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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

When Reality Clashes with Popular Perceptions

If you write historical romance, you’re probably an expert on researching your chosen era. We want our stories to feel authentic, and each new scene brings another set of questions to answer. Where exactly did one buy yellow roses in Regency England? How long did it take to travel from London to Constantinople in 1536? Did they have butter on the Oregon Trail? And when exactly did The Season start?

Most writers have a few treasured sources for answers to such questions. Whether using social histories or biographies, maps or cookbooks, a serious researcher learns how to find answers quickly. Personally, I am fond of the children’s non-fiction section of the library because those books are full of pictures and descriptions of how things worked. But my absolute favorites are primary sources like period letters, journals, city directories, and newspaper advertisements. The internet has made these treasures readily available. So why look any farther?

Well, before you submit that manuscript, you’ll need to check one more source: Hollywood films.

These days, people get their notions of history from the movies. Schools have cut back on history in order to devote more time to technology. So for many, history is whatever Hollywood says it is. If your vision of the past differs greatly from those images, you may have a problem.

When I first started writing, I was often confused if readers questioned my research. I’d double check my facts, and then argue the case for historical accuracy. But I soon learned that it really doesn’t matter if your historical facts are accurate. If the reader believes the details are wrong, then she will be yanked out of the story.
Movie Poster For 'Gone With The Wind'

It doesn’t take a major historical debate to ruin a romantic scene. Recently, three friends stumbled over my use of the word “Yanks” in a Civil War story. They all felt certain that the shortened version was a World War II construct. Their argument? In Gone with The Wind, the actors always said “Yankees.” I looked it up and "Yanks" has been around since 1788. But I took it out anyway.

Why? Because this is popular fiction. In the reader’s mind, the fictional world we create has to coexist with popular, pre-existing images of what the era is like. While a college professor might be impressed with my etymology, the romance reader wants to be swept away by the love story. We have to remove anything that might interfere with that experience. Gone with The Wind trumps The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology every time.

Does this mean I always change my story if someone complains about my version of history? No. A contest judge told me the heroine in my Oregon Trail story should “simply take the train.” The story was set in 1847 and the transcontinental railroad was not complete until 1869. So I didn't change it. I would never intentionally make that kind of error.

So how about you? What are your favorite historical sources? How do you respond when popular perceptions conflict with your careful research? And where do you draw the line on taking poetic license with historical facts?


  1. I don't mind some license being taken, but I do mind when an actual historical figure is used -a person easy enough to research, but the author has them in a place they could not have possibly been in. Or an invention being used before it was invented (kinda like taking a train when the railroad isn't complete). I have several source I like to use and have shelves of historical books. However, I find myself researching on the internet more and more.

  2. I write medievals, and one of my favorite examples of contemporary understanding of history is the word "alien." It existed in the fourteenth century, but to use it would remind readers of space creatures, not knights! If I take "poetic license," it is most often with condensing the timeline, although I have discovered that historical research is not static. After my last book was complete, I discovered new research on a character that had inspired my main character and had to address it in the afterword. (I gave my heroine a happy ending. I guess that's poetic, too!)

  3. What a great example, Blythe! Thanks for stopping by and sharing your vast knowledge.

  4. I have been taken aback by people not knowing what, to me, are basic facts. Things like World War I started in 1914. Then I just remind myself that not everyone is a history nut and there are a lot of things I don't know or can't use---like the metric system---and I'm relatively functional.

    I do tend to be a little less rational when people apply 21st century values to, say, 19th century characters. I am willing to lay the ground work for the differences but I do get annoyed when our century's 'political correctness' or other prejudices get in the way. That is especially true when someone wants to dismiss 'reality' (i.e., research and/or historical facts ) and keep a mistaken conclusion they've already drawn.

    I realize it's my job to give the reader the 'facts' and keep them in the story but I have had people critcisize a characters and their language or beliefs, not because they're inaccurate or out of context, but simply because I shouldn't use 'that' word or have the character think it's OK to believe such and such---even though it's clear people did. It doesn't happen often but it does happen and, yes, I admit, that annoys me. Minor things---'yanks' or 'yankees'---no big deal. I get that. I've probably been guilty of it. But trying to rewrite history to give a specific view of women or men, politics or race, whatever---that will get me going.

  5. It is really sad that we have to dumb down history to fit Hollywood's version. Unfortunately, we have to do it more and more, because for some reason, they just don't think history the way it was is fasinacting enough!

    I haven't had someone question my historical facts, yet, but the odd ball comment I got was 'the hero wouldn't be able to tell that' when I wrote that when they first had sex, he realized she was a virgin and not the fallen women he'd thought her to be. Whatever.

    I have several history books and as with Amy, do a lot of research on the internet. And, like Gail, I like the children's books, too. I based an entire college Honor's paper on information garnered from a children's book on Shay's Rebellion.

  6. Molly, well said. It's what goes on in censering books in school, too. They want to remove books because of how they portray the world in 19th century .... think "Huck Finn." They want to give women powers they didn't have or take away powers they did have. I've had people aurgue with me, now that I think about it, that my heroine in 1873 couldn't have been a doctor. Well, that's one of the things I have researched well and there were female doctors back then, folks.

  7. Gail: I’m a Civil War buff and know for sure “Yanks” was a common term (applied to the North). Yes, it was also synonymous with “Americans” in both WWI and WWII, if I’m not mistaken.

    Here’s another example: “Johnny Reb,” short for “Johnny Rebel.” If I’m not mistaken, that was a slang term applied to a Confederate soldier. BUT, in a post “Star Wars” world, “Rebel” describes Luke Skywalker and his ilk. So should that prevent us from using ‘rebel’ in a historical context?

    I’m the opposite of those you describe. If I hear “modern” dialogue in a historical, I get yanked out of that world. I think, “this Regency dude would SO not be calling her ‘baby mama.’”

    Now, I know, I’m joking.

    After watching the magnificent Ken Burns’s series, “The Civil War,” I was struck by how literate many were, how really eloquent their letters were. There was a formality to the language, especially among the higher classes, but I bet even among the proletariat, there was a desire to be more educated and sophisticated. It’s the opposite of what’s happened today, where trashier behavior seems to be celebrated, and anything upper-crust is to be deplored or ridiculed.

  8. My own area of interest and writing involves the Native Americans of the Northern and Southern Plains tribes (both historical and contemporary) and I would never trust more than a minute dab of Hollywood’s version of the people. Fortunately, there has been a little more positive shift since Dances with Wolves, but any writer who blindly trusts anything prior to the release of this movie is asking for trouble without a strong foundation of research gleaned from many more valid sources. The Internet, of course, isn’t foolproof either – even from sites that appear to be authentic and knowledgeable.

    As authors of historicals, aside from writing an excellent book we take on the added responsibility of being true to the time frame of the story, true to the societal practices of the time, true to the clothing and use of language, and true to our readers who in many cases, know their historical “stuff” like pros.

  9. I'm a Civil War reenactor, so have first hand knowledge of the period. Nevertheless, I did have to change a few things in my manuscripts--not because my editor doubted my knowledge--but because she feared readers who didn't know any better might question it. Since they were small things, I agreed and went along.

  10. Molly,
    Thank you for taking the time to comment. I think you are right. It really is a balancing act to create characters that are true to their time and yet acceptable to modern readers.

  11. Thanks for another great post Gail.

    I don't write historicals, so can only comment from a reader's point of view. I find it very sad that writers of historicals have to indulge readers' ignorance. Even worse when they have to discard expressions or thinking because it's not PC.

    I like historicals precisely because they transport me to another time and other customs. If I want to read about modern views, then that's what contemporary novels are for.

    I'm with Cheryl: reading about language or sentiment that feels oddly contemporary is what takes me out of the story.

    As Molly said, it's all about balance. A fine line to tread.

  12. Hi Anna,

    I just checked out your website, and I am so impressed! What a great resource for anybody writing about the Civil War.

    I, too, have problems with modern readers accepting the doctor in my Civil War story. I am constantly being told that he is too young to be a surgeon. But in the 1860's, Harvard Medical school was a one year program with an optional second year for deeper study.

  13. Hi Susan,
    I never realized there were so many Civil War buffs out there. The reenactment photos on you website look fantastic. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  14. Hi Judie,
    Wow! Your research must be really interesting. I'm curious about your research sources because it seems a lot of the U.S. writings from that time would be biased against your subjects. The language issues must add another whole layer of complication. I loved the artwork on your website. Thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment.

  15. I have only ever tried my hand at one or two historical pieces -- I am a very modern person, I guess -- but I received a lot of help from my grandfather's large collection of old Civil War-time and later materials. He actually owns dozens (and many duplicates) of Harper's Journal and Harper's Weekly, along with dozens of others. I believe his grandfather or great-grandfather or however far it goes back owned a printing house, so he owns all the "first prints" that came off -- the relative (grandfather, I don't know) collected first prints. So, I have all those resources, and I plan on using them if I ever write anything historical again. It even has Lincoln's speeches in it, where the President was most of the time, and little articles about the President's wife. He lets me borrow them whenever I need although I live quite a distance away, and he thinks I'm too young to handle such delicate items -- I'm almost twenty, so I can't really blame him. I am a kid compared to him.

    I've had some issues with people thinking I should change something. I really didn't know what to do about it, but it wasn't so much a historical problem, but more a cultural? I think. It was the language. My character was born in Poland -- and there are tidbits throughout the story that involve some Polish, although there are translations hidden in quite well, I think. I have always used this way: "Morga borga morga," he said quickly, "I think they're after us." Or I'd use the same phrase over and over throughout and people begin to understand what it means (with translations earlier added in). I was told numerous times not to change English to Polish, just add a little "as he said in Polish" to the end. I don't know, I didn't find that quite fair. Shouldn't the small areas of Polish be Polish? I'm not saying I did full paragraphs or speeches in the Polish language -- it was about one sentence, just maybe a character greeted the other character and asked how he was in Polish. Everyone I showed that to really disliked it, so I don't know, anyone else have issues with that? Don't know if that's similar to the topic, but I think the language for the culture -- Polish-born American immigrants -- should have little bits of dialogue in Polish. It wouldn't be accurate for someone to have a grandmother who doesn't know any English, and have her rant in English.

    Anyway, great topic to bring up! Wish I had more to the bring to the table -- but all my story's characters are modern American teenagers, as I was one and still am one for a little while longer!

  16. Hey Gail!
    Wonderful blog post btw and so true! I try to be very careful about my research for this very reason, what to include and what not to. It's definitely a fine line. I've found occasionally some conflicting data in certain era's so it's difficult to know which version to believe. Research is a pleasure for me though and I love it so I don't mind the extra work!

  17. Hi Karra,

    Thanks for posting. You are right. Languages add a whole new layer of complications. I wrote a story set in Baghdad and threw in a few Arabic exclamations here and there. Half of the readers thought it added authenticity. Half thought it yanked them out of the story. Language or modernity, it's always a balancing act. Thanks for stopping by.

  18. Thanks for reminding everyone that most historical writers do a lot of research to make sure their stories are authentic to the time frame of the novel.

    The only things that I might 'fudge' would be a word meaning that might have meant one thing in the time frame but now has another meaning today. For example 'awful' used to mean 'full of awe', a positive thing but now has a negative meaning.

    And as a former college history teacher, I always add author's notes to explain anything major thing I might have changed to fit my story. As example in COLORADO SILVER, COLORADO GOLD, I moved a major city fire in Durango in 1880 to two weeks later than it really happened.

  19. Gail,
    Fantastic post and great discussion. Research is not my favorite part of writing but necessary. The reason is it can take up hours of the limited time I have for writing. I'm glad to be part of The Beau Monde RWA speciality chapter, because there are experts on Regency as part of the loop. If I'm unable to find a resource, chances are someone has it on the loop.

    I like historical facts to give authenticity, but I dislike reading a story that sounds like a history lesson. That will take me out of a story faster than an inaccurate fact.

    Ultimately, it is a story and it needs to connect with readers. I can relate to the PC argument, and I don't think every character needs to be enlightened. However, I think at least one of the main characters should share similar sentiments as modern readers if we want readers to relate to our characters. Look at one classic as a good example of accurately reflecting the attitudes of the times while challenging those attitudes so it resonates with modern readers: To Kill a Mockingbird.

  20. Being a reader and an historical researcher/historical copy editor ( for authors and families) I think the author needs to step back and remember they are writing a romance, the romance of the characters as it unfolds is the point of the story not the history. If history was the point of the story you would be writing straitght historical fiction with romantic elements.

    I am not discounting doing research to makes sure your characters act, dress, eat ect in a given period but there should be a purpose in a scene for the reader to see things in a room or on a person. The small historical details should unfold naturally as the characters move around in their world and that is where research comes in. If not then as a reader then end up info dumps that lets the sauve but bored reader know you have done a lot of research.

    But the point you are making is popular history vs factual history. Does it really matter the young boy picked up the ends of his "kilt" to pee instead of using the more historically factual word "plaide". The reader will probably have a vision of kilt rather than plaide, don't sweat the small stuff, the art dept are probably going to put the hero in a kilt on the cover anyway.

    I guess what I am trying to say first don't ever use Hollywood as a source of research unless you are researching how they rewrite history. And secondly get the dates and places write, does it matter where someone bought flowers in London in the Georgian or Regency period, does this info change the relationship of the characters you are creating? If not don't sweat the small stuff.

    When i copy edit at how well the author has placed her characters in their period and if their are errors or ommissions I try to give alternatives. I also look at plotst to make sure they are feasable for a time period and the class involved, because that to me is a worse crime than not getting the correct men's club a regency hero would joing. Author who change actual historical events and times/places should always ask the editor for the space for a authors note, though you may not get it. After all readers are reading for the romance not the history and there is always editor or the art department that can screw up your carefully researched book.

  21. Great post Gail, and very interesting comments. What I'm finding in writing a historical is it is about balance and it's extremely difficult to get it right. The dialogue is one thing that I'm always struggling with, and to place the story enough of a context so that the reader enjoys it, but the story doesn't bog down in it. It's a constant struggle to say the least.

  22. Caroline Lambert wrote:
    I like historicals precisely because they transport me to another time and other customs.

    I'm with Cheryl: reading about language or sentiment that feels oddly contemporary is what takes me out of the story.

    As Molly said, it's all about balance. A fine line to tread.

    Great comments about a 'balancing act, as Caroline says. Even writing historical fiction, I have never understood why movies make such a hash of history when in the majority of the cases it is: Done purposely, and the real facts are far more interesting, and actually would work as well or better dramatically than the production choices.

    I have a feeling they too are trying to match their movie to viewer expectations rather than history.

    The only reason I write historical fiction rather than contemporary are the historical elements--I would assume that is why readers pick historical fiction too.

    It is a balancing act. Some of the ways I find that work when inserting some history that won't be known or easily accepted by readers are:
    1. Have an outsider deal with the information, where it has to be explained. For instance, showers and flushing toliets (water closets) in the Regency period--though different from today.]
    2. The Author notes metioned by Terry B.
    3. The facts are points of contention between characters, so they are used and discussed. I had one of my characters named "Annunziata" and as it was important to the story line, I had to make a point that it was an Italian name with a particular meaning. It became a discussion between characters.
    4. Have a character take the possible view of the reader regarding the same facts--and explain them that way.

    It is tough, but the color and grounding provided by historical facts etc. is not only needed, but wanted by readers. If it isn't, then we are in real trouble. ;-j

    It's all about "presentation", how facts are interjected as well as 'what'.

    And of course, good history can win out. I just talked to a high school teacher concerning some Shakespeare plays she had to use. The claimed to be unabridged, but had taken out a number of 'bad' words and sexual illusions. What was really funny was they got all the mild examples, but completely missed the blatantly ribald sections because the editors didn't know enough history and period words...

    Bill H.

  23. Hi Bill,

    You've got great ideas for keeping the balance. I have used the one where different characters represent the ideas of different eras with some success. Thanks for venturing into our girly blog and taking the time to comment.

  24. Gail, sorry I'm so late chiming in here, but this is a great post! This was the topic of my favorite workshop at Nationals last year, given by Lauren Willig. She basically said exactly what you've said here: that we need to be mindful of what actually happened as well as what people THINK happened. It's a fine line that is difficult to walk sometimes.

    What I find most frustrating is when a reader takes the time to point out my [alleged] error, but doesn't take the time to do a little Google search to find out if it's accurate or not. I've had one person point out a phrase that they were CERTAIN was a modern-day phrase. It was actually a quote from Shakespeare, and a simple search would have brought that to light. My own copy editor questioned the spelling of several proper nouns, as well. Proper nouns that were all spelled correctly and that, had she taken the 30 seconds to type them into the Google search box, she could have found out for herself. *sigh* Oh, well...c'est la vie :)

  25. Gail, What a great and important post! I love to do research and often find myself spending hours on someting which is not a major point of my story. I try to be completely accurate. Saying that, I don't beleive I have come against Hollywood History yet. I suppose if I did, I would have to think about popular conception and judge the pros and cons of having popular conception overrule actual historical fact. It would be extremey hard for me to promote historically innacurate information as I am a former history teacher, and I know this would rankle me to know end. However, I would not want to yank my reader out of the story either, so you have really given me something to think about. Thanks.

  26. Gail:
    This is a 'girlie blog'?! Dang, who knew?

    Actually I appreciate the discussions. I certainly have struggled with the issues around historical research. You gals' comments are as on point and helpful as anything found in the "Historical Writer's Society" website and attendent blogs or similar writers' groups.

    I hate it when a contest judge actually dings me points or an editor criticizes my partial because the facts I included are historically incorrect, when I know they are right...

    But obviously, the correct ones pulled them out fo the story... can't win for losing.


  27. Hi Gail:
    I'm playing catch up after a week at the hospital with Mom. Wish I had seen this sooner. A pet peeve of mine is the requirements that force us to sacrifice accuracuracy for sales. It's an argument for writing historical fiction with romantic elements.
    Happy writing!

  28. I visited with a lady yesterday who lived in Austria when Hitler marched into her country, and she lived through WWII. She made an interesting comment that was ironically relevant to this post.

    She said she was still troubled by some of the lies told about what happened in her country. She said Allies proclaimed no civilians were bombed, but they did what she called "Blanket Bombing", which meant schools, hospitals and nunneries were also bombed. (Just a note: She is not anti-American at all, so please don't interpret this story as her being unpatriotic.)

    Her brother finally told her the winner writes history. I think this is something we should all keep in mind with history. It is a retelling of events from one perspective, which I believe another commenter pointed out with her research of Native Americans.

    Fortunately, we have access to different perspectives now. However, many people grew up hearing only one side of the story, so that is what they believe is right.

    Oh, and hopefully this will raise people's spirits about the lack of history being taught to our children. My kids love to watch the History Channel with their grandpa, and they often talk about whatever historical figure they are learning about in school.

  29. Ran into such a problem today. The Pemberley site said that the word reticule was incorrect until about 1820. The word, they said, was riducle. Reticule is hard enough to understand for some readers who, unlike me, are too young to remember making such drawstring bags to match our starched crinoline full skirts. Also riducle looks too much like ridicule, it seems to me to be used in our Regency novels. In this case, I guess I go with reticule as the middle ground between the modern and the accurate and ty to slip in a clear picture of the reticule to let the reader, unfamiliar with that term, to understand that the lady is carrying a smallish, drawstring bag which mosst likely matches her outfit. Do you agree?