On Historical Accuracy (And Whether It Matters)

October 11, 2011

These days, the quickest way to start an internet pie fight is to bring up the subject of historical accuracy in fiction. The discussion almost inevitably breaks down into arguments about personal preference that masquerade as objective tenets of literary faith.

Certainly, I don’t have the hubris to believe I can solve the matter with a single blog post, but I feel compelled to weigh in. However, this is less of a coherent essay or presentation of an argument than it is an exercise in clarifying my own thoughts through a dialog with fellow lovers of historical fiction.

To that end, it’s helpful to identify the parties to the argument.

First, we have the readers and writers who believe historical fiction should not veer from the historical record for any purpose. I won’t call them purists, because that carries with it a value judgment, so I’ll call them chroniclers. They value fiction that won’t lead them to believe false things about history or force them to look things up to make sure it’s true. In a sense, they want their historical fiction to be a personalized and more intimate form of the biography. (More on that later.)

Another party to the dispute are a group that I’ll call the fantasists. They are the writers who use or abuse history to any purpose, and the readers who love them for it. You might have alternate history, like Harry Turtledove’s which imagines an entirely different world outcome if some key event changed. You have historical figures changed into vampires, like Janet Mullany‘s Jane Austen or Maria Davahna Headley’s Cleopatra. You have Marion Zimmer Bradley and Diana Paxson turning legend into a type of pseudo-history in Mists of Avalon series and then there’s Guy Gavriel Kay, turning actual history into fantasy. Some of these stories hew very closely to history and some of them are so wild and wooly that anything obviously goes. In some sense, novels at this extreme end of the spectrum are immune from criticism because they go so wrong that they’re right.

When stories fail on the grounds of “historical inaccuracy” it’s usually because the work fails to meet either the allegedly “high” standards of the chroniclers, or, conversely, fail to be clever enough to earn a pass. In short, the errors of historical fact seem to be unintentional, unacknowledged, or without purpose, literary or otherwise. Readers will forgive a lot as long as the work isn’t sloppy.

But what to do about all the fiction in the middle of the spectrum that offends one kind of reader or the other?

On the one hand, I value historical fiction that doesn’t gloss over the grim realities of the past in order to avoidย accusations of glorifying sexism, racism or discrimination. I’m frustrated by critiques of literature that focus on the surface unpleasantness while failing to examine the subtext below. In my opinion, the best books are those that make a reader feel uncomfortable and cause him or her to examine assumptions. That’s one of the reasons I read and write historical fiction, which has a great capacity to educate, to illuminate, and to inspire. So, when chroniclers cry, “Your criticism is invalid because it’s historically accurate” they are defending the inherent value in holding up a mirror either to the past, or to the present. They don’t think it should matter that the reader’s sensibilities have been bruised, because they see an overwhelming social value in the pummeling. I sympathize with that sentiment.

On the other hand,ย I’m of the firm belief thatย historical fiction isn’t fiber; it doesn’t have to be good for you. I don’t believe in berating readers for enjoying insufficiently pure works of art, such as Braveheart or The Other Boleyn Girl. I’m frustrated with critiques of literature that overlook superlative storytelling, myth-shaping, or even fun-romps because the work is deemed to be insufficiently weighty. (As if all historical fiction must be anchored with tedious historical detail and cannot be shaken from the moorings of fact–even to keep the reader from being bored silly.) Nevermind that the real lives of historical figures seldom fall into a neat narrative arc and that large portions of a person’s life are spent waiting, frustrated, mired down with meaningless coincidences, and so on. Truly, half the challenge of a good historical fiction writer is to wrestle the biography into a structure that at least vaguely approximates the hero’s journey. And there are a number of Hollywood blockbusters that may well have beenย saved by historical inaccuracy.

It seems to me that historical fiction writers are not to be confused with biographers or historians. In fact, I worry that strict chroniclers may conflate the art of historical fiction with what should be a more neutral and academic science of biography. (I’ve never been entirely sure why strict chroniclers prefer historical fiction over biography–into which biases may still creep, but which is generally a more neutral and academic approach.) Recently, several excellent historians have turned themselves into historical fiction authors and I have not enjoyed the results–probably that is because of my own literary preferences, which are informed by a steadfast belief that history is written by the victors and inherently unreliable. I’m made uncomfortable by historical fiction masquerading as the truth and nothing but; it’s always an exercise in perspective.

At any rate, though I know more useless trivia than anyone should about Cleopatra, her children, and the Julio-Claudians, my degrees are in Government and Law, not in history. My methodology is not academic but artistic, with an eye to sociology. I wouldn’t presume to hold myself out as anything other than I am. I am a storyteller.

I make choices.

For example, I choose to explore the topic of Ptolemaic incest in my books because I think it’s important for readers to know about this practice and understand its political value in the ancient world. I also explore it because I think it’s a kind of dysfunction that flows naturally from the torments and tragedies that were experienced by my heroine, Cleopatra Selene. (I’ll write more about this choice in another post, for those who are interested, but there are people who aren’t going to like my choices and that’s okay.)

While I weave my story through known historical events and carefully document any departures I make in the narrative, my books are likely to turn off chroniclers. My stories include goddesses, elemental magic, liberated heroines, and hieroglyphics that scroll down the arms in blood. My books are written in the language of allegory.

Even so, they are also works of historical fiction. I know there are genre expectations and I both honor those expectations and strive to meet them. I have drawn lines around my fiction that I won’t cross. I won’t change known outcomes in history. If someone won a battle in the past, they will win it in my books, too. If someone couldn’t possibly have been alive at a certain time, they aren’t alive in my books. (Although, even Gore Vidal has broken that rule.) If it’s a detail I can get right by applying myself to research, I will apply myself. (Though, perhaps my idea to ferment shellfish in my backyard so as to reproduce the process of creating ancient purple dye…is overkill.) In short, I’m not going to change anything about history without a very intentional, and acknowledged purpose. And if I make mistakes–and I will–I promise to admit them.

These are my rules when it comes to historical accuracy, and they matter to me.

But I don’t expect them to matter to anyone else.

24 Responses to On Historical Accuracy (And Whether It Matters)

  • I don’t really care about historical accuracy when it comes to fiction so much as I care about being entertained. It’s fiction. I’m not expecting a lesson and I already know there won’t be a quiz.

  • I think that’s an excellent set of rules to follow. Nothing irks me more than someone who slaps the “historical” label on a book but doesn’t do basic research, like knowing customs and diet and what people did for a living. Even in pure fantasy with a medieval setting some sense of consistency is needed (I once read a fantasy where the hero and sidekick went into a tavern in a tiny village and ordered a brand-name beer; it would have been OK if he had been going for camp but he wasn’t). An awful lot of the past makes us go “Eeeuuw!” but that’s the past for you. I know someone whose parents are first cousins. It wasn’t long ago that that was not only normal but dead common, but it makes my 22-year-old daughter make a face and shudder.

  • I’ve been thinking a lot about historical accuracy recently. I’m somewhere between the chroniclers and the fantasists – if minor details aren’t perfect, I don’t mind, but I expect the writer to get the overall timeline, facts, etc. generally correct (or have a good reason not to).

    What has really started to bother me, though, is when a character’s motivations utterly ignore the milieu that they’re part of. I write Regency and love reading historical romances – but I’m seeing more and more books where the heroine does something rather unbelievable (i.e. lose her virginity in a semi-public place) without sufficient motivation behind it. I think it’s the weird byproduct of the industry’s increased demand for explicit sex, as early and often as possible, and the simultaneous demand for older heroines (who may be desperate for sex, but are also old enough that I don’t buy them throwing everything away for ‘love’ – it often feels wrong, like Elizabeth Bennet suddenly turning into Lydia). I can believe anything if the motivation is there, but the *historically-accurate/inspired* motivation is often lacking.

    Okay, sorry to rant on your blog ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m eager to read SONG OF THE NILE because it sounds like you really cared about Cleopatra Selene’s motivation and made her choices believable! And I’ve been obsessed with the Egyptians/Romans since childhood, so this is my reward for finishing the next draft.

    • Sara, please feel free to rant on my blog at any time. On the one hand, I’m fine with fiction that wants to use a historical backdrop as a fun romp. (ie. Heroines who are always plucky feminists.) On the other hand, I think it’s important that an author make it clear that their plucky feminists are -exceptions- to the rule in their time. What do you think? (And truthfully, sometimes I would rather read about the psychology of someone who was a product of his or her time.)

      • I will at least try to keep my rants applicable to the topic of your blog ๐Ÿ™‚ I agree – I really don’t mind the plucky feminists, the before-his-time humanitarian, etc. But unless it’s a time-travel romance, the plucky feminist still has to deal with the world she’s living in, and it starts to bother me when that world and consequences are completely ignored.

        And I, too, would like to read more about people who are products of their times. It just seems that the industry allows certain types of ‘reality’ (ultra-alpha chauvinists, spinster bluestockings, whatever), but wouldn’t accept racist/sexist/classist/imperialist tendencies in heroes/heroines. I’m not saying I necessarily want that kind of hero/heroine – but I do find it interesting that villains are often products of their times, and sometimes villainized mostly for *being* a product of their times. What do you think – am I just completely ranting at this point?

  • I care about historical accuracy to the extent that I want to feel I’m immersed in that different time and place. That doesn’t mean that every event described in the book must actually have happened or that the historical events that surround the book must occur in precisely the order or at exactly the time described in the book, but it does mean that I don’t want potatoes cropping up on the dinner table in a book set in the Mediterranean in ancient times :).

    I’m probably slightly pickier than the average reader about what will pull me out of the time period, at least when we’re talking about the ancient world, because my degree IS in Classics (although in 20+ years, I’ve forgotten far more about ancient Greek and Roman history, language, and culture than I remember!). Still, I don’t necessarily insist upon a perfect chronicle of events, and if the world-building is good (think Marion Zimmer-Bradley), I’m even less likely to CARE that it’s not accurate because I know from the story that it’s truly a fantasy and not intended to be read as having taken place in any “real” world.

    I do like an author to provide a note at the end of the book letting me know if they changed the sequence of events to suit the story arc, though.

    On all fronts, though, for me, SONG OF THE NILE has been a win!

  • I feel about this topic similarly to how I feel about banning books. Some parents ban books because there’s “witchcraft” and “magic” in the books and they don’t want their children to be exposed to that. If you’re child can’t tell the difference between what is real and what isn’t, that’s your failing, not the author’s. So if you can’t tell the difference between history and historical fiction, that’s your failing, not the authors. It says right there in the description, historical FICTION. Don’t like it, don’t read it.

  • Right. I guess I just think people should realize that every time they open a book, they’re taking a risk. They have no way of knowing what that author has put down in that book. It may offend them, it may disgust them, but the author has a right to write whatever they think works for their book. For example, there was a scene in Song of the Nile that SHOCKED the heck out of me. But I didn’t read it and think “Well this character did a horrible thing and Stephanie Dray created this character so Stephanie Dray must be a horrible person”. I am able to separate the novel from the novelist and I guess some people just aren’t. I think I just switched from this topic to a topic you blogged about more recently… whoops.

  • Excellent piece and I have saved it to re-read.

  • Please tell me you did not really ferment shellfish in your backyard? I want to read that recollection ๐Ÿ™‚

  • I’m somewhere in between the chronicler and fantasist–I like a story to be pretty accurate, but then again I’ve chosen an historical fantasy for my freshman WIP. My main concern, however, is more about accurate details. If an author admits up front that he/she changed certain facts to suit the story, I respect and can even admire that author for his/her honesty, and I (probably) don’t mind reading that book. But if an author claims to have written a very historically accurate book, and then makes cringe-worthy and even laughable mistakes concerning food, clothing, hairstyles, architecture, names…ugh. I lose all respect for that author. It’s easy to bluff your way through something until a knowledgeable reader realizes that you have egg splattered all over your face.

    Oh dear, I’ve been ranting. I’ve read at least two books like that. Basically what I mean is that authors who write historical fiction should actually do more research than watching a few documentaries and skimming a couple picture books. And if they change things, they should admit it. That’s why I’m a huge fan of historical notes and/or brief bibliographies at the end of historical novels.

    Whew! I really needed to get all that out. It’s an issue that’s been bugging me for a long time.

  • Dear Ms. Dray, I just finished reading Song of the Nile (it is now residing in splendor next to its predecessor on my bookshelf) and had to comment. First of all, I’m really picky about what historical fiction I’ll read and what I do read is almost strictly about The Tudors, except for my weakness for all things Egyptian…so I was really excited to discover your books.
    When I first read Lily of the Nile I was struck at the great balance you’ve got going between history and fiction, and then that touch of fantasy which works so well. (I usually hate fantasy-history books but you pulled it off in a way that was dare I say believable.) Anyways I love your writing. Adore it. Which brings me to my next point, in reading Song of the Nile I was initially shocked to see that you were going down the route of incest between Selene and Helios, but after I got over the fact that you included it I was really quite pleased. I’ve only encountered a couple historical fiction authors who would dare touch on such things, and of them all, yours had the most basis so far as historical accuracy went. It was also very tastefully done. At first I was kind of disappointed that Juba and Selene’s marriage wasn’t as romantic as I’d naively thought it would be, but her deep connection to Helios made perfect sense, and through that I was able to come to terms with the fact that her relationship with Juba was one of politics, and eventually, mutual understanding.

    Anyways, sorry to go off on a huge tangent. Just wanted to say how much I love your books and that I’ll be eagerly awaiting news of your next project. (:

    • Thanks so much for your comments! It’s been a tricky business to pull off all that I’ve wanted to between Selene, Helios and Juba. Right now I’m working on the third and final installment of the trilogy so that we can find out what happened to Selene and her children, and Isis ๐Ÿ˜‰ Meanwhile, I should mention that if you review any of my books you could win an e-reader and other prizes. (See https://www.stephaniedray.com/2011/09/06/want-an-e-reader-win-one-from-me/ for details.) As you can see, your chances are pretty darn good! (Also, contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to have bought the book from Amazon in order to do a review there. You just have to log into your account, go to the book, and click the ‘Create Your Own Review’ button ๐Ÿ˜‰