I hope I never reach a point in my career where I will feel perfectly confident dispensing literary commandments like Moses with stone tablets. But since I was raised Catholic, I thought I’d take a humbler stab at The Gospel of Historical Fiction according to Stephanie Dray.
And my gospel is a do-unto-others, live-and-let-live sort of philosophy that applies to life as well as art. It’s also full of forgiveness. Which is why I decided to start with this essay.
The craft of historical fiction is to build a world that the reader can believe in and learn from; that means doing your homework. Making the extra effort to get it right. And if you’re friends with any historical fiction authors you’ll hear the voice of martyrdom behind every book as authors rip through primary and secondary sources, make timelines, study ‘daily life’ guides, immerse themselves in a time period’s music, artwork, food, and culture. It’s intense. And it’s one of the reasons that many authors choose to write in the same time period over and over again. Because it’s easier to write what you know. (I didn’t learn about Roman underwear just to use it in one story. If I have to learn to spell subligaculum, you’d better believe it’s going to come up again.)
The things historical fiction authors will do in the name of historical accuracy gives us our eccentric reputations–we march the length of Hadrian’s wall in full Roman military gear. We make evidence boards like detectives on a cold case. We travel, we visit libraries, graveyards, and museums. We interview people–some of them in languages we don’t speak. I myself was subject to an intervention when I decided to ferment shellfish in order to reproduce the ancient process of making purple dye. This kind of research is not only fun and enriching, but also gives us a whiff of saintly virtue. We lose sleep over finding out the exact color of grapes in a region of France 2000 years ago. Or what color Jefferson’s dining room was during a certain year. Or whether or not a certain word was in use in 1776.
Ah, how we suffer for our art. And I know our readers appreciate it.
But there comes a time in every author’s life when the book simply must be finished. There are deadlines, co-authors, publishers, family obligations and bills to pay, not to mention readers waiting for a delicious new book to read. It is the rare historical novel that could ever pay a dividend large enough to justify spending more than a few years in its creation. And one of the hardest and most upsetting things I ever learned about my vocation is that when that time comes–when the world yanks the manuscript out of your hands–there are going to be mistakes in it.
Some mistakes won’t even be the author’s fault. New discoveries will be made that couldn’t be anticipated and now the novel no longer has the latest scholarship, or has a mistake of historical error that no one could have known before. Sometimes, typos will be introduced during the production process and the author will have no part in them getting there. (See: One of my very first published books, first page, missing comma that was there when I last saw the manuscript, and which I always fill in whenever I sign that book because it bothers me so much.)
But most of the errors will be the author’s fault. Because after ten rounds of editing, complete with critique partners, production editors, copy editors and proofreaders, a typo or mistake of grammar or punctuation or spelling might evade notice. The longer the book, the more likely this is to happen. The hope is always that enough eyes will catch everything, but it’s never a guarantee.
Then there are the errors of fact that slip past the author. This might happen because the author relied upon source material that contained an error. (Shocker, but non-fiction sources are frequently riddled with errors, not to mention the unreliability of primary sources. Ie. Jefferson is mistaken on occasion, and Alexander Hamilton doesn’t even seem to remember how old he is.)
More likely errors slip past the author because it was something they didn’t think to question. And in historical fiction, you have to question everything. Did they have buttons, what fuel sources did they use, how did they go to the privy, what flora and fauna occupied the area? You can take nothing for granted.
I recently saw a book criticized for a description of bright headlights during a relatively brief period of human history where they were outlawed in a given region. To me, this is relatively obscure information; laws about headlights wouldn’t make it onto most people’s radar about what to research. But to the unfortunate reader immersed in this time period, it was jarring enough to throw down the book. And we can’t blame a reader for doing that; if a particular error pulls them so far out of the story as to ruin their suspension of disbelief, well, that experience is ruined for them. They paid some amount of money for a pleasurable reading experience and they didn’t get it and that’s always disappointing.
By the same token, I dislike to see colleagues getting overly sniffy about how accurate their own work is when compared with <insert competitor>. Because I guarantee you–in fact I’m of half a mind to issue a challenge–there are errors in these books. No matter how well researched, no matter how attentive to detail you might think you are, subjected to the harshest criterion, you will have been found to have made a mistake.
Which is why some of the most careful, professional, and amazing writers in the genre simply devote parts of their public presence to acknowledging those mistakes when they are made. See: Sharon Kay Penman and her “Medieval Mishaps.” I follow her example. And I often advise newer authors to do the same.
As a historical fiction author, be hard on yourself when it comes to checking, and double checking. If you’re anything like me, you will regret a mistake long after readers have forgotten it. You owe it to readers to do your best.
You owe exactly that, no less, and no more.
I myself will lose sleep and run myself into the ground to make sure that whatever book I publish is the absolute best book I could possibly write within the time frame I am given. That is my promise to readers and the obligation I’ve taken upon myself. I encourage new authors to do the same.
But your best will never be perfect. And that’s okay.
According to the Gospel of Historical Fiction by Stephanie Dray: You Are Forgiven.