Does historical accuracy really matter?

carriageI was down much of this week due to a stomach bug, but I’ve had a great time catching up today. ¬†What an interesting week we’ve had at the Riskies!

Diane started out with Real Research? a discussion of whether it’s OK to base one’s research on that of popular authors in your genre. Then Amanda posted on Real Things (objects from Jane Austen’s life), Carolyn posted an Interview with Susan Broadwater of the Regency Library and Janet brought us the fascinating story of Anne Lister in Same Sex Marriage, 1834.

Diane’s original post reminded me of a recent writers’ loop discussion of historical accuracy. Some people were shocked when I put forward my belief that HISTORICAL ACCURACY IS NOT IMPORTANT when it comes to having a successful career writing Regency era romance.

I’ve read enough bestsellers, RITA finalists and even RITA winners in the genre that include errors of title usage, people traveling from London to Cornwall in the matter of a few hours, horses galloping for hundreds of miles without dropping dead, etc… to know this is true. Their popularity proves that there are vast numbers of romance readers out there who don’t care much about such things.

I don’t even mean this as a criticism of these authors. Not at all. Their popularity proves that they are consummate professionals. They are providing good entertainment for their loyal readers, they are supporting themselves, putting their kids through college, etc… All things I want to do. And they’re doing it by writing good STORIES.

The lesson I take away is that the story (in this case, the romance) comes first.

Does this mean I don’t research any more? Not at all, for several reasons. First, why annoy the smaller percentage of readers who are knowledgeable enough to be annoyed by things that can be checked relatively easily?

But the main reason I research is because it’s part of my process. It helps ME write MY stories. I have never gotten reader mail complimenting me on my meticulous research (and heck, I make mistakes too). But I have gotten mail and reviews saying my stories were a bit different, in a good way.

The point is, research inspires me.

I’m feeling more inspired this week, having added some books to my TBR list and resolved to subscribe to the Regency Library!

What inspires you?


About Elena Greene

Elena Greene grew up reading anything she could lay her hands on, including her mother's Georgette Heyer novels. She also enjoyed writing but decided to pursue a more practical career in software engineering. Fate intervened when she was sent on a three year international assignment to England, where she was inspired to start writing romances set in the Regency. Her books have won the National Readers' Choice Award, the Desert Rose Golden Quill and the Colorado Romance Writers' Award of Excellence. Her Super Regency, LADY DEARING'S MASQUERADE, won RT Book Club's award for Best Regency Romance of 2005 and made the Kindle Top 100 list in 2011. When not writing, Elena enjoys swimming, cooking, meditation, playing the piano, volunteer work and craft projects. She lives in upstate New York with her two daughters and more yarn, wire and beads than she would like to admit.
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15 Responses to Does historical accuracy really matter?

  1. In many ways I agree with you, Elena. I like writing regencies partly because it is such a challenge to develop interesting characters with goals in life that are both understandable to contemporary readers and period-accurate. The research is a major part of the writing and some of us sort of “live” in the late 18th and early 19 Cs. I think many of the genre’s bestselling authors are really writing chick lit in costume and can laugh all the way to the bank — while I am still in the library stacks! Readers may love their books, and I have to give them credit for that. However, I find I cannot continue when I come to “one of those scenes” in which the heroine is clearly doing zumba rather than the Sir Roger de Coverly! But luckily there is room for all of us…keep up your excellent work.

    • Elena says:

      There are also bestselling authors who do care about the historical background, so like you I think there’s room for all of us. Especially with self publishing, which has shown that readers can be open to a variety that traditional publishing hasn’t always offered.

  2. I think you have to do as much research as is necessary to still respect yourself in the morning. In other words, it’s between you and the writing, because no one is going to like what you do all the time or even necessarily believe your tried and true weird historical facts. Like you, I too am inspired by oddities of history, though I’m not writing anything soon about Anne Lister who sounds both awesome and deeply unpleasant! And I find that readers either describe my books as being hopelessly anachronistic or totally and absolutely historically accurate.

    • Elena says:

      I’m not surprised you get divergent opinions, Janet. I think a lot of it is based on readers perceptions of the historical period, which vary depending on what they’ve read before and maybe what they want to believe.

      My interest in the period started with Georgette Heyer, but my understanding has evolved a lot with further research.

  3. Phyllis says:

    There’s a series that I love, but almost didn’t read because in the very first book, the characters arrive in the morning on a boat across the Channel and ride all the way to Paris in a carriage – with many comments about muddy, half-frozen roads – in one day. And get there in winter before dusk. You MIGHT be able to drive that far in one day now if traffic’s not against you (though traffic around Paris is always against you), but it’s more than 200 miles.

  4. diane says:

    Elena, I agree with you. Readers don’t care about historical accuracy as much as I do. But, for me, fitting in the “real” history is part of the fun of writing Historicals. The better the history fits in with my story, the better I like it.

  5. Cara King says:

    Interesting discussion! I mostly come down on the pro-accuracy side of the debate, but not as strongly as I used to. Part of me thinks “why bother to set it in the past if you’re going to ignore the past while doing so? It’s like setting a novel in London and having everyone talk like Californians.” But part of me thinks “How come Sheridan and Shakespeare and Bronte could have unbelievable occurrences, heightened worlds, and make-believe versions of reality, but I can’t?”

    So I think in the end I’m in the sort-of-middle and sort-of-research side, with lots of footnotes. (For example, I think the more comic the world, the more one can exaggerate all sorts of things.)

  6. Susan/DC says:

    Depends on what part of historical accuracy is involved. There are things I know are historically accurate, such as owning slaves or teenage girls married to men twice their age, that I just don’t find romantic even if they are true to their times. Compared to these issues, inaccurate travel times or covers that portray men’s shirts open to the waist are minor to me because they don’t affect the central relationship. But I’m well aware that the things that bring me right out of the story don’t bother others, so it’s definitely a personal thing.

    • Elena says:

      Sorry I’m responding so late, Susan. Out of town and away from Internet a lot.

      Your point about historical accuracy is well taken. Just because there’s something that was done historically doesn’t mean everyone did it–and we can choose whether or not our characters go along with it.

      Historical accuracy has been used as a tired old justification for perp heroes in historical romances. It’s not as if all men were rapists any more than they are now. Why should something like that be more acceptable in historical than contemporary romance?

  7. Caz says:

    I admit, I generally come down on the side of accuracy. Not in the sense of worrying if the date of an important event is out by one day, or something like that; my pet peeve is characters – normally the female ones – behaving in a way that would have been completely unfitting for a young, well brought-up female at the time. I read something recently in which the heroine’s actions were so completely unfeasible that it ruined the entire book for me. Anachronistic dialogue is a similar no-no (I’ve read a couple of books recently where the heroine sounded more like an American teenager – “he must have enjoyed the dance, right?” – “spill it” etc.)
    I can forgive much if the characterisation and writing are good, but as someone has said upthread, if you’re just going to put your characters in pretty frocks and breeches without any reference to the social mores of the time, there’s no point in writing a historical. I would imagine that part of the challenge is in finding a scenario in which the hero and heroine can be brought together in a realistic and romantic way without flouting too many of society’s rules.

    • Elena says:

      Caz, people did flout society’s rules. Think about Lady Caroline Lamb. The thing is, one doesn’t break the rules without real or at least potential consequences. And the reasons for breaking rules are an important part of the characterization.

      Contemporary romance in costume doesn’t really work for me either, most of the time. OTOH it works for a lot of readers. I’m glad there is room for variety in the genre.

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