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When Readers Don't Know As Much as They Think They Do

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Stephanie Dray
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When Readers Don't Know As Much as They Think They Do

Post by Stephanie Dray » Wed October 6th, 2010, 2:38 am

As my historical fiction novels are still forthcoming, I don't have this problem yet, but when I read reviews of other historical fiction, I often find myself cringing. All manner of people seem to tear up a book based on what they think they know about a historical period, and they are often wrong.

I've known writers who have actually changed the facts of their book to comport with 'commonly held beliefs' about a certain time period to avoid this difficulty. I don't see that as a particularly satisfactory solution. I suspect the answer is just to ignore such comments entirely, but I'm wondering what more experienced historical novelists do?
~Stephanie Dray
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boswellbaxter
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Post by boswellbaxter » Wed October 6th, 2010, 3:30 am

If you can anticipate what misconceptions your readers are likely to have and to take you to task for not following, you can address them in your author's note, or at least on your website or blog if your publisher isn't keen on detailed author's notes.

I like to have my research materials close at hand so that if a reader asks me directly why I did something that seems out of line to him or her, I can cite my source. On the other hand, if a reader airs his opinions in a review, I think the best response is no response, because the author who intervenes and comments almost always ends up looking defensive and stalkerish. Of course, you can respond indirectly to the reader's comments by discussing the misconception on your blog or website.

I find, though, that a certain type of reader gets all of her information from other historical novels, and that if this sort of reader gets an ingrained notion into her head, it's almost impossible to get it out, even if it has no historical basis or is contradicted by history. Especially if the "knowledge" is acquired from an author who's very popular.
Susan Higginbotham
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Stephanie Dray
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Post by Stephanie Dray » Wed October 6th, 2010, 4:06 am

[quote=""boswellbaxter""]On the other hand, if a reader airs his opinions in a review, I think the best response is no response, because the author who intervenes and comments almost always ends up looking defensive and stalkerish.[/quote]

Yep. I guess it's probably best to take it as an opportunity for a new blog post or academic article! :)
~Stephanie Dray
Author of Historical Fiction & Fantasy
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LILY OF THE NILE -- Berkley Books, January 2011SONG OF THE NILE -- Berkley Books, Oct 2011
DAUGHTERS OF THE NILE -- Berkley Books, Dec 2013

Helen_Davis

Post by Helen_Davis » Wed October 6th, 2010, 8:40 pm

[quote=""boswellbaxter""]]. Especially if the "knowledge" is acquired from an author who's very popular.[/quote]
Not going to mention any names,. *Coughs*

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cat
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Post by cat » Wed October 6th, 2010, 11:03 pm

[quote=""boswellbaxter""]If you can anticipate what misconceptions your readers are likely to have and to take you to task for not following, you can address them in your author's note, or at least on your website or blog if your publisher isn't keen on detailed author's notes.
[/quote]

While I'm not a writer, I've seen many a books with excellent author's notes in the back as Susan suggested. I'd say that is the best way to clearly support your own work and research! I find those author's notes very helpful too as a reader.
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chuck
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Post by chuck » Thu October 7th, 2010, 4:00 am

I agree...Author's notes are always helpful....I just finished a Medieval mystery with many of the characters and their experiences were "Really Out There" and needed to be explained by the author....Bothersome when a author perpetuates rumors.....and does not support the rumors...

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Post by M.M. Bennetts » Thu October 7th, 2010, 7:39 am

This is a really hard one, I think.

As an historian I check everything. I spend hours with the OED ensuring that words were in use at the time of my novels, I read the newspapers and magazines and even the popular novels of the period of my novels to ensure that I've got 'their' point of view correct. I use maps printed in 1812 to ensure I've got their geography right...

Anything that's in a foreign language, I retranslate for the purpose of the novel. I perform any music in a novel on a fortepiano to hear the difference between what they heard and a modern instrument.

I go through every fight, every wounding and every death (in the book) with a pathologist and a neurosurgeon.

In short, I am completely and utterly pedantic and probably need help.

Were I to write notes at the back, I'd be writing for a week. So I put it all on my bibliography on my blog and keep updating that.

Still, I get comments about my use of language or facts--it's as if there's this determination in readers today to find fault or catch one out.

The fact is, as near-perfect as I've got it, there is still going to be research in a year's time which is going to uncover some element I couldn't have known about. And I've had to accept that.

I've also had to accept that whilst I could, should I choose, write their dialogue pretty much as they might have spoken in the early part of the 19th century, that would create such a barrier between my characters and the modern reader...and I don't want to do that. I want a sense of immediacy, a sense of being in the room with the people.

So...you do your level best. And then if readers don't like it or want to nitpick, well that's their business. But if you've got even a 50-50 split between like and dislike of your work, you've done really well...because not everyone is going to like what you do and that isn't to devalue your work, it's simply the way it is.

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Michy
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Post by Michy » Thu October 7th, 2010, 3:00 pm

Responding as a reader........ I think boswell's comments hit the bull's eye, on all points.

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