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How an author loses a historian

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by skip.knox, Oct 14, 2018.

  1. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    So, I see this book in an FB group and it's a historical romance with fantasy thrown in, which is fine, but what catches me is that the story is supposedly set in Scotland in the 9th century. Vikings and all that. Still fine.

    But then there's the title. "Princess of Bretagne"

    Not fine. Bretagne is the French rendering of Brittany. Not at all fine. So I have to look at the sample. Maybe I'm missing something. But I'm not. I start on the sample and am stopped dead on the first page.

    The first sentence. The very first word throws me. Friar. Say what? There were no friars in the 9thc. Nor the 10th nor 11th nor 12th. The author appears to believe friar is a synonym for monk.

    Not content with having them be friars, the author then has them be Culdee monks. No evidence of Culdee monks in Columban monasteries until the 12th century.

    A few pages later, she has the monks rescuing the treasures which include the reliquary for St Columba himself. Well, we're on Iona, so that's okay. But the abbot drops the box into a monk's (excuse me, friar's) waiting arms. Seriously? Reliquaries are rarely large. This one is 2 x 3.5 x 4.4. Inches.

    At that point I quit. One disadvantage of reading on a mobile device is one tends not to throw it across the room. Books are more satisfying.

    Her eleven reviews praise her historical accuracy. Why do I even bother?
     
  2. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

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    What I see those reviews mean is that there is lots of detail and NOBODY would put all that detail in if they hadn't got the research right... Opps.
     
  3. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

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    It's historical romance...fiction...so that's all I have to say. HOWEVER, I commiserate with you, my fellow history lover. One thing that irks me beyond nothing else is when women are allowed in saloons in western romance. Like...no. When women are allowed to do things that they were not allowed to do back then. Like...no. They weren't whores. They married virgins. They didn't have affairs unless they were widows and they didn't divorce. I feel you. But as someone who also writes historical romance, I do want to add that for the sake of emotion and storytelling sometimes things need to be fudged.
     
  4. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

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    I'm actually in the middle of reading a book called Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders which makes some great arguments for striving for historical accuracy in fiction. We are writers. We do homework for a living. With all of the world of the internet available as a resource, plus great physical books and other sources, there really is no excuse for what amounts to laziness.

    https://www.amazon.com/Medieval-Und...achronisms-ebook-dp-B00958628C/dp/B00958628C/
     
    Night Gardener likes this.
  5. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Absolutely. I could not disagree less. <g> What I have to say is said with a full understanding that not everyone is a medieval historian, however startling that may be.

    Knowing the difference between a friar and a monk is a matter of about twelve seconds of research. That's a gimme because if you already *know* that friar is a synonym for monk, then you don't bother to look it up. That's what editors are for, of course, but not everyone coughs up the dough for one of those.

    But she did look up the reliquary. The details of the thing--the fact that it was made of silver and wood, or that there was such a thing as a reliquary for St Columba on Iona--are pretty specific. Yet the author missed the fact that the thing was tiny.

    It's not that the facts themselves are make-or-break. It's that if I can't trust the author to get basic information right, then I'm not going to trust them to tell a good story. Simple as that. I will willingly suspend my disbelief, but don't expect me to hang the poor thing from a gibbet.
     
    Demesnedenoir likes this.
  6. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    I hear you, fortunately I've forgotten more about history than I recall... Sort of like, NEVER reread the Iliad if H'Wood is about release a new movie version and you will torture yourself by seeing it.

    In fact, knowledge of my own world has probably pushed all that info from my brain. But now I'm curious if I would've caught the friar/monk thing, 25 years ago I would've. I'd like to think I still would've.

    It's the best part of writing in my own world, If I want sexy lingerie, by the gods! I can have it. No elastic, however... that would push it, heh heh.

    And potatoes, by the gods, in my world we have potatoes. And we like them. Mmmm.
     
  7. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Sure. In fantasy, it's fine. It's all about what the author can make believable, not what is accurate. Farm boy gets bit by a radioactive spider and saves the universe. No problem.

    But if you position your book as historical, then you have made a promise. Don't break it. In a similar vein, if your book is on the science fiction shelves, you'd best get the science right, however much or little you use. If you claim you made the Kessel Run in three parsecs, you're going to lose (some) audience. Make one such mistake and I'm going to wince. Make three or four in the first few pages, and I'm gone. I'm not being fussy; it's the author who puts the stake in the ground and raises the flag.
     
  8. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I naturally hate research when it's research-to-get-it-right. Which is only to say, I'm a huge fan of creating my own fantasy worlds that can be whatever I want them to be.

    This doesn't mean I don't research. One of the last bits of stop-writing-and-look-to-see-what's-believable I did was to look up some descriptions of historical inns in medieval Europe. Specifically, I wanted to know their size, how many rooms. I didn't spend much time on that, hah. Lots of inns apparently were private homes, especially early medieval period. With those that weren't, I got only a broad range of number of rooms, and my fantasy inns fell within that range so I just went with what I had.

    While reading through that info, I came across the idea that the "kitchen" portion, for those inns offering food, was likely to be out back behind the inn in a separate building (that might be attached.) To prevent fires that might burn the place down, obviously. I'd never considered that. Again, not all inns. I have two primary cultures in the part of the world I'm using, so I decided to do this for one culture's inns but to have a large stone fire pit in the center of the other culture's inn's dining area. (Haven't actually written the latter yet, but it's coming.)

    Well, I ended up not really researching these things in depth, but instead have used them for inspiration or a sort of guiding post. In the back of my head, I was thinking "You know, all those fantasy inns have a common trope-ish configuration. I know they're 'wrong' much of the time. But they're also par for the course for many fantasy novels and might not cause a blip. Hmmm. What do I do?"
     
    skip.knox likes this.
  9. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    That hits pretty close to the mark for me. I'm after inspiration and ideas. I spent forty years on facts.

    WRT inns, the whole concept is sort of modern, or at least late medieval. Most people didn't travel. Of those who did--merchants, soldiers, vagrants or displaced people (war, famine)--camping out was common. For other needs, monasteries often served. So it's a while before inns become a thing. It's really hard to document that stuff, given the nature of the surviving record. Once pilgrimages became all the fashion (late 11thc and after), there started to rise a whole industry to cater to them. My favorite story is of innkeepers in towns along the Compostella road who would send boys out to take pilgrims in hand. Some even carried signs--the original Eat At Joe's, I suppose. There were indeed private residences, especially in more rural districts. Everyone around just sort of knew that if you needed a meal and a bed, you could go see Jacques Proudhomme down the road a piece. Probably not enough traffic to make a living (though there's that couple in France who kept taking in travelers; investigators found something like eighty bodies buried in and around; sorry, I've long since lost the reference on that one). Actually, that parenthetical note is a good example of what I mean. As a historian, I'm irked that I don't have the reference along with the date when I took the note. As a writer, that's a cool idea for a short story!
     
    FifthView likes this.
  10. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I'm not too much of a fan of hard magic or of hard science fiction, but I am one of "hard history." You're dealing in a realm of truth here, with real places, real people, real events, and I do think you shouldn't use them if you can't do them justice.
     
    Night Gardener likes this.
  11. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    The part in bold is something I've taken to heart.

    My stories aren't any kind of historical, but they make use of a fair bit of fantasy tropes in various ways. I've posted more than a few threads asking how people understand various concepts relating to werewolves. This isn't to get actual facts (werewolves aren't real), but rather to get an idea of what people see as believable. The underlying question is what a reader will accept without it taking them out of the story, or without it needing more explanation.

    For a lot of fantasy, I think it's enough to stick with the tropes, without worrying too much about the details. Just wing it and stick with the commonly accepted mis-representations of the world. However, if you're trying to write historical fantasy, or "realistic" fantasy, you probably should do your research.
     
  12. Corwynn

    Corwynn Troubadour

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    Actual Medieval Person: "What's taters, precious? What's taters, eh?"
    Me: "Po-ta-toes, boil 'em, mash 'em, stick 'em in a stew."

    I know enough about history that I could probably write historical fiction without committing any serious blunders. Then again, you might get tripped up by one small detail you missed. I too prefer to play it safe and set my stories in fictional universes where anything goes. It also allows me to mix and match elements of historical periods that wouldn't have gone together. Even so, reading up on history can add depth to any setting, real or fictional, and can be a source of many intriguing ideas.
     
  13. Night Gardener

    Night Gardener Sage

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    The fine line for me is this: authenticity vs. accuracy. Authenticity (relatable details) may take some liberties in writing to help your audience understand the historical context without being creatively stiffled: fictionalizing persons a bit, or adding annonynimity to cities/sites. Small details that 90% of people wouldn't know weren't totally correct can be blurred a bit for the sake of the story, and I can let it slide. But, the broad strokes really do matter. Accuracy DOES matter. If your work deals with say witchcraft and the inquisition, you'd better get 90% of the details totally correct. The 10% is where the "fiction" is supposed to happen. Otherwise, just make up everything.

    I've thrown textbooks across my classroom in disgust before. With fiction, aggregious details warrant a lot of eye rolling and facepalming. Maybe, putting a book back on the shelf, or earlier in my life, a scathing book report. So, skip.knoxskip.knox, I am a reader who enjoys historical accuracy, and appreciate the commitment to such undertakings. I respect writers who go the extra mile to research for both authenticity and accuracy. And as a reader, I enjoy being inspired to research real life history because of fiction, especially when source material is utterly fascinating. But, like you, if I start researching because I'm curious and then 90% of the broadstrokes the author used are wrong, it is a disappointment.
     
    Last edited: Oct 18, 2018
  14. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

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    Getting historical details right is very difficult when writing a novel. I've been (thankfully) called out before by other fellow historical romance authors on certain things that I immediately fixed in my books. How embarrassing. And this is precisely why, when I get an idea for a story, it sits with me for months while I slowly research and research, possibly visiting the places the story will take place and taking historical tours of the area, just so I can get. shit. right.

    Then, months later, I start to write the book while continuing to look up details while I write. Another reason why I mainly write in historical western and 20th century, because I've been researching these time eras my entire life out of sheer interest and feel the most confident knowing things. When a reader comes to your historical work of fiction, they expect you to mentally time travel them there. They want to be immersed in that time period, in those customs, in the romance that is being swept away to a time and place you cannot physically experience. Books and words have power.
     
  15. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

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    Sticking to the tropes is essential in any genre. It's how readers are able to understand your communication.
     
  16. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    skip.knoxskip.knox — bit of an aside, but do you read Dorothy Dunnett. Her historical fiction seems to be pretty well grounded, though I’m not expert enough to know for sure. Her writing, on the other hand, is tremendous, and her dry wit makes me laugh out loud regularly.
     
  17. summondice

    summondice Scribe

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    It's funny, but it was an historical romance novel that explicitly taught me the importance of historical accuracy in such a book, as well as how difficult it is to achieve. The book was about a romance writer - since I read it when I was about 13, I learned quite a bit from it about writing in general.

    And it was fact-checking as an editor for someone else that brought me to this site :)

    I would second Night Gardener - authenticity and accuracy should both be found in any historical or sci-fi novel.
     
  18. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I have Niccolo Rising, but am not far into it. Props for starting in the Low Countries, at least!
     
  19. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I want to get that series next. I’m in the Lymond books right now. So much fun.
     
  20. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I shy away from pretty much anything set in Scotland, especially early modern Scotland. Done to death, raised from the dead, killed again. Also, early modern Scotland was not at all a romantic place; it was poor and desperate.

    So I chose the one seemingly set in Italy, only to find it begins in Flanders. But that's fine. Bruges was the first city I studied in any detail (though that was 12thc).
     
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