Historical Accuracy in Romance Novels


Poking my head out of my writing cave for a while, and probably because at the moment I’m working on a historical project, the thing that is playing on my mind is the fraught subject of historical accuracy.

Sometimes its a simple matter.  Either something existed at the time the novel is set or it didn’t. In a straightforward historical you can’t have characters using or talking about something that hasn’t been invented yet (unless of course it includes time travel or other genre specific concepts that would make it acceptable to the readership). Recently my editor pinged me for using the word co-conspirator in a Regency, a word that wasn’t invented until the mid twentieth century – so there was no question the word had to go.

But then there are the grey areas when something is known or has been invented but is still not very common or not yet commercially produced. What do you do then? How much latitude should you take?

Sometimes research of primary sources can turn up descriptions of events or reveal attitudes that seem at odds with all the conventional wisdom about how people acted and thought at that time. Do you use the information to inform and possibly make your work more interesting or cut it on the basis that it may stretch the readers credibility too far?

Behaviour is another fraught subject. As a writer do you confine yourself to what the etiquette books of the time have to say on the subject and what the majority of society might have adhered to as appropriate standards of morality and proper conduct, or in purusit of the story do you take liberties and imagine how your character could have acted if they had the money and/or the power, or the opportunity and motivation to do otherwise?

And then there is the related reality check question of how closely people adhered to the etiquette of the time in actual fact.  Any modern treatise on etiquette is going to tell you that its considered ill mannered to write all in capital letters in an email (shouting) or leave your mobile on in a restaurant (and then add to the insult by speaking loudly on it when it rings), or forget to turn off your mobile in a movie theatre, but does it happen? Oh yeah.

And so far we haven’t even gotten into the whole issue of historiography and how writers and historians of secondary sources in the decades subsequent to the time period of your novel may have depicted it in ways that were coloured by their own expectations and prejudices thereby skewing what really happened.

So as a writer just how much should you allow yourself to be swayed by conclusions drawn by others and how much can you assume based on your own knowlege of base human desires and human nature about what people would really have done when they thought no one was looking or they could get away with it?

I guess in the final analysis I’ve come down on the side of taking a liberal approach. While  that may make some of my old history lecturers shudder, a historical romance is not a historical thesis, its a story about people and possibilities, and unless something is an outright historical impossibility the characters have to be allowed to tell their stories.

And anyway, just try and stop them. Once a character comes to life they have a tendency to  start charging all over the page doing and saying whatever they damn well please…





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