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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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Michy
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Post by Michy » Wed October 13th, 2010, 12:45 am

[quote=""Katherine Ashe""]
How should speech in a past time be rendered plausibly? There were modes of speech appropriate to the different classes in the past. I like to see English rendered in HF books with some recognition of that, as speech should be fashioned to the personality of each character. But are these issues of accuracy?
[/quote]

I think language is a tricky one -- the author has to find a good compromise between authenticity and accessibility for the modern reader. That is, if you go for too much authenticity, you'll probably lose most modern readers. But you need to make it authentic enough to support the "feel" of the novel's time and place.

We got into an interesting discussion on accent/dialect over in the thread discussing The Help. Here, too, it is tricky. If you make the dialect too authentic, you'll probably lose most of the readers. On the other hand, if you compromise too much, you'll annoy those readers who are familiar with that dialect!!

So what's a poor writer to do? :p

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Katherine Ashe
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language

Post by Katherine Ashe » Wed October 13th, 2010, 2:59 am

Michy, it's a puzzlement.
I was faced with this problem when I was commissioned to write a play about John Mitchell, coal mining labor leader circa 1900. The language of the miners was completely incomprehensible to 21st century non-miners. To add to the problem the show was opening back to back with a film documentary on the same subject. My recourse was to write the whole play in verse -- to use what theater uniquely could do in every way.
One can frame the entire style for the sake of a suitable language, but always the comprehension of the reader must be met. Do we delve into Gongorismo? Or genuine Roman smut?

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MLE (Emily Cotton)
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Post by MLE (Emily Cotton) » Wed October 13th, 2010, 4:13 am

what is Gongorismo?

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Katherine Ashe
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Gongorismo

Post by Katherine Ashe » Wed October 13th, 2010, 4:44 am

Luis de Gongora wrote in a florid style so laced with ornament and classical allusion that the style got named after him. If you're writing of the 15th -16th century a touch of him might be nice. The poet Edward Dahlberg makes a good 20th century shot at it. HF examples?

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Margaret
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Post by Margaret » Wed October 13th, 2010, 6:53 am

Different groups of readers, I think, will always find different styles of historical fiction appealing. Quite often, the historical novels which offer characters whose attitudes are too modern to be really credible turn up on the bestseller lists, while the thoroughly researched novels in which the characters think and behave like people of their time are greatly appreciated by a more select group of readers who are passionate about history. I don't think it's wrong for writers to serve up fluff for readers who enjoy a fancy-dress-ball historical ambiance but not the accuracy that would tarnish their romantic daydreams. But those novels will never be appreciated by readers who care about understanding history.

Novelists have to decide which group of readers they're writing for - usually the group whose taste in fiction most closely resembles their own. But I do think they need to take into account that even the "fluff" readers now are more interested in historical authenticity than they once were, and the more scholarly readers are not going to suffer through a novel in which the characters are totally unsympathetic and the story keeps bogging down in irrelevant detail and dry history lessons. A really skilled novelist can enlist readers' sympathy for a character whose attitudes clash with our present-day attitudes. After all, the most interesting characters to read about are the ones we like despite their flaws. If readers can see that a character is essentially a kind and caring person and/or a spirited and courageous person, they will forgive a lot of flaws, especially when the point is made that the character's attitude has been instilled in them by parents and society, or the result of fears that were more realistic in their time than they would be today. For example, Queen Elizabeth I sanctioned torture - but it was an accepted part of the legal system before she came to the throne, and there were in fact many plots against her life, so her fear of assassination conspiracies was not at all irrational - and to balance that out, she largely did away with her sister's practice of hunting down religious dissenters and burning them at the stake.
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Post by Diiarts » Sat October 16th, 2010, 11:05 am

[quote=""Margaret""]Different groups of readers, I think, will always find different styles of historical fiction appealing. Quite often, the historical novels which offer characters whose attitudes are too modern to be really credible turn up on the bestseller lists, while the thoroughly researched novels in which the characters think and behave like people of their time are greatly appreciated by a more select group of readers who are passionate about history. I don't think it's wrong for writers to serve up fluff for readers who enjoy a fancy-dress-ball historical ambiance but not the accuracy that would tarnish their romantic daydreams. But those novels will never be appreciated by readers who care about understanding history.

Novelists have to decide which group of readers they're writing for - usually the group whose taste in fiction most closely resembles their own. But I do think they need to take into account that even the "fluff" readers now are more interested in historical authenticity than they once were, and the more scholarly readers are not going to suffer through a novel in which the characters are totally unsympathetic and the story keeps bogging down in irrelevant detail and dry history lessons. A really skilled novelist can enlist readers' sympathy for a character whose attitudes clash with our present-day attitudes. After all, the most interesting characters to read about are the ones we like despite their flaws. If readers can see that a character is essentially a kind and caring person and/or a spirited and courageous person, they will forgive a lot of flaws, especially when the point is made that the character's attitude has been instilled in them by parents and society, or the result of fears that were more realistic in their time than they would be today. For example, Queen Elizabeth I sanctioned torture - but it was an accepted part of the legal system before she came to the throne, and there were in fact many plots against her life, so her fear of assassination conspiracies was not at all irrational - and to balance that out, she largely did away with her sister's practice of hunting down religious dissenters and burning them at the stake.[/quote]

Margaret, I absolutely agree with this for the most part - and your point about Elizabeth I is particularly well made. What I've found curious, however, is how scathing the "fluff" brigade can be about more serious historical fiction - whether it's because it doesn't follow the conventions of some genre, or because the characters behave as they would have done in the period rather than having 21st-century attitudes.

Mind you, we can be pretty scathing ourselves about the fluff - but we make no secret of the fact that HF, for us, should immerse the reader in its period - should be based on an understanding of the period, an understanding of what made its people tick, rather than just a surface knowledge of its clothes or its conventions. But I risk repeating myself.
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Margaret
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Post by Margaret » Tue October 19th, 2010, 6:02 am

What I've found curious, however, is how scathing the "fluff" brigade can be about more serious historical fiction - whether it's because it doesn't follow the conventions of some genre, or because the characters behave as they would have done in the period rather than having 21st-century attitudes.
Interesting. I don't hang out with the "fluff" brigade, so had not realized this. Makes sense, though. Anyone who accidentally read a serious historical novel expecting it to be fluff would doubtless be gravely disappointed.
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Katherine Ashe
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criticism

Post by Katherine Ashe » Wed October 20th, 2010, 2:49 am

Hello Margaret,
We seem to be living in a time when people, especially under the guise of noms de internet (is there a proper term for this) express themselves in extraordinarily harsh ways on every conceivable topic. In an on-line discussion in my local newspaper regarding a difference of opinion on environmental protection one contributor had received death threats and when she complained of this a barrage of accusations were hurled at her that she was another Hitler, was deploying WMDs, was going to cause continental drift, and that it would be a public service to murder her. Eventually the newspaper took the site down.

But what is happening here? Granted the above case is extreme and readers of historical fiction don't display insanities like that. But is a book intended to entertain and possibly instruct a reasonable target for such bitterness as sometimes is hurled about?

What is criticism in any case? Loessing's principal, which responsible journalists use, is that a play, book, work of art should be judged on the basis of the creator's intent -- whether or not it seems to fulfill that intention; not whether it fulfills the preconceived expectations of the playgoer, reader, viewer.

True, others favor criticism based on the least prepared reviewer's immediate gut response. But following that principal we would have little more than conformity to current popular tastes. We would still have academic painting -- no one would have championed the Impressionists let alone all the rest of modern art. Plays would be drawing room comedies still. And we would probably still be reading Scott. :)
Last edited by Katherine Ashe on Wed October 20th, 2010, 2:52 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Michy
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Post by Michy » Wed October 20th, 2010, 4:18 am

[quote=""Katherine Ashe""]
We seem to be living in a time when people, especially under the guise of noms de internet (is there a proper term for this) express themselves in extraordinarily harsh ways on every conceivable topic. [/quote]

This is the result of a combination of factors: one, is that in spite of the encouragement to perform "random acts of kindness", there seems to be a lot of pent-up anger in our society ("road rage" is just one example that comes immediately to mind). Second, the Internet provides unprecedented anonymity and an unlimited audience. It is human nature that the more removed we are from someone, the less inhibited we are in our communication. For example, it is easier to express things over the phone to someone that you wouldn't say to their face. Take that a step further, and it is easier to say something in an email that you wouldn't say over the phone. And if your identity is anonymous, then the walls are lowered even further, and people find it easy to express opinions (or to express them in such a manner) that they never would if their identity were known. I'm not justifying rudeness or mean spiritedness at all; I am simply objectively looking at the factors that have fostered an increase in such behavior in our society.
True, others favor criticism based on the least prepared reviewer's immediate gut response. But following that principal we would have little more than conformity to current popular tastes. We would still have academic painting -- no one would have championed the Impressionists let alone all the rest of modern art. Plays would be drawing room comedies still. And we would probably still be reading Scott. :)
I don't agree. True, some artists/performers/writers are discouraged by criticism and seek to conform so as to be praised. However, there is always that element -- especially in artists, performers and writers more so than anyone else -- that is undaunted by criticism or at least is driven to follow the inner muse, the inner drive, the inner dream, whatever you want to call it, in spite of criticism. True, they may be driven to alcoholism or some other means of coping with the lack of acceptance, but they will still refuse to conform and will create new and exciting works that challenge the status quo. And sooner or later, acceptance and praise usually follows.

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Post by cw gortner » Wed October 20th, 2010, 5:13 am

I've been lurking on this thread, finding all the discussion fascinating. I do agree that with today's near-instant access to information, historical authors are under more pressure to ensure accuracy. However, I believe that historical fiction is not intended to replace or even enhance nonfiction history. Novels are by their very nature speculative; we re-invent the past to make sense of our present and, as such, bring our own perspectives to it. Some authors stray more than others, but in the end when I pick up an historical novel I seek to be entertained, first and foremost. Glaring inaccuracies do affect me, but by and large I tend to be forgiving if the story is dynamic enough and the characters engage my imagination. I grew up loving historical novels that today would be considered wildly divergent from our current exacting standards; these inspired me to seek beyond facts for the emotion of the past, both via other novels and in nonfiction.

On the subject of author notes, I have to say that these are very encouraged by editors today. I didn't have one for The Last Queen; my editor requested that I compose one. I've also read on forums, this one included, that readers appreciate those author notes addressing what has been fictionalized, speculated, etc. In order to write a novel of say, a true-life person, we often have to adjust time frames, condense events, leaving out some things to enhance others. I believe readers are entitled to know the most important areas where we do this, as well as understand some of the thought processes and research that went into our particular fictional accessment of a character or event. I never claim to be an expert, because I am not. I'm a writer with a history degree and I choose to write about historical characters through the prism of fiction. That said, I do not regard my books as "Historical entertainments" - though, you could argue, my Tudor spy series fits this bill - simply because I don't feel I take my particular speculative inclinations to an extreme, but neither would I claim that my novels are as factual as nonfictional accounts (where, by the way, I've found errors too, on occasion.)

Not only do many readers have less time and patience to wade through a thoroughly unadulterated interpretation of an historical life, but such books can also become rather long and the majority of editors require absolute word counts for this purpose. I cannot emphasize this enough. Word counts, which are directly related to print costs, and a book's ultimate retail price, are key in publishing these days. Very few writers have the leeway of Ken Follett in their ability to churn out a 1,000-page historical. And few agents will represent such novels, particularly from debut novelists.

In the end, I believe the majority of historical novelists strive for accuracy but are human and make mistakes. Some care more about their research, some less. We've mentioned both extremes here, so no need to belabor the point.

On a final note, while I believe criticism is essential to being an artist and every artist must learn to both accept and deal with negative criticism, I've seen some rather questionable things done to authors under the guise of criticism. I know of some writers who have been, in my opinion, unfairly targeted, to the point of having their books torn apart via reviews at online bookstores and other places on the web. I'm all for freedom of expression, but where do we cross the line? I often ask myself, if we were at a cocktail party and said author were there, would these people who hide behind avatars and other e-disguises be so bold as to go up to the author and berate their work to their face? Somehow, I doubt it.

This is not to negate criticism, which always has its place, but in this age of internet permissiveness, where there are literally no consequences for one's actions, thoughtful reviews which take into account a book's good points as well as its flaws are becoming less common than derisive, even contemptuous commentary, where delight seems to be taken in wrecking an author' efforts. This is one of the reasons I greatly appreciate the efforts made by certain bloggers to offer coverage of historical novels that includes honest, insightful reviews intended to inform a reader of a book's merits and/or faults.

I may be wrong, but in my experience no writer sets out to write a bad book ("whimsy" aside :) . No historical writer, in particular, wants to get caught with his or her pants down having made a historical error. Writing is very hard, very demanding, and very time-consuming; financial rewards can be negligible, and publishers fickle. To survive, a tough hide is needed, certainly. But even so, there is no excuse for plain bad manners.
Last edited by cw gortner on Wed October 20th, 2010, 5:42 am, edited 6 times in total.
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