, and all that.”

“Ah,” I reply, lifting a fin__ger (and so interrupting my typing), “if it’s a given, and we all know of its importance, why are there so many reviews, posts, and comments (and we know that the last are always the most vituperative) decrying the lack of accuracy in this book or that?”

“Well…” you say, hesitating.

I pounce. “Precisely. In my opinion–and everyone online has an opinion, if not three or four, on any given topic–when something is so familiar, so obviously a part of what we do, it, like the boyfriend of many years, is taken for granted. And the next thing you know, poof, he’s having an affair with a chorus boy from the Rialto, and there you are with non-historically accurate egg on your face. So settle back and listen. Would you like some tea? No? It’s sweetgrass and spearmint, not terribly proper, but rather relaxing. Excuse me? No, I don’t think this essay will be more than relaxing enough, thank you very much. I think it will be invigorating, and spark discussion and admiration across the…oh, all right. I’ll get on with it, though my words express but my pet peeves, and be treated as dross by the general readership.”

On Accuracy (and the Lack Thereof)

Part the First: Facts

Facts are stubborn things.
–John Adams

When one sits down to write historical novels, one is brought smack up against one inimitable, uh, fact: because we don’t live in 1685, we do not know everything about 1685. And because we understand (or should understand) that someone out there will know more than we do, and will be more than willing to point out our errors in an review, it behooves us to get the facts right. A simple slip, such as saying that the Monmouth Rebellion took place in Wales instead of Dorset by mistaking the place for the person, is enough to cause cries of derision and mockery to echo throughout the historical novel community. The Duke of Monmouth was beheaded for his mistake–trying to depose his uncle James II–while we are merely pilloried in the press, but that can be enough of a pain in the neck.

This also applies to that incredibly insidious error: the Dread Anachronism. It’s easy to do, and impossible to correct once the book’s on the shelf (my soul still burns at the infamous Yarg Cheese Incident ). Some anachronisms are easy to avoid; Richard III didn’t cry “A Porsche! A Porsche! My kingdom for a Porsche!” at Bosworth Field (of course, he didn’t cry “A horse! A horse!” either, but “Treachery! Treachery! Treachery!” would have taken too much plot exposition at that point, and it was Shakespeare–the man invented words for heaven’s sake. He wasn’t going a little thing like misquoting a dead king stop a good story, and anyway, he wasn’t writing history, he was writing a piece of Tudor propaganda to…I beg pardon? Oh, I suppose I am wandering. Ahem). Other anachronisms are not so obvious, and are waiting to trip you up. Beware them, though you know not where they lurk.

Spare yourself the frustration and the embarrassment: if you put something specific in the text, no matter how small or incidental, look it up. Not once, not twice, but three times at least, from different sources. The Web is a large place, and the information, like the truth, is out there.

Unfortunately, so is a lot of disinformation; hence my recommendation for at least three independent sources. I start at Wikipedia (scorn me if you will), not because it’s right–though it stacked up pretty well against the Encyclopædia Britannica in one check of data–but because it’s searchable and often gives one a lot of other resources or points of interest. Maps, photographs, city and building plans, they’re all on the web, and can give one a wealth of information and inspiration. Period photographs are particularly helpful ( is a great starting place). If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the flip is true: a thousand words (or two or three choice words) can be gleaned from an image of a place or a person. I depend heavily period photos (an advantage of writing from 1850 on); paintings and actual objects are also hugely helpful. Also, there are entire books written specifically on the topic: What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens knew (Pool 1993), Victorian Conventions (Reed, 1975), and Lost Country Life (Hartley, 1979) are just three such that are on my shelves.

And now, a warning (NOW a warning?): facts are not only stubborn, they are intoxicating. We research (mmmmm, sweet, sweet research, the bacon of the writing process), we study, we cram our brain with facts about the weather patterns in the Lesser Antilles in 1806, and, of course, we plunk them right down there on the page.

And lose the reader (or, at least, some readers). They might not put the book down, but the author risks yanking the reader out of the world of the book with too many facts . In a biography or a history this litany is expected and desired, but it can be problematic in fiction. To avoid this, I ask myself two questions: 1) Is this list of highly detailed facts necessary to move the plot forward? and 2) Are the said facts something that the character whose POV is being used would note in this amount of detail? To me, and yes, I’m diving straight into personal opinion and preference here, the second question is the more important. I do not walk into my living room and consciously note I have a green sofa; neither would a person accustomed to traveling by train in 1906 be likely to note consciously that he is holding a red ticket. A return, yes. Red, not so much .

Find the facts. Know them. Use them, but in good measure.

Part the Second: Conventions

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again…
For the times they are a-changin’.
—Bob Dylan

And no, by “conventions”, I don’t mean The Annual Gathering Of The Loyal Order Of Moose and Squirrel.

Much more than the use of facts, accuracy in social conventions, mores, and practices is a difficult tightrope to walk. Attitudes that were invisible to the average person living in the past are anathema to us now (one only has to go back to, say, Sayers or Christie in the early to mid-1930s to see this), and attitudes we think as commonplace and natural would be unthinkable two centuries ago. This difference in point of view, then from now, holds true across the spectrum of social conventions: class differences, economic status, birth status, national identity (which were considerably different in the past than now; the entire concept of a nation state was a work in progress for centuries), and many others. This is particularly true when writing of people who love those of the same gender . What does one do in such a situation?

Unfortunately, all too often one ignores the challenge, and layers modern sensibilities on characters living a century or more in the past. The most egregious example with which I’m familiar has been referred to as “Ok-homo”, in which the Hero (I’m so okay with being gay!) and His Amour (Me too, after a little angst!) are united at the end of the story, feted in the village, married in the church, and live HEA in the big house on the moor, surrounded by their adoring villagers.

Not likely .

What is astonishing to me is that one would want to ignore the opportunities for conflict and resolution offered by these differences in world view, and instead of exploring them, chooses to simply dress modern day characters in Victorian clothes and country houses and call it Happy Families. Successfully maneuvering through the difficulties inherent in the situation and world view of the time period would seem to me to be far more gratifying.

And, of course, far more difficult. We truly cannot know viscerally and internally what made people tick, or triggered reactions in people at an unconscious level, but we can research it (mmmm, research). For the hardcore, history books with a sociological bent would be a source, but I prefer somewhat lighter alternatives: biography and contemporary fiction. The former, particularly since Lytton-Strachey’s Eminent Victorians revolutionized the genre 90 years ago, deal as much with the inner life of their subjects as with the litany of days. Though they may sometimes go a bit too far in their assumptions (as in a biography of Shakespeare I read recently), the best biographers synthesize wide ranging information, and their works often contain a great deal of useful peripheral information.

Contemporary fiction—particularly annotated versions, like Shapard’s 2004 annotated Pride and Prejudice—are excellent primary and secondary sources, giving both Austen’s story and atmosphere, and a full explanation of the details that we might miss, two centuries on. Of course, the farther one goes back, the leaner the supply and the more remote the prose, and for medieval times, there is little.

There are, of course, many other possibilities. Primary sources, where available, are invaluable. First hand accounts of events in the form of letters and first person descriptions give one, not only a glimpse of the events described, but a window into the point of view of the person writing. One of the best books I’ve read based on this kind of documentation is The Verneys (Tinniswood, 2004), which follows the fortunes and lives of an English family through the 17th Century, and is drawn almost entirely from the family’s vast collection of letters and documents (the heads of two successive generations never threw out a single paper, and often kept rough copies of their own letters, giving the historian a uniquely complete correspondence).

Unfortunately, for those researching same gender affection, information until the 19th Century is thin indeed, though that has gradually been changing. Part of the difficulty is that our very concept of same gender pairing has shifted along with everything else over the centuries; only in the last two centuries have we become an increasingly clear and distinct segment of society. Not, of course, that we simply popped into being with Oscar Wilde’s boutonniere. Priscilla Royal, in an excellent commentary at the Historical Novel Society convention in San Diego, said “We have always been here, hidden in plain sight.” And the challenge for the historical novelist is to take that chameleon gift and weave it into a tale.

Part the Third: Language

To handle a language skillfully is to practice a kind of evocative sorcery.
—Charles Baudelaire

We are writers. Words are our weapons, our toys, our baubles, and our trade. With them we transport our readers to different places and times. We describe (in deathless prose) events we have not seen and actions we have not taken. This is particularly true of those who write historical fiction. We not only depict events long past (accurately, assuming we get the facts right), but also people, their relationships, their conversations, and their very thoughts, using their own words.

Or so we hope. Being creatures of the late 20th and early 21st Century, we have to think outside our own idiom, and invest ourselves in the words and thoughts of earlier times (as indicated above) and other nationalities. This is no easy trick. Walt Whitman said “the English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, race, and range of time,” and therein lies a great yawning pit. Language evolves. Just as laying on period facts with a trowel can be off-putting to the contemporary reader, putting a word or phrase in the mouth of your Regency protagonist that didn’t have the same shade of meaning then that is has now (nice, for example), or worse, didn’t exist at all, shatters the atmosphere you have been carefully building from your opening sentence.

It’s incredibly easy to do. I was writing a tense, dramatic scene in Lovers’ Knot (no, really, it is, trust me), and I made reference to one character holding a bottle of brandy and two snifters. The next day I re-read this scene, admiring the pace, the intensity of the emotions, the clarity of the prose, the…hmmmm. Snifters? It felt wrong. The word looked strange on the page. So, terrified of anachronism, I looked the word up. I actually had to search pretty hard, but eventually ran it to earth. Although balloon glasses had been around for centuries, the earliest confirmed usage of snifter I could locate was the 1960s, which I still find difficult to believe. Yawning pit avoided. In this situation I was prompted by instinct, and instinct founded on being familiar with English fiction from the late 19th century through the second World War. In this case, I had that instinct and acted on it, as many do, but in some cases the misuse of words is simply carelessness. I was reading a novel set in 17th Century Venice, written by a famous author who shall remain nameless but whose initials are…what? Oh, fine. I won’t disclose. Anyway. This writer set a scene at a banquet featuring a large number of wealthy and noble gentlemen, all of whom were about to be slaughtered by the protagonist. As the carnage rose, one of the w. and n. g. stood and said “That’s it. I’m so out of here.”

Really? Really? In this case the author totally lost the reader. I hurled the book across the room and have never read another book by that person.

There is a touch more leniency in narrative prose than in the dialogue, but to my mind it’s a slippery slope. For my money, best to keep the language consistent across the whole piece, keeping all the words in tune with their time.

And their place. Shaw said “England and America are two countries separated by the same language” (I’m just full of quotations today), and he’s right. American English and British English (and Australian, Canadian, etc. English) are very different beasts, and use words differently. I attended a meeting of the Historical Novel Society this year, and one of the workshops had a section on just this subject, including an incredibly handy list of differences in word usage between the US and the UK. Right at the top of the list was the word “gotten.”

I can sense the eyes rolling and heads nodding agreement across a continent and an ocean. I’ve read innumerable comments and conversations about the frustration that UK writers feel when they see a piece ostensibly set in England, with English English speakers, and peppered with as many “gottens” as a southern US dialect piece is with “y’alls”. I was lucky. Erastes beat the “gotten” out of me before I’d finished one chapter, and I still did a search on the final copy before submitting for publication, just to be certain. As I was told, the English say got; Americans say gotten. The word faded from UK English sometime in the 19th Century, I believe, but stuck in the US.

Which raises an interesting point in my mind: would an author writing a novel set in England prior to that fading be correct to use gotten instead of got? I don’t know. This is where we touch on the much more sensitive subject of style, as opposed to proper usage of period vocabulary. While accuracy in language is critical to the success of historical writing, the author does have to keep the piece accessible to the modern audience. I mean, I suppose one could write a novel set in Chaucer’s day in Middle English if one has the requisite skill, but I think one would be cruising around the one million rankings on Amazon if one ever succeeded in getting it published. Clearly the work needs to be written in contemporary English, while respecting the period’s tone and linguistic conventions. The closer to the present day, of course, the easier it is to match, but for earlier times? Balance.

The first line of defense against inopportune word usage or phraseology—and to the Medievalists amongst us, do be careful: Shakespeare not only invented words, but also phrases and clichés (well, they weren’t clichés when he wrote them); they could be stealth anachronisms–is a dictionary. The dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary. Don’t have the shelf space? Can’t afford to buy it? Check your local library. The chances are very good that the library has access to the OED Online available to members, as well as other journals, research materials, and traps (of the very best kind) for the unwary researcher. A warning on the last: the OED is like word crack. I got lost in it for three hours, once upon a time.

The second line is, of course, the beta reader. Treat these people like the precious jewels they are, particularly if they’re knowledgeable about your period and location, and are willing to give up their time to comb the knots out of your manuscript. They probably know as much as you do about 19th Century molly houses, and if they don’t, they can at least flag the dubious sections about those dubious locales, as well as monitoring the verisimilitude of your language. And then, when they’re done, return the favor. You’ll not only sharpen your own skills, you’ll cop a sneak peak at a new book.

Part the Fourth: Conclusions

GHOST: But soft! methinks I scent the morning air.
Brief let me be.
HAMLET: (aside) Too late.
—Shakespeare (Hamlet, the Ghost scene, first draft)

Accurate facts: the foundation that supports the structure of our stories. Accurate interpretation (or reasoned subversion) of the social, moral, and personal conventions of the period in which we write. Accurate language: the finish that gives detail and color to the whole. These are the elements which form the house in which our characters live and tell their stories. Leave any part out, skimp in the materials used in any element, and the entire edifice totters, and for some readers, falls.

Well, the dog is awake and chewing his bone, the rain has stopped and the clouds tatter across the night sky, and the tea is cold in the pot. I hope that you, gentle reader, [Poke, poke. Wake up, you sluggard!] have enjoyed this view from my desk, and have gleaned some new ideas or sources, or at least have been given cause for thought. And now our patient editor (like so many other editors) awaits this submission. As for me? I am so out of here.

A happy, safe, and joyful holiday season to you all. Write well!

Donald began writing after moving west and dumping his television, and has gradually expanded his output.  His first novel, Lovers’ Knot, was released in December of 2009 by Running Press to critical acclaim.  He is currently working on a stage adaptation of Pride and Prejudice for the Butterfield 8 Theater Company. Other work includes Space/Time Magic, (as editor) by Taylor Ellwood, for Immanion Press, and his biographical essay Puppy Whipped was published in Paws And Reflect (by Alyson Press).
When he isn’t writing — or catering to the demands of Schultz — he can be found onstage or in rehearsal with Butterfield 8, usually performing in Shakespeare with a twist.  On certain weekends, he’s an avid Renaissance (Faire) Man — proving that even when he’s offstage, he’s onstage.

Donald will be giving away a copy of his book: Lover’s Knot to one lucky commenter. Winners to be announced on Christmas Day.

The BONUS BUMPER PRIZE QUESTION (don’t answer this yet – write them down and I’ll ask you to email them in on Christmas Eve.)

12. What are the names (allegedly) of the Three Wise Men?

29 Responses

  1. Oh Donald…snifter was used as far back as 1844, sweetheart. OED says so. (And I knew it had to be older than 1960’s, as Wodehouse uses it).

    Greta post, though. You burn with shame over the Yarg, I burn over the anachronistic blizzard…

    • Howdy, Charlie. That’s good to know. I searched but couldn’t FIND anything — I checked the OED, but didn’t see that reference, somehow. I played it safe and used glasses (it was an emergency, not an after dinner drink, so i figured I was okay).

      Oh, the yarg. I’ll post a comment about that. SO. MORTIFYING.

  2. Great post, not Greta.

    I vant to be alone…

  3. Highly entertaining – and informative as well!
    Off to re-read my copy of Lover’s Knot. 😀

  4. I look for ‘reasonable’ accuracy in a historical fiction, but I don’t comb it. To me, if it has the essence and aura of the time period then it won’t wrankle. I always recall that anonymous quote: “History is the tricks the living play on the dead.

    Very interesting discussion, Donald.

    • Absolutely. I’m moderately knowledgeable about history in general, just enough to be dangerous. If it’s a minor slip, either in facts or in language, in a book I’m reading, I can generally get by. But a whopper, well, it pulls me out of it.

      I have to say this: writing one historical and researching the next two has given me a huge, huge respect for people who do this really well.

  5. Brilliant post, Donald – informative AND funny. I cringed with sympathy over your “snifter” story. I live in dread of including some kind of horrible, hilarious anachronistic howler. And sooner or later, I’m certain I will.

    Paige x

  6. An interesting point as to whether a UK English writer should use ‘gotten’ in a period piece. ‘Fall’ is another word that survived in the USA, where we started to use Autumn. Bill Bryson has written a fascinating book on how English has evolved over time (Mother Tongue) and it’s full of little snippets like this.

    • When I started that sentence — when I initially had the thought — my intention was “Yes, use it.” And then I hesitated. I really *don’t* know what I’d do.

      Love Bill Bryson. This isn’t a title I have. MUST. ORDER. Thanks!

  7. Wonderful post. But oh “(my soul still burns at the infamous Yarg Cheese Incident )”… leave it there. The mind boggles at what that could be.

    And as to the “That’s it. I’m so out of here.” line. Was there no snort or giggles after you hurled the book? You have to admit it makes a wonderful cautionary tidbit.

    When I read an historical tale, lurking at the back of my mind is admiration for the author who makes me feel both a part of that time period yet not conscious of all the research that went into it. My thanks to all those wonderful authors whose works I have enjoyed. This post brings home all it entails to be a historical writer.

    Perhaps later we can have a post on lazywriteritisasaur, a creature that roams landscapes both modern and historical. Does such a creature come into being because the writer is new or because, over a period of time, no longer cares about their craft?

    • I think I said “Are you __________kidding me?”

      As to the lazywriteritisasaur, I have no idea how they evolve. Some just don’t bother, some grow into it, others where the label like an honor (yes, I actually have read defenses of bad research being spun as a good thing…WTF?)

  8. For me, the best part about m/m historicals is exactly the accurate depiction of how these men would realistically figure out their feelings.

    I own the “What Jane Ate…” book just because I was interested (and it’s very entertaining).

    As a reader, language and style are tricky because I won’t read something that’s too hard to understand. I don’t want my historical novels to be Shakespeare. I want a good, fun read.

    • Exactly, Jolie (on the first paragraph). I’m particularly delighted — after reading the “women can’t write gay men properly” debate — to find those who do get it right, which in many ways is something I understand internally, without being able to point out exactly why it’s right (or wrong).

      I also totally agree with your point in the last paragraph. That’s what I meant when i said I like balance. When i wrote Lovers’ Knot, I actually made a concerted effort to make the prose read like a novel written in the early 20th century (1905-1906), in which I think I had moderate success. It created a much more leisurely pace to the novel than contemporary writers tend to use, and demanded slightly more involved sentence structure. That being said, I didn’t want to go *too* far — too purple or too convoluted. It got easier as I went along, until by the end the style was sliding over into my business memos at my day job. THAT raised a few eyebrows (and people asking, “Can you really write a sentence that long???”)

  9. The Yarg Cheese Incident.

    A word of warning. Never, ever have your main characters enjoy/disdain in 1892 a “traditional Cornish cheese” that wasn’t named “Yarg” until the 1970s, when the people marketing this nettle-wrapped, moldy bit of goods simply spelled their name backward, slapped it on the label, and shipped it off to the local shops. The cheese may have existed in 1892, but the name certainly didn’t. The error, however, is in print and will exist through eternity.

  10. Hi Don

    I think you’re missing a word in the fourth paragraph; “I depend heavily period photos (an advantage of writing from 1850 on); paintings and actual objects are also hugely helpful.”

    I would have called to save you further embarrassment, but you can never find your phone. 😉


  11. Nice piece, Mr Hardy. Very nice.

    I have a sliding scale of toleration for historical inaccuracies in novels. If the novel is brilliant and I’m thoroughly enjoying it I’ll ignore them. If the story is fun but not so good I might roll my eyes a bit if it’s very bad but keep reading. If I’m not enjoying the story I’ll snort and groan and say “Oh for Pete’s sake”.

    I was interested to see your comment about writers who celebrate their anachronisms. I have to admit to having done this myself. There’s no real excuse for it other than that until recently I’d only written for my own amusement and so it didn’t really matter if I was applying Sellars and Yeatman standards. Now – well, I really hope that someone comes up with a ‘historical fantasy’ genre soon.

  12. Hello, Don, oh tablemate at the book signing in San Diego. No need to include me in the drawing as I have read and reviewed your wonderful Cornish novel.

    This is terrific advice.. may i reprint it on Historically Off Center?

    Nan hawthorne

  13. Hi, Don!

    Found myself nodding as I went along, and yes, especially at “got.” Great essay! I’m going to have to look up your “puppywhipped” because that is such a perfect description of my past year with Watson.

    I also loved:

    one of the w. and n. g. stood and said “That’s it. I’m so out of here.”

    [Reader seconds the motion…]

    I have a similar experience every time I read a period piece where the (male) protagonists are having athletic, noisy sex in the mansion’s well-appointed bedroom. Pas devant les domestiques! People don’t seem to realize that servants were likely to walk in at any time to attend to any number of little chores like building up a fire or lighting a candle.(or applying a bedwarmer, however superfluous.)

    I’m married to my best glitch-spotter and technical resource… she was going over a draft of Ransom and said, “A full moon doesn’t rise at that time of night…” headdesk. But, of course, there would be some other reader, somewhere, who’s an astronomy buff, so that’s one mistake missed.

    I didn’t catch the Yarg cheese, though I did think it sounded like something you’d find on a Klingon buffet…

    Merry Christmas/Solstice/Whatever works!!

  14. You’ve touched on a subject very close to my heart. One or two anachronisms I can deal with, especially where they strike me as an editorial issue rather than the author’s original intent, but more, or particularly glaring ones definitely make me stop reading.

  15. moose and squirrel!

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