Saturday, October 13, 2012

Something in the air

First, I read this HuffPo essay about historical fiction and accuracy online. Then I ran across a debate on Facebook about an historical novel which substituted a fictional character for a somewhat prominent public figure of the time. Now I just received an email from an author questioning just how historically accurate we must be in our fiction. Something in the air right now, people are thinking about this issue.

My take on this issue is somewhat fluid. I answer any questions about historical accuracy on a question-by-question basis. Some details are so important that they must be portrayed in accordance with the historical record, or people will become understandably upset, as they did when a blue-eyed actress was chosen to play Anne Boleyn. Anyone familiar with her story knows that she was famous for her flashing dark eyes, and for these people, choosing a light-eyed actress is something like choosing a brunette to play Farrah Fawcett. It just rings false.

But, by the same measure, as the HuffPo essayist notes, sometimes it's possible to err on the side of historical accuracy. Some things from the past are simply disgusting to modern tastes. We don't want to read about oozing flea bites and halitosis and whatever passed for medicine in the old days. We don't like to think about how they ate old meat dredged in cinnamon and black pepper to disguise the rancid taste. People died from splinters, and the streets were paved with feces. But do we want to fill our books with this stuff? Heck, no, because it's just not entertaining.

Exhibit A: The Libertine, a movie that could have been entertaining, but fell short. Between the "natural" lighting and the insistence on portraying every bit of squalor in London, the film's visuals were so distracting that people found it alienating. That wasn't the only problem with the film, but the selection of which historical details to include, which to leave out, and how to display them was a big set of bad decisions. 

So this is how I evaluate historical information. It has to ring true, it has to appeal to modern readers, and it has to avoid distracting us from more important things. How do you evaluate historical information in novels?



Leona said...

5I think, like you, it's a case-by-case thing. And, should be included only if it's needed to set the scene, mood, or explain something. having the feces on the ground, worst in the poor areas, might be relative if someone became sick from providing food to the poor against the parent's/spouses wishes, and she's found out in this manner cuz ole doc says, this is caused by blah blah and it's seen in the poor districts. Or something.

Adrian said...

There are (at least) two kinds of inaccuracies: contradicting a known fact (a lie) and leaving out a detail (a lie of omission).

Unless the squalor affects the plot, leaving out some of the detail seems a minor sin against historical accuracy that is easily forgiven. I think it's the overt contradictions that are more likely to get you into trouble.

Laura Hughes, MittensMorgul said...

Even writing fiction about modern times, we don't describe everything down to the minutest detail. It would be dull to read a description of every last detail in a scene. Unless it's relevant to the story, let the reader use their imagination.

Obviously in an historical, as well as in sci-fi and fantasy, a lot of that detail becomes more important to describe. Unlike in sf/f, history needs a certain degree of accuracy. Unless it's integral to the plot, though, the more disturbing details of everyday life in ages past probably don't need to be included. I'd much rather imagine a clean, modern Renaissance Faire version of a middle-ages setting when I'm reading than the reality of life back then. As long as you don't rely on an obvious error to carry the plot, the little details shouldn't matter so much.