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Fiction and history

I once heard a reader complain about an author (not me) who wrote about a fictional house in Bath at an address that would have placed it in the river. I suggested to the reader that the author may have used a nonexistent address to avoid conflicting with a real house with its own history, also that very few readers would know Bath in enough detail to care about something like that. This sort of exchange that makes me think about the boundaries between history and fiction. We are making this stuff up, after all. At what point can it be called “historically inaccurate”?

I think it’s a matter of scope and what is common knowledge.

Regency authors frequently invent English villages. I’ve done it several times myself, though I always based my fictional villages loosely on real ones in the county of choice. If one invented a new city to rival London or Bath, that’d be edging into alternate history territory; there’d have to be a good story reason to do it.
I have read some romances which featured fictional small countries, when the author wanted to write about a royal hero or heroine. This sort of verges on alternate history, but on the other hand, there really were quite a few little principalities and duchies. Inventing the Regency period equivalent of Liechtenstein seems OK to me if the story justifies it, as in Julia Ross’s MY DARK PRINCE.

Another issue of scope could be military rank and achievement. Romance heroes are often captains or perhaps majors; going any further up the chain could start to conflict with real history. It took influence as well as performance to move up as fast as Wellington did–and who wants their hero to compete with that reality? Yet I’m OK with heroes who (like Sharpe) play a significant role in historic events. There I think we’re in Author’s Note territory.

One borderline area we’ve discussed before is the plethora of dukes in romance. There really weren’t that many of them and fewer who came into their titles young enough to be typical romance hero material. To me inventing a new duke is like inventing a new country; it makes sense only if it’s really going to drive the story. Otherwise, I think a lesser title or even (gasp!) none at all would be more realistic. After all, Mr. Darcy didn’t need a title just to be hot. ๐Ÿ™‚
What do you think? When do authors go too far in creating places and characters? When do you think an Author’s Note is required and when does work cross over into alternate history?
Elena
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Elizabeth Kerri Mahon
14 years ago

I think an author’s note is only required if you have changed actual facts in history the way Susan Johnson has done in her historicals when she moved actual battles around. I have no problem with some creating a fictional address in Bath, or if it was in the river. After all the apartment building that Lucy Ricardo lived in New York was also in the East River, and Sherlock Holme’s address never existed either.

In my current work in progress, my heroine goes to a fictional women’s college, although I have based it on actual colleges that existed in 1895. This gives me more leeway with curriculum, etc., I’m not bound by the actual history of Vassar or Bryn Mawr.

However, there are things I can’t change, which is how long it would take to get from Philadelphia to New York, or the fact that before 1905, there was no station in New York for the Pennslyvania RR, passengers had to take a ferry from NJ into the city.

Susan Wilbanks
14 years ago

It would never have occurred to me to notice that an address in Bath would’ve been in the river. Tell me it’s Bath, name-check a few of the important landmarks (preferably describing them in such a way that I believe you’ve at least looked at a map and some photos), and I’m good to go.

I’m fine with invented villages, great houses, etc. in any kind of book and can accept invented principalities and pocket kingdoms in stories with a fairytale feel. As for historical notes, if the author has a fictional character replace a historical figure at a key moment (as Sharpe often does, for example), I like the real person to get credit in a note.

I’m writing alternate history, and I still get bogged down on questions like this! For example, given the timing and circumstances of my plot, I don’t think my real person protagonist would’ve married the woman he wed in real life. Until recently, I wasn’t planning to give him a romance arc at all, but then I thought of a wonderful plot for him and one of my invented characters, so I’m just going to run with it. It feels weird, though, like having my real and fictional characters interbreed is going to create some kind of matter-antimatter reaction. ๐Ÿ™‚

Erastes
14 years ago

Couldn’t agree more about “too many nobles” – why do there need to be a plethora of Dukes and Earls in Regency? As you say – Darcy was just stinking rich – although there were Lords and Ladies too in Austen.

Austen also made places up and that’s the precedent I use.

Kalen Hughes
14 years ago

*No historical figures were displaced by the writing of his book*

I think I’m pretty close with you, Elena. Facts are facts, but everything else is up for grabs . . .

I can’t make my hero usurp the role of the Duke of Wellington, and I can’t create a new, legitimate son of George III to play around with, but I CAN create a bastard son for the Prince of Wales (as he was wild and likely to have had them). I can invent an estate for my hero, and steal a house for my heroine, even invent a frigate for my naval captain and let him have a piece of the action at Trafalgar (though not Nelsonโ€™s piece!).

I think itโ€™s fair to invent and fudge and play, so long as it all fits within the bounds of what was possible and doesnโ€™t change actual โ€œHistoryโ€ (with a capital โ€œHโ€). I donโ€™t get to move up the use of ether, or have potatoes magically appear in medieval Ireland, or let my heroine attended 18th century Oxford.

But, I see no difference between inventing a job for the hero of a contemporary book (heโ€™s the founder of the fantabulous internet search engine Quip, and heโ€™s a billionaire!) and creating a make-believe estate for my Georgian hero (heโ€™s an earl, with a large estate just outside of Hastings, and thirty-thousand a year!). Same/same.

Kalen Hughes
14 years ago

Why do there need to be a plethora of Dukes and Earls in Regency?

Because editors like them (and they like them because they claim they sell better than books about mere “misters”). And since we live and die by the numbers . . . we’ve learned to like them too.

Every hero doesn’t have to be titled, but having a titled figure to hitch your series to (aka a powerful family) is a huge marketing tool.

Janet Mullany
14 years ago

I invent places too. I’ve read some really tiresome (published) stuff where her heroine’s route across London reads like google map directions.

I have recently invented my first Duke, who really likes sheep and antiquities. I have this theory that the higher in rank my characters are, the more stupid they become. Keeps me happy.

Kalen Hughes
14 years ago

Janet, your pinko slip is showing. *grin*

Todd
14 years ago

Erastes wrote:

Why do there need to be a plethora of Dukes and Earls in Regency?

I agree with the main point of the question, which is “why does everyone have to have a title;” but just to be nit-picky, my understanding was that there were a lot more Earls than not only Dukes, but also Marquesses and Viscounts (since the title of Earl was a lot older). Isn’t that right? So if you do have a titled character, the odds would favor his being either a Baron or an Earl.

Not that this matters in the least.

Todd-who-wonders-if-they-could-introduce-an-in-between-title-like-visviscount-or-vismarquess

Cara King
14 years ago

I do think a reader who is annoyed at a house in the river is being too particular — but as a writer (and reader), I’d prefer a fake address interpolated in between real addresses, rather than one which would strike someone who knew the area as in the realm of fantasy. (Though I think if I knew an area well enough to notice such a thing, it would make me amused rather than annoyed.)

like having my real and fictional characters interbreed is going to create some kind of matter-antimatter reaction.

LOL, Susan! Now that’s a book I want to read. ๐Ÿ˜‰

I pretty much agree with everyone here as to when an author’s note is needed, and what can be changed/invented.

And I think that Regency authors who’ve been reading, writing, and researching the period with a care for history will have a much better sense of what can be fudged and what can’t than those who (let’s be honest — and don’t worry, I’m talking about books that came out ten or twenty or thirty years ago) one might conclude read three or four Regencies, one short book on Life In the Golden Past, and then wrote a novel.

I think we’ve all read books with egregious mistakes…and I picture the authors assuming that if they don’t know anything about piquet (or mail coaches or how to light a candle or inheritance law), then their readers couldn’t possibly know either, so they make up any crazy thing they like…

Um. Sorry. A bit off the subject there! But I was just packing up some of my very old Regencies for storage, and was a bit startled by some of the mistakes I noticed. (Not that I was reading when I should have been packing!!!) (Much.)

Cara

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

I wish I’d saved the traditional Regency where the nun just walked out of the convent so she could make sure the ward the nuns had reared was doing well in life.
There was also some danger happening; I no longer remember what, but they caught the bad guy by taking secret photographs in a dark gaming hell.

I actually wrote a letter to the editor, saying “What were you thinking?”

I wonder if that author ever sold a second book

Elena Greene
14 years ago

It feels weird, though, like having my real and fictional characters interbreed is going to create some kind of matter-antimatter reaction. ๐Ÿ™‚

LOL, Susan! But once you are doing alternate history (which is fine with me as long as it’s clear that’s what it is!) I imagine you need to go with the flow and accept new ripple effects from the changes you’ve planned, right?

Every hero doesn’t have to be titled, but having a titled figure to hitch your series to (aka a powerful family) is a huge marketing tool.

Too true. I don’t have a problem with titled heroes (I’ve “done” an earl, two viscounts, a baron, a baronet and a gentleman farmer so far) but as Todd points out, a lot of lesser titles were more common and there’s no reason you can’t still invent the family history and estate you wish.

I have recently invented my first Duke, who really likes sheep and antiquities. I have this theory that the higher in rank my characters are, the more stupid they become. Keeps me happy.

If you think about it, there must have been quite a bit of inbreeding amongst them. Fiction-wise, it’s amazing how the fathers of hero dukes all die young yet the sons are always models of physical perfection. Just maybe I am overthinking this! ๐Ÿ™‚

Cara, I love when you go off topic! And I know all about getting sidetracked when trying to tidy up a book collection…

Susan Wilbanks
14 years ago

I imagine you need to go with the flow and accept new ripple effects from the changes you’ve planned, right?

Yeah, and marrying my protagonist to someone totally invented is a tidier solution than finding a real woman who would’ve suited him (with an appropriate level of conflict along the way) and figuring out why she’d marry my guy instead of her real husband…creating a massive ripple effect where NO ONE would get to marry his/her real spouse.

My poor husband got an earful when I was explaining this aspect of the plot to him, though:

HUSBAND: I don’t see why he can’t just marry his real wife.

ME: Well, being a fugitive with people trying to kill you for several years tends to put a damper on marital plans. I mean, she’d be at risk, too.

HUSBAND: A secret marriage, then.

ME: ::sputters incoherently about English marriage law and how impossible such a course would be::

HUSBAND: OK, your book. Sheesh.

If you think about it, there must have been quite a bit of inbreeding amongst them. Fiction-wise, it’s amazing how the fathers of hero dukes all die young yet the sons are always models of physical perfection. Just maybe I am overthinking this! ๐Ÿ™‚

Well, it seems like a lot of those fathers drown in boating accidents or break their necks when thrown while fox hunting, so it doesn’t have to imply bad DNA. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Me, I just figure the inbreeding adds up over time. Like, the First Duke of Whozit had to be pretty clever and capable at something, or he wouldn’t have been granted the title, and maybe some of that talent is still there in his son and grandson, but the 12th Duke is less likely to appeal.

Todd
14 years ago

Susan wrote:

Well, it seems like a lot of those fathers drown in boating accidents or break their necks when thrown while fox hunting, so it doesn’t have to imply bad DNA. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Except perhaps a) a tendency towards risky behavior, b) an inherited lack of buoyancy, or c) an attraction to dangerously tall horses.

Todd-who-inherited-an-exaggerated-penchant-for-flippant-comments

Lois
14 years ago

Well, it all depends — addresses are definitely no big deal to me. In fact, if I were to sit down and try writing something, it simply makes more sense. As as someone else pointed out (but in a vastly better way), there is no real Pemberley or the like.

But author notes for major changes in history, maybe they are a good idea — and I’m not even thinking for people who already know the history when reading it. I’ve read plenty which I wouldn’t have known the difference, but there was that last page with a note, and I just thought it was nice to see. In the end, to me it’s fiction, so you can do just about anything you want (and if it’s time travel or alternate history, you can do anything you want), but giving a fact or two just adds to the experience, but also if you already knew it, arguably, it also lets you know that yep, the author knows what the real facts where, but this change just helped out to tell their story. ๐Ÿ™‚

Lois

Amanda McCabe
14 years ago

“There was also some danger happening; I no longer remember what, but they caught the bad guy by taking secret photographs in a dark gaming hell.”

LOL! Nuns AND photographs all in one story, oh my. ๐Ÿ™‚ That sounds like a good laugh.

I always make up faux houses for my characters to live in (though generally with the looks of a real house in mind!), and generally give them titles because editors like that. Though I do have often laugh at the plethora of dukes in stories–if there were really so many, it would be a challenge for a girl to marry someone who was NOT a duke, wouldn’t it? Ah, now there is a good story title–“A Duke Will Never Do”

Kalen Hughes
14 years ago

I just realized I don’t have any dukes yet! I have one marquis and anyone else who’s titled is either and earl or a lower. Hmmm, maybe I need me a duke . . .

MrsMalcolmDarcy
14 years ago

I am an amateur fiction writer but like to be as professional as possible. Jane Austen purposely didn’t use Earls or Dukes names, such as Mr. Darcy’s cousin (or was his uncle still alive?). We never find out if he’s the Earl of —- or the Earl of —–. I feel awkward not giving a name in my foray in a P&P sequel. Is there a forum where to discuss such intracacies?

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

MrsMalcolmDarcy

There are TONS of sites that would probably love to discuss the intracacies of writing Regency. I know of only The Beau Monde, the Regency writers’ chapter of the Romance Writers of America. No one knows more than these ladies and gentlemen. But it is an expensive proposition $90 to join RWA and $35 or so to join Beau Monde. If you are pursuing publication, though, it will be worth it.
http://thebeaumonde.com/
http://rwanational.org/

In Austen’s time it was the convention to use Lord–, a dash instead of a name. These days we just make them up.
Whatever name you make up, Google it in its variations ( Earl of Nonsense, Earl Nonsense, Lord Nonsense, eg ) and you can be pretty certain it is not a real one.
Hope that helps!
Come back to visit us! We talk about Regency all the time.

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