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Obligations of H.F. Writers to be Factual

For discussions of historical fiction. Threads that do not relate to historical fiction should be started in the Chat forum or elsewhere on the forum, depending on the topic.
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Lady of the Forest
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Obligations of H.F. Writers to be Factual

Post by Lady of the Forest » Tue September 28th, 2010, 2:09 am

This is just a random thought which popped into my head, and I thought it could make for an interesting topic of conversation and something worth considering.

I know that there are certain authors and books which receive a lot of complaints for the authors playing fast and loose with the facts as it were, and for giving an inaccurate portrayal of the people, time, events, etc. in which they are writing about.

And this leaves me to wonder, just how much of an obligation to historical fiction writers have to give factual accurate accounts of the topics in which they write about?

While on the one hand if an author B.Sed through their book too heavily and simply made it up as they went along one could question if in fact it would be justified to even call their work historical fiction.

But on the other hand I think that fiction is the key word in HF. The fact that the books while focusing upon actual historical events, places, people and so forth, they still are not making any false claims (I do not think) to strictly following the facts. So does the very fact that they claim up front of be writers of fiction give them more leeway and creatively with the way in which they present their stories?

In addition, because they are writing works of fiction, above all else it is their first and foremost goal to offer an entertaining story to the readers, not simply offer text book facts, and they are trying to reach a wider audience than just history buffs.

There is also the fact that even Historical Non-Fiction, is peppered with a degree if fiction in it, because while we do have some evidence left behind there is also a lot of gaps in the evidence and a good deal of studying history is like putting together a puzzle with missing pieces and having to make the best guess you can as to what those missing pieces would look like, and every work of Non-Fiction comes with the bias of the author and the information he presents is his perception and interpretation of the facts.

So should it just be taken in due course that works of Historical Fiction will contain certain in accurateness in the authors effort to make the story come to life, and flesh it out so that it is enjoyable to read.

Or by the very fact that they are claiming to write about historical events sent them automatically to a standard in which it should be expected of them to give the reader a more factual account of the events?
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Michy
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Post by Michy » Tue September 28th, 2010, 4:42 am

We've had some lively discussions on this very topic, although I can't seem to locate the thread. Perhaps it's even more than one thread. Anyone else remember where it is?

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Post by Diiarts » Tue September 28th, 2010, 7:24 am

I don't know about other discussions on this topic, but here's something I posted yesterday on the "Historical errors that drive you nuts" thread.

"Not long ago we were sent a MS for consideration - genre Regency romance, which is not something we do. Nevertheless I read it and commented that, whilst the main female character was well drawn and the premise behind the plot was original and clever, the main male character was a completely implausible, one-dimensional caricature.

"There were also 1001 minor historical inaccuracies which had the cumulative impact of saying that the author hadn't bothered to research the period, certainly didn't understand it, and didn't particularly care about the historical context.

"On both counts - the male character and the historical inaccuracies - the author fired back at me that this was what readers want and expect of Regency fiction, and flounced off in a bit of a huff.

"The real difference of opinion here was that, to her, Regency was a genre of fiction with heaving bosoms on the cover which sells very well in Walmart; whilst to us, it's a fascinating period of British history, peopled by real men and women, who made tough choices which changed or didn't change the face of Europe and in many ways defined our modern world."

Elsewhere on that thread I said that one of my bugbears is factual knowledge of a period without an understanding of it. I have no problem with occasional, minor factual inaccuracy, deliberate or otherwise, but I want to understand the period and the people, to know what made them tick.
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Post by Russ Whitfield » Tue September 28th, 2010, 9:22 am

Conn Iggulden's hugely successful "Empire" series is by no means historically accurate. But its a bloody good yarn. So I don't think that there's any particular obligation to be factual - unless its a self-imposed one.

I try to be as accurate as I can, but that's just me - and I think many other writers would say the same.

It doesn't really matter one way or the other I think. No matter how hard you try, someone will always come along and tell you you're wrong...even if they're wrong themselves (I've got a great one on amazon.co.uk recently where some bloke is accusing me of stuff that I didn't even write - now that IS hars *lol*).

The success of Conn's Roman books would be a good case study, I think. They're almost historical fantasy - but I loved them all the same. And so did LOTS of other people. Did they care if the books were inaccurate - probably not. Did it inspire them to go and find out more about Ancient Rome - I hope so. Did it matter to the publishers who are grinning from ear to ear... definitely not.

At the end of the day, the Internet Hive Mind often forgets the "fiction" part of historical fiction.

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Post by Madeleine » Tue September 28th, 2010, 1:13 pm

I think the keyword here is "fiction", and I've read plenty of books where I've thought "surely he/she wouldn't have done that in real life", so I think that aspect can apply to whatever period a book is set in. Fiction I think is for entertainment, escapism, whatever you want to call it; I think if a book is set during a historical period when known events are taking place eg the English Civil War, then I think any historical detail should be as accurate as possible, but if a particular period is just used as the setting and not the main thrust of the story then perhaps the author can have a bit more leeway.
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Post by MLE (Emily Cotton) » Tue September 28th, 2010, 4:07 pm

By 'obligation' do you mean legally, morally, or for commercial practicality?

There are no legal obligations on the part of writers, except not to slander living persons. The joy of the system is that each reader gets to set their own standards.

The old market was not very sensitive about accuracy. I am watching how the instant availability of information-sharing on the internet is changing that, and pleased to see the trend is a demand for more accurate fiction. For one thing, now that readers can communicate from every corner of the blogosphere, the sorting process is getting easier for the consumer.

After the first requirement of an entertaining story, readers are expressing a strong desire for a modicum of historical accuracy. I think that this will become more important commercially in the future, but a good yarn will always be king.
Last edited by MLE (Emily Cotton) on Tue September 28th, 2010, 4:11 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Post by Matt Phillips » Tue September 28th, 2010, 5:24 pm

Authors are not necessarily under an obligation to avoid historical errors in fiction, but errors can ruin two of the key qualities of any good fiction: authority and credibility.

Authority helps the author build an immersive, interactive world in the reader's mind. When readers notice historical errors, it pulls them out of the story. It dissolves the immersive effect of verisimilitude and yanks them back to the real world, like an alarm clock that interrupts a pleasant dreaam.

Factual errors also undermine the author's credibility, for obvious reasons. The larger problem with that is that the reader's trust in the author is broken. All fiction takes place in a world with certain rules, whether contemporary, historical, fantasy, sci-fi, etc. The author has to observe those rules throughout the story; otherwise it will not make sense. You should no more tolerate a 20th century manner of thinking and speaking in an 18th century novel than you would 18th century attitudes in a modern-day story.

However, what about readers who don't notice the errors? Then the errors might not ruin the effect of authority and credibility, but the author is allowing the reader to assume he or she has learned something about history that is untrue. Yes, the author didn't set out to write a history text, and readers shouldn't rely on fiction for their historical knowledge. But many do.

Finally, think of it this way: What would you think of a novel set in contemporary times that suggested wildly inaccurate things about the society you live in? For example, would Franzen's Freedom be such a great success right now if it not only failed to ring true for a lot of today's American readers, but flat out got a lot of things wrong about American society today? No, of course not. So why should standards for accuracy (or at least plausibility) and credibility be lowered for novels set in the past?

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Post by Misfit » Tue September 28th, 2010, 6:04 pm

Finally, think of it this way: What would you think of a novel set in contemporary times that suggested wildly inaccurate things about the society you live in?
That's pretty much it right there. I know there are some who care more for historical accuracy than others, but in the end the story must be a well told one and the characters should act accordingly to the period setting. I love Barbara Erskine and she does diddle with history (although she doesn't claim to be writing HF, she's just writing a novel).

If you're going to write about a period, then try and learn something about it and the people/mindset and stick to it. Same goes for romance, although I don't hold it to such a high standard, sometimes what they put in them is just so freaking silly it would be comparable to a novel set in the 1970's and your MC started sending text messages.
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Post by M.M. Bennetts » Tue September 28th, 2010, 6:50 pm

[quote=""Misfit""]That's pretty much it right there. I know there are some who care more for historical accuracy than others, but in the end the story must be a well told one and the characters should act accordingly to the period setting. I love Barbara Erskine and she does diddle with history (although she doesn't claim to be writing HF, she's just writing a novel).

If you're going to write about a period, then try and learn something about it and the people/mindset and stick to it. Same goes for romance, although I don't hold it to such a high standard, sometimes what they put in them is just so freaking silly it would be comparable to a novel set in the 1970's and your MC started sending text messages.[/quote]

You've hit it exactly. And when the mistakes are just freaking silly as you call it--especially since you can just Google whatever it is and at least get some basic idea what you're talking about--there's just no excuse for it.

I go a little mad when people start throwing around modern luxury items or fabrics in novels set in the early 19th century. For heaven's sake, there was a major war on, a world war, with blockades just like there were in WW2. So it's like saying they were wearing satin negligees in WW2...er, no. Maybe in Hollywood they were...

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Post by annis » Tue September 28th, 2010, 6:59 pm

It’s interesting to compare the expectations of modern HF readers with those of the past where the historical background often just provided an exotic atmosphere and there was no real pressure on the author to ensure that all the details were accurate. Modern readers are much more fussy, sometimes, dare I say it, sometimes to the point of being quite anal :) A recent case which CW and I have been discussing is the “anachronistic potato”, as seen in Lawrence Goldstone’s The Astronomer, where a reviewer picked up a one-line mention of a potato in Germany a few years ahead of when it would have in fact been grown there, and spent his whole review whingeing about it.

Obviously blatant errors should be avoided, because they irritate and pull you out of the story, but it’s a shame to not let yourself enjoy a good tale because you’re too busy nit-picking. I’m noticing a lot of errors lately which are caused by lack of copy-editing and relying on spell-check. A classic one for me was the repetition throughout Jack Ludlow’s Mercenaries of the word “convoy” to describe the basic fighting unit of the Norman knights instead of “conroi”. I did make a point of mentioning that in my review because I thought a lot of readers unfamiliar with the period might ever after think that “convoy” was the right term!

I think, as others have mentioned, that getting attitudes and mindset wrong is more annoying than minor factual mistakes. .My pet peeve is the feisty female heroine, acting as f she lived in the 21st century, with no account taken of restrictions imposed by society on women in the past.

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