Five Historical Pitfalls to Avoid

Next to fantasy, historical fiction is my favorite genre. Like fantasy, historical fiction transports me to a different world, far removed from my ordinary existence.  I can visit exotic locales, enter new cultures and societies, and explore life from a very different perspective. Most of the problems faced by the characters are not so foreign that I can’t relate to them, but they’re not exactly going to be popping up in my daily life, either. Historical is also far and away my favorite romance sub-genre.

So my question today is just how historical do you like your historical fiction?

I feel like this question is especially relevant to historical romance. After all, in historical fiction, the answer is largely going to be shaped by the story you want to tell. If you’re interested in exploring the personal life of a historical figure, you are going to be confined by the known facts of that person’s life, but weave your imaginative story through the gaps and unknown details. If you’re telling the fictional story of someone who might have lived during a certain time period, you have much more leeway, although you still have certain parameters.

But in historical romance, the focus is typically on the romance, not the history. So just how important are all those historical details?

In my opinion, there are  five major  pitfalls that a romance author can fall into:

1. History Professor Gone Wild

I know you love the time period. I know you’ve done all this research. But for the love of heaven, I want to read a romance novel, not a dissertation on  Regency-era fashion or a treatise on the position of women in Victorian society.

This is an area where balance is key. Bringing in some key political or social issues can distinguish your story from the crowd of generic “balls and dances” (or whatever the cliche is for your historical subgenre). One of my favorite Regencies is The Trouble With Harriet by Wilma Counts, in which the heroine, Harriet, is secretly a political writer whose seditious writing bring down the ire of the government. Naturally, this involves quite a bit of discussion on child labor, education, and other social issues. What makes this work is how entwined it with the characters and the romance. Marcus, the hero, is firmly opposed to practically all of Harriet’s liberal views, and their constant battling sets sparks flying. Both of them have to learn about compromise–both personal and political–before they can live out their happily ever after.  The historical heavy-lifting comes across as integral to the characters and their story, instead of the author showing off her research or getting onto her favorite soap-box.

2.  Gross Out Make Out

People in the way back when did not have the same kind of sanitary standards we have today. I know that.  But that’s not the kind of thing that I want rubbed in my face when I’m reading a romance novel. I’m not saying you should completely ditch realism in favor of fantasy (see #5), but find a way to gloss over the unsightly bits.

Ex. I don’t expect your bonnie Scottish lass to have perfectly smooth, hairless legs, but it’s a huge turn off if you bring up her hairy legs when she’s getting personal with her hunky laird. That goes for wigs–whether we’re talking Georgian-style powdered or Egyptian–odd bathing routines or lack thereof, and anything that has to do with poor oral hygiene. Just use some common sense here.

3. Famous People Everywhere

This one can easily go hand in hand with #1, but they can also be found completely separately. This is where the hero and heroine can’t seem to go anywhere without tripping over somebody who’s name is going to end up in a history book.

Now, some settings allow, or even demand for a famous background character or two. An introduction to Sally Jersey in a Regency, a brush with Shakespeare in an Elizabethean novel, or a passing nod to Wyatt Earp in a frontier novel doesn’t seem too out of place. But some authors go crazy with this, either by making the famous historical person a major supporting player–ie, Amethyst Love by Rebecca Danton where Beau Brummel is a rival for the heroine’s affections!–or by throwing in so many it’s ridiculous. If your dashing hero runs into Napoleon while on a mission for Wellington while Prinny is busy stealing a dance from your heroine–good thing Princess Esterhazy granted her the waltz!–then you really need to cut down the number of famous people in your story.

4. Modern Women in Fancy Dresses

I see this everywhere and it bugs the crap out of me.

Sure, no one wants to read about the doormat damsel who cheerfully slaves for her abusive husband because she believes that a woman’s role in life is to make a man happy. But the answer isn’t to make all heroines fiercely independent intellectuals who radically reject the gender roles of their time period in favor of twenty-first century norms–and then find a man who’s perfectly happy to go along with it.

Guess what. There have been strong, independent women throughout history. Some of them rejected the social norms of their day (and most of them paid a price for it, unless they were powerful enough to get away with it). Most of them, however, found a way to be strong and independent within the framework of the world they lived in. Unless your heroine is an actual suffragette, resist the temptation to make her a crusader for women’s rights. Every once in a while, a really skilled author can pull this one off, but don’t assume you’ll be the one.

In broader principle, this can apply to any book where the historical setting is just a backdrop and maybe a plot device. The characters act like modern people, from enlightened attitudes on gender, race, sexuality, etc., to the way they behave, to the way they speak. For any reader that actually cares about the time period, the effect is extremely jarring and constantly pulls them out of the book.

5. All the Little Things/ They Just Didn’t Care

Number 4’s uglier cousin, this is when the book is riddled with inaccuracies and implausibilities that it doesn’t take a historian to catch.

This goes beyond slips in complicated Regency protocol that only an Austenite would spot or a flub in your pirate’s nautical lingo that would make a real sea dog want to keelhaul you.  It’s not about deliberately setting aside historicity aside for artistic/romantic reasons, either (although it could count if its flaunted in the reader’s face). This is when there are repeated glaring mistakes in either fact or custom that are clear to readers who have little exposure to the time period other than other romance novels.

This is when your unmarried daughter of an earl is called “Lady Thynne” by everyone. This is when your hero and heroine gleefully plan their wedding heedless of the fact that the heroine’s villainous husband is still alive in a time period when divorce is virtually non-existent. This is when everyone admires your Egyptian heroine’s striking green eyes, or when your hero gallops all through the day and night on his stallion to rescue the heroine without said stallion being any the worse for wear.

One, not-too-terrible, error is forgivable, if the story is otherwise good. Two is pushing it. More than that, and I’m probably not reading any more.

Some people might pooh-pah this list, saying that romance is fantasy, so historical accuracy or lack thereof doesn’t really matter. Yes, romance is at its heart a fantasy, but for most readers of historical romance  feeling immersed in a certain time period is an integral part of that fantasy. These pitfalls pull the reader right out of the fantasy and into the real world.

For me, personally, Number 5 is the most grievous of the pitfalls. Number 2 and Number 3 I can push past if the rest of the book is enjoyable, and Number 1 and Number 4 can be made bearable or even redeemed by good writing. Number 5 never falls to bother me and if it crops up repeatedly can make me put a book down and never look back.

So, which of these pitfalls do you think is the worst? Have you ever stopping reading a book because of one of them? Have you ever been guilty in your own writing? How important do you think historical accuracy is to romantic fiction in general?


~ by Morgan Star on September 8, 2012.

2 Responses to “Five Historical Pitfalls to Avoid”

  1. You pull up a lot of good points here. I think I agree with you in the fact that number five is the most dreadful. After all, it just goes with everything else in saying that if you aren’t arsed to take the trouble, neither will they.

    When I pick up a historical novel of any kind, I want to be immersed in that time. There’s a point that some readers actively seek out this kind of writing, because that’s what they want. Obviously, the romance will play a role, but it’s not the only aspect of this genre. If you label it Historic, then it ought to be historic.

    Obviously, there’s going to be exceptions, like the fact that we can never tell exactly how some aspects of life in the Egyptian society, or any other, played out. But when you get to the point when you don’t even bother anymore? That’s when you should just make up a few names of places and stick it in fantasy fiction.

  2. Interesting list of pitfalls. I don’t read much historical fiction, though I like contemporary or literary fiction that includes historical elements. I read Jonas Jonasson’s “The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared,” and the main character runs into nearly every prominent historical figure of the 20th Century. It worked because it’s a farcical book.

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