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Monday, January 18, 2010

Historical Accuracy - Important?

How important is historical accuracy in a historical romance?

I think with some things it is very important and for others, not so much.

Take bathing for instance. To say people didn’t bathe during the Middle Ages would be accurate. In fact, a person may have only bathed a few times a year. While people had various reasons for avoiding it, the practice is foreign to modern readers. I’ve read several novels where the hero or heroine often luxuriates in a bath of warm water. This is unlikely given what we know of the period. But, we like our characters to be clean and smell nice. We are writing romances and having your hero note that the heroine smells of lilacs on a spring day is much more romantic than comparing her scent to the fertilizer beneath said lilac bush, and doesn’t have that whole eeeeeeewwwww factor attached to it. Thus, we are more willing to set aside what we know is not true for the sake of romance

But how far can an author push the bounds of historical inaccuracy before we put a book down? One particular book comes to mind for me. I am not going to give the name of the book, author or when it was published. It is not the point of this post and I would never do that to another author. Besides, it was a long time ago. This author used an item, in a manner it was never used, and years prior to its invention. Maybe other readers never caught it, but I just happen to know about this particular subject. And, perhaps I was the only reader she almost lost. Still, one reader is one reader.

Fortunately, one of my critique partners kept me from making a similar mistake by commenting on a quill I used in a story. I made an assumption and didn’t research. She happened to know about quills. Another critique partner pointed out that my heroine baking bread in France wouldn’t have worked because I put the story at the beginning of the French Revolution. After I double checked my timeline, I realized my date was off by a few years. But, would anyone else have noted it or known there was no grain for flour while my heroine was baking her bread? Additionally, is it all that important if the story is good? You tell me?

So, in your opinion, where is that line for historical inaccuracy in a romance? I am interested in hearing your thoughts.

Amy De Trempe


  1. Great question, Amy. When I first started reading romance, I started with Kathleen Woodiwiss then moved to Johanna Lindsey, then on to Judith McNaught. (to name a few) At the time, I didn't know a lot of historical facts, but I really enjoyed reading these author's whether they were historically accurate or not. Now that I write historical romance, I do want to make sure if my heroine is using the bathroom...that they were invented back then. lol However, I don't want a history lesson. As long as the author can pull me into the story and make me feel like I'm there, I'm very happy!

    So, to answer your question, I do believe it's necessary, but it doesn't have to be a history lesson.


  2. Hi Amy, I think this is a case of "I'll know it when I see it." If a story is well-written, I'm willing to overlook minor details like bathing habits and such.

    I struggle more with things like travel times. If you look at documents from the era, the same trip could take a day or a week depending on the circumstances. I will choose the time frame that fits my story, knowing full well that some reader will think, "That's ridiculous. It doesn't take a week to travel from Boston to Salem."

  3. Great post, Amy! And a really great topic. I think historical accuracy is important, but I agree with Phyllis in that I don't want a history lesson when I'm reading a romance. And when I was merely a reader of Regency, I definitely didn't know if an author was being 100% accurate or not, and I try to remember that when I'm writing. Rather than getting hung up on historical details, I tend to go the vague route - most of my readers aren't going to know the difference - and what's really important to my writing is the love story, not the historical details. What I DO have fun exploring are specific words. I've come across many words in the writings of some of my favorite authors that were not yet in usage at the time their novels were set. Does it make me want to throw the book across the room? Nah, but it's nice to know that even NYT Best Sellers make boo-boos now and again :)

  4. i know nothing about historical romance - go with your gut!

  5. I'm only slightly bothered by historical inaccuracies, but it drives me insane in contemporary stories. Probably because I know more about this time period. For example, on the show Nurse Jackie they took a man off life support and then harvested his organs for donation. That can't happen!!! There has to be oxygenated blood flowing to the organs to keep them alive to harvest. So, I guess the bottom line is whether or not I know anything about a subject. If not, I probably won't notice. Oh, I should note I still watch the inaccurate Nurse Jackie because of the character development.

  6. When I first started reading romance (that was only 2006) I kept with them because they made me laugh - out loud quite often. Very disconcerting to customers I remember. (I ran a bricks and mortar bookshop so reading on the job was allowed - I did own it!) The first couple of years I didn't know what half the terms meant but I do remember looking up a few in a dictionary and later on the internet. These days, and only because I write, I'm of the opinion that historical books should be as accurate as possible. Mind you, I don't expect perfection, so the occasional slip is always forgiven. A string of mistakes stops me reading.