Thursday, December 10, 2009

When You Write, Get it Right

Warning! This is a rant!

I love to read historical fiction. Love it. However, one of my pet peeves is when the writer gets the history wrong. I have no problem with historical 'maybe's, but I have massive problems when known history gets played with for the sake of a plot.

For example: It's possible Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots met. It's possible. There was a time when they were in the same part of England and Elizabeth did have a habit of riding off and people not knowing where she was. Did she meet Mary? No one knows...but it's possible. Were they best friends? No. Would they have gotten along? Probably not. People are people after all, regardless of the date. Elizabeth was ruled by her head, Mary was ruled by her heart. Usually these people do not see eye to eye.

People have been writing books against a panoply of great historic events for a long, long time. That's great. But get the history right. Get the dates right. Don't have people meeting in a building that wouldn't be built for another 100 years, or one that was destroyed 50 years earlier (examples of both I've read recently). Don't write anachronisms. Do your research. Were they writing with quills, or were fountain pens in regular use? How much food would regularly be served at a meal, and what kind of food? Central heating is a fairly recent invention, don't have characters flitting through corridors dressed in nothing but wisps of chiffon in an English winter. They'd freeze.

Don't get me started on the current television series The Tudors. In my opinion, Tudor history is interesting enough without having to add things.

I recently watched a television movie about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and the events leading up to the abdication. This is one of my subjects; I think I may have read almost every book on the subject, including autobiographies and letters. I watched the interview with the screenwriter before I watched the movie and I was encouraged. She'd done her research and certainly talked very knowledgeably about the subject. I then watched the movie and ground my teeth when there was a historical error 2 minutes into it. Now, I realize that this particular story would have to be condensed for a movie. But, couldn't the events be condensed correctly?Case in point: Their first meeting was mentioned correctly, but their second meeting was wrong. Grrrrr.

This same credo must hold, surely, for writing in any period. If you're mentioning current events, then get them right. Get the date right. Get the cell phone right. If you're writing in a time that can only be described vaguely as 'now' then don't call attention to world events or (what is now) up-to-the-minute technology.

Historical fiction is called that for a reason. There's obviously fiction. But get the history right. If you're going to use real people as characters then do your research. Learn their speech patterns from letters. Of course, things will get made up; no one can tell what Churchill and King George VI said to each other during their first meeting, but get the date of the meeting right.

Okay, rant ended.

Do you read historical fiction? Do historical inaccuracies bother you or do you get swept up into the story and not really care?


  1. I do read some historical fiction, but my history knowledge is spottier than yours. Unless it's covering a time I studied heavily in tandem with my English classes. Which, actually, the Tudor age would encompass, because of Shakespeare studies. So that *would* bother me, too.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Elspeth, I think writers can get away with it because most of us are not experts on all history. I know writers can tell me something about certain historical times and I would accept it, because history is not my area of interest, except for very common facts.

    Great thoughts.

  3. Elspeth - I know exactly what you mean! Of course, I'm not the history buff that you are, but I really do dislike it when an author isn't accurate about history. That's why I respect Edward Rutherford and James Michener - both do their homework, so to speak.

  4. I can accept the ´don´t knows´, but I expect that the writer is knowledgeable and does his/her best to get the facts right. Actually I prefer stories from the Victorian age or newer, because then it is easier for me to judge how realistic the book is.

  5. Elizabeth; Some of my knowledge comes from schooling, a lot comes from just my interest. I was reading English history novels when I was 12!

    JW; I understand not everyone is an expert on history. I don't consider myself an 'expert' but there are periods I know a great deal about. I'm saying if you choose to write a story in a certain time period, know the time period.

    Margot; I couldn't tell you how many times I've read Rutherford's "London". Love, love, love that book. You've understood my point. Do your homework. It's that simple!

    Dorte: That's what drives me mad, when I can tell the writer isn't knowledgeable and is not doing their best. Everyone can make mistakes, but some errors are just plain lazy.

  6. Historical inaccuracies only bother me if I have an interest in the period outside of the story. For instance stories set in ancient greece or rome. Other periods it doesn't both me so much but I can imagine that for someone else the inaccuracies must be frustrating.
    I also dislike it when people misquote mythology. Particularly confusing the greek or roman gods. That can kill an entire story for me.
    Thanks for sharing this post.

  7. Karen; If they explain in the preface they're taking liberties then I have no problem at all.

    Cassandra; Misquoting mythology is another wonderful example of someone not doing the necessary research in my opinion. Thanks leaving a comment!

  8. I read historical fiction. There were a lot of maybes in The Other Boleyn Girl, but I don't think any errors.

    One of my critique members found an error in mine. I had a character sipping from a Styrofoam cup, except they weren't invented yet! Thank goodness she found it.

  9. The only historical fiction I read takes place in the sixties. (The 1960's, for clarification.) Actually, that's not true! I read THE GIVEN DAY by Lehane. It was good (it might have been better, tho, if set in modern day :) ).

    Maybe I should expand my reading horizons.

  10. Alan; Perhaps you should. Expand, young man, expand!

  11. Carolyn; The Other Boleyn Girl did have historical errors, but nothing that made me tear my hair out. I have no problem at all with maybes. But Phillippa Gregory (bless her) is not known for historical accuracy. She sacrifices history to make a better story, and she's a best-selling author, so maybe it's the right decision!

  12. I'm no historical expert, so when a mistake or an anachronism jumps out at me, it must drive experty folks like you batty!

  13. Hi Elspeth - so with you! Almost to the point of not bothering anymore with historical fiction unless I'm sure I don't know anything about it but then my husband will and he'll really rant and rave! I couldn't even watch The Other Boleyn Girl - I'm so in love with Anne Boleyn that it would make me mental to see that messed with. Just the idea of it. The Tudor period is the one that I get crazed about. And it is so juicy that they are always delving into it. Why not get it right? Too in love with their own ideas to kill their darlings I imagine.

  14. it is important the chronology and events in stories to be right. my point is... i know of history what i read in books and watch in movies. King Arthur, the stories of Excalibur, dragon and magicians showed in movies about him... makes me believe those were historical events... but something in my mind tells me they were just invented to made his history unforgotable.

  15. ...and what do yo think about "fictional history" being changed. example. I love Superman Stories (the superhero)but... the tv series Smallville is breaking all the enchatment placing characters like Luisa Lane, and Lex luthor together, studing together in the same school when they were youngs. sounds very stupi to me.

  16. I have read historicals, but if there were mistakes, I didn't know about them. I do think, though, if I were going to write an historical, I would try my best not to make mistakes.

    Straight From Hel

  17. Jemi; I'm certainly no expert, but it does drive me batty!

    Jan; I'm with you about Anne Boleyn. Isn't the real history interesting enough?

    Carlos; Movies and television are the way I think many people know history; which is why I wish it was told correctly. As for fictional history; I don't like it being played with to any large degree.

    Helen; That's all I ask; if you're going to write something historical do your research.

  18. I think any writer takes a risk whenever they choose to write about a real person, living or dead. I know you're talking about books, but I watched a movie last night titled "Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus."

    I'm a huge fan of Diane Arbus's work. For those of you that don't know, she was one of the most important woman photographers of the last century.

    This movie played fast and furious with the facts. I asked myself this question: would I have cared one iota about this movie if it hadn't have been about Diane Arbus? Probably not. I felt let down by the inaccuracies and fabrications.So, in this case, I'm with you Elspeth. Get the facts right when you write, (screenwriter.) If you want to write fiction, write fiction.

  19. Elizabeth; Aren't her photos fantastic? I've always admired her work. I'm glad you're with me on this; if you're using real people then get your facts right. Too many people learn their facts from movies or books, it's upsetting to think they're learning it wrong.

  20. Yes, accuracy is important. We should try to write as if and expert from that period will be reading the book. You never know...they just might be.

    Best, Galen.
    Imagineering Fiction Blog

  21. I agree; if you're going to use history make sure what you use is accurate or don't use it.
    However, as 'history is written by the winners' it can sometimes be as only as accurate as the 'winner' wants it to be. An example that comes quickly to mind is the history of firearms in Canada. There is a great deal of written word explaining that pioneer Canadians did not carry firearms.
    Absolute hogwash!

  22. I'm with you on this, Elspeth. When I read historical fiction, I expect the history to be right. Luckily, I am not too familiar with history that is not Indian and I rarely read historicals set in India, so I haven't really had to tear my hair out yet. BUT there was a recent book I read, set in the recent past/ present which was so inaccurate I almost threw the book across the room a couple of times (it was only respect for the printed word that prevented me from doing so).


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