East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Historical accuracy


My friend Shanmei is writing another historical mystery (we talked about her first mystery story here).
The book is set on the route between Italy and China at the turn of the century, and is loosely based on her grand-grandfather’s diaries and letters.
Looks good.
A few days back, Shanmei asked her readers what level of historical accuracy they think is needed for an historical mystery like the one she’s writing.

9-7And of course, that’s the sort of question one should never ask – the writer decides, and takes responsibility – but some of the answers she received got me thinking.
They were, more or less…

A high level of historical accuracy tells me the writer worked hard.

That is, of course, rubbish.
But an interesting kind of rubbish, so let’s examine in closely.

The first thing that really annoys me about that answer is the fact that it shows the reader in the act of checking not the story, but the due diligence of the writer.
Who gives a flying fck whether the writer worked hard or not? What we want is a story that works, not a show of hard work.
It’s a kind of attitude that I think comes from having written essays in school, and received a mark based on the effort.
*Yeah, nice story, but you wrote it in a single sitting making up bits of it, so it’s not that great after all, right? You should put more effort in it… C–

The second thing I find scary is, it shows the reader as he hunts for nits to pick while reading. That’s not his job.
5166B4Vj0-LI get an editor to pick my nits before I publish, and reading is not a game in which the reader tries to catch the writer with his pants down. The fact that some seem to think this is what reading is all about scares me.
Can the reader tell the difference between accurate historical detail and bogus made-up stuff?
In my experience, no the reader can’t.
This because history is tricky that way, it usually is a lot less plausible than made-up stuff.
And once again, who cares?
We’re here for the story, not a history lesson.

Or even better – when we read historical fiction we want to catch the feel of the time and place, not the correct timetable for the Circle Line on Sundays or the rate of fire of the standard issue rifle carried by the Royal Corps of Guides in 1871.
And only an amateur would think that getting the numbers right is enough to write a good story, and getting them wrong is enough to cripple it.
It’s a matter of balance.

And indeed, it’s good to have an afterword in which the writer tells us what was accurate fact, and what was improvised on the fly, or modified and distorted. It’s fun, it’s interesting, it’s a much welcome extra… but that’s it, it’s an extra, and it comes after the reading of the actual story.

Do I have history-savvy readers that might spot my fiddling with facts?
They are welcome!
I can put a quick disclaimer at the front of the book, or I can clearly label the story as fantasy.
The stories of Aculeo & Amunet are filled with accurate historical detail, but they are clearly fantasies, so I can play fast and loose when I need to.

So, how much historical detail is OK?
As much as needed.
As much as needed by the writer to anchor the story they are writing. Me, I love history, I love reading history books and I tend to get carried away with research, but the detail is there for me to have a path to follow, not for me to show some nitpicking reader how hard I worked on the story. I need to have the clearer and most complete picture of the time and place to move my characters in the story. But what ends on the page is what needs to be there for the story to roll, not to show how many hours I spent checking Wikipedia.
I’d like my readers to be carried away by the story, and not have time to check on their list if I put in the required number of man-hours for my story to be “good”.

But then, what do I know about all this?
I’m just the bloke who wrote the story.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

8 thoughts on “Historical accuracy

  1. David:
    As a history buff, I find myself very inhibited in writing historical fiction if anything deviates from what I know to be historical fact. Some people can rearrange chronology and such and feel comfortable doing it. I can’t. So I have stuck to non-fiction. The writing of fantasy can obviate that problem — Guy Gavriel Kay has an outstanding essay on how writing historically-based fantasy can liberate the storyteller and actually universalize a historical tale. I have been working on some ideas that might take me down that trail.
    I must tell you this, though: Errors in firearms nomenclature are a sure way to make me throw a book aside. When somebody “takes the safety off a Glock” for example, I’m done. You don’t have to be a firearms expert to write a story where firearms play a role, but if you’re going to be specific, get it right. The technical details are right at your finger-tips. The alternative is to just write “she took the safety off her pistol.”
    The esteemed Ron Hansen introduced into his acclaimed recent novel about Billy the Kid a Ruger Old Army revolver. Ruger was founded in 1949. The Old Army is a modern revolver in the style of a 19th Century piece. It sounded cool, but it was laughably WRONG. I literally threw that book. Hard.


    • Blatant inaccuracies throw me out of the story too. Weapons inaccuracies too, and I prefer the writer to play fast and loose, as you mentioned, than getting the fine details in, but wrong.
      But I also realize there is a lot of detail I am not able to evaluate, and those I take at face value. I trust the writer.
      And in fact, I hate it when I find an error I can recognize as such, because I start doubting everything else… is this the only blunder, or has the writer been cheating me all along and I just didn’t know better? That’s bad, and in those cases I too drop the story – unless it’s so fantastic I feel compelled to go on.
      But as you see, we are both talking about the effects that the inaccuracies have on our ability to get into the story. It’s not a matter of how much effort the writer put in his writing. That was the point I was trying to make.
      In the end, the story must work – if it doesn’t, the amount of effort spent in writing it becomes irrelevant.
      And now I’ll have to find me the essay by Guy Gavriel Kay you mentioned, because it’s the sort of thing I need to read. Thanks for mentioning it!


  2. There’ve been some historical novels I couldn’t finish because of authorial slip-ups on history. I don’t read to nitpick, I really want to be carried away to another place and time for a while, but glaring errors can throw me out.

    One such error that I remember involved riding with stirrups … in Old Kingdom Egypt. Ooog. 🙂


    • But again, you don’t look for errors to see if the writer “worked hard” on his story.
      I agree that glaring errors break the story.
      But what matters is the story, not how much the writer shows off his research work.


  3. Funny enough, I’m less disturbed by historical inaccuracies in movies. I loved Boorman’s Excalibur, even though it had Arthur and his knights clanking around in Gothic plate armor.


    • For me it’s the opposite, I think.
      But then again, Excalibur to me was never a historical film, so I just enjoyed the ride.
      It’s when they start playing fast and lose with the Roman legions that I start to cringe.
      But I still believe that the guy that labelled “Zulu” a bad movie because they used the wrong rifles is a dork.


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