Friday, April 18, 2008

Accuracy vs Plausibility

There is a very interesting discussion going on at Absolute Write regarding the accuracy of details in historical novels. It started out focusing on historical romance, but bloomed to historical fiction as well.

The original topic came about when a member from the UK pointed out what she considered to be a glaring error regarding British currency in a Regency-set novel by a big-name author. She listed a few more - some were small, but some appeared to be pretty big mistakes that a seasoned author (who's written a number of Regency-set books, btw) should not have made.

Which led to the discussion about how accurate does the historical part of historical romance (and later historical fiction in general) need to be?

I don't mind doing research. History is one of my favorite subjects, so research isn't a big deal. I use the internet, of course, and the library for general research. When things get more specific, I'm not at all shy about emailing a professor or (as in the case of Eden's Pass) an area Chamber of Commerce, to get a name of someone who might help me. In general, most people are more than willing to help - be it a name or a book that might answer my particular question.

Now, I've written several Regency-set books - but none deal with currency. I never would have known this mistake was a mistake. At least, I don't think I would. Maybe, if I had need to research it, I would've realized it, but I don't know.

So, we come to the argument of historical accuracy versus historical plausibility.

In other words, do you, as a reader, demand every little detail be correct, or are you willing to overlook small errors because it could possibly be the way the writer has described it? Is a good story enough to trump even the tiniest of errors?

For me, the answer is yes. I am a history nerd, but when I'm reading an historical romance, I don't want a history lesson. The main things should be covered, of course - anything that jars me back into the present is definitely a no-no. A heroine in 1812 should not be wearing jeans. A lady of that time period would most likely never use the term "bloody" - because it was considered to be quite the vulgarity. I've had my heroines use that word, but there is usually an appropriately shocked reaction to it. It's okay to do something out of the ordinary, as long as the response shows that it's out of the ordinary.

But for some, the demand for accuracy never goes away.

Who's right?

Neither. And both.

There is no excuse for a writer not doing thorough research - whether it's that author's first book or their fiftieth. Maybe every little detail doesn't have to be perfect, but it should be as close to perfect as the author can get it. A little fudge here and there is okay, as long as the reader doesn't notice you're fudging. If the story is engaging and keeps the reader's disbelief suspended - you've done it and no one will point out that the fork came along five years after the story takes place.

But, do it repeatedly, and you will jar your reader out of the past and into the present. And you run the risk of losing that reader altogether. I don't know what the title was of the book the poster on AW was complaining about, but after reading the numerous mistakes the author made, I probably would avoid her (the author, not the poster.) She's already an author I don't normally read - but that didn't make me any more inclined to pick up one of her books to try her out.

It can be subjective - what's glaring to one person may not be noticed by another. In point, this poster is familiar with the UK. I, an American, probably wouldn't have noticed it. But still, it was something that, with very little research, would not have happened.

Yes, things are a little more relaxed in historical romance, as opposed to historical fiction. In romance, the love story is the central plot. In historical fiction, it would come across as a sub-plot, if it appears at all. The reader of the historical fiction will probably be a lot less forgiving than the reader of the historical romance novel.

So, should the rules be relaxed for historical romance? No. Plausibility is fine, if you cannot attain total accuracy. But if an author can do neither, he or she needs to go back and learn how to research again. There's no excuse for being lazy - again, whether it's a first book or a fiftieth book - and that's exactly what it boils down to. Laziness. Anyone can make a mistake - but the trick is to not make that mistake in the first place.


Seeley deBorn said...

Even plausibility can be argued though. *sigh* Sandra Schwab, who is a PhD candidtate in English History and Literature and also writes great gothic romances, had a strip torn out of her for a rotating Christmas tree. Clockwork mechanisms were just becoming popular at the time of her story, and it was entirely plausible that a creative character would apply that to his yule festivities.

Readers objected.

She took it with grace. And she agreed to do a workshop on accuracy and anachronism for a free online conference I'm coordinating.

Kim said...

Unfortunately, someone will always find something that an author screwed up... but at least she took it well! =)