May 25, 2007

History or Fairytale

by Donna Hatch

In my on-line writing group for Regency Writers, some of us were bemoaning the fact that so many novels labeled historicals are historically inaccurate. In the 80’s, historicals were pretty much anything goes. A few authors did a great job of blending a great story with historical accuracy, but many best-selling authors just wrote whatever they wanted and didn’t worry about any kind of research. Unfortunately, publishers let them get away with it and readers swallowed it.

A prime example of this is the myth that marriage could be quietly annulled if it wasn’t consummated. I don’t know who started that, but it is unarguably false. There was an ancient Scottish tradition that allowed for annulment in certain circumstances, but for all intents and purposes, marriage was permanent. Furthermore, annulment was messy and scandalous and never, ever happened quietly. It also socially ruined them both. Even divorce was difficult to obtain until King Henry VII legalized divorce in England, and even then, never became an easy thing to do until late in the 20th century.

Today, more and more publishers are looking for historical accuracy, but still not enough to satisfy many history geeks. The winner of a nationally recognized HISTORICAL contest began her Regency novel with a grand wedding full of descriptions that are modern inventions which never happened in that era. Why did she win? It was a lovely fantasy that blended history with modern-day "traditions" and she was a good writer. Too bad the judges overlooked the fact that it was historically inaccurate. A few hours spent in research would have won her not only the contest, but the respect of other regency authors and the well-informed reader who knows better.

Why do we care about historical accuracy? Several reasons. First, its true. The fiction comes from the plot and the characters, not the setting. Second, it helps preserve our heritage. Third, we can learn from the past and see that maybe the good old days weren’t all that good, or that they were wonderful and should be treasured. Fourth, many readers (and writers) are fascinated with that era and want sources to guide them through it. Fifth, keeping an accurate backdrop helps shape the characters. Research is more than just learning about what the clothing looked like, or what kind of carriages they drove; its about society and people. It’s a realm long gone and our only doorway back is through painstaking research.

Some say, “Oh, well, it’s the story we want and the fantasy that entertains us.” To that I say, “Well, fine, then label it a fantasy, not a historical.” If you’re going to call a novel Historical, or Historical Fiction, do the research. I know it's a pain. I've had characters nagging me to write their stories for years but I resisted because I didn't want to do the amount of research that would be required. Finally, when they wouldn't leave me alone, I broke down and began researching. It's hard, and frustrating, and very time consuming. But I know it will be worth it.

In the midst of the on-line ranting, one of the published authors in my group shared with us her philosophy:

As a writer, my job is threefold:

1) do my homework well enough to please my fellow history geeks,

2) make the story compelling enough to hook readers who don't care whether or not it's accurate, and

3) don't stress over writers/readers who prefer the fairytale.

It resonated within me. I hope it helps you, too.


  1. Donna,
    I enjoyed reading your post. I get so frustrated when I find out that so many things I have read with the belief it is true and accurate is in reality just a picture in someone's imagination...or worse yet, someone's desire to change the facts to fit their needs. I wish more people would speak out...

  2. Yea, Donna. If we write what we know, we write what we live through, observe, or research from reliable sources. All else is fantasy, right? I'm glad you like to research, Donna, because I don't particularly like to. It's so much work. But it's exciting to uncover new info., so it's worth it. I find I have to research just to recall things to put in my autobiography!

    I'm glad to know we can trust what you write will be historically accurate where it's supposed to be.

  3. Interesting post... but if you're reading a book about people who never existed, doing things that were never done, often holding attitudes that no one in that era would have held, exactly how much of an attachment to a "true" portrayal can you really claim?

    It can probably be called "sloppy work" if a book touted as historical includes too many obvious anachronisms, but if historic inaccuracy bothers you, read biographies from that era. Or don't, as it turns out historians often disagree about history as well! And people will quickly reject any historic account with which they disagree for whatever reason. Why hold fiction to a higher standard than actual history?


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