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Author responsibility

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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Margaret
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Post by Margaret » Thu September 18th, 2008, 6:58 pm

It seems to me there are a variety of different types of inaccuracies that can arise in historical fiction, ranging from the necessary to the inexcusable:

First, the imaginative filling in of what is not known from the historical record. We can never know precisely what a historical person was thinking or feeling, nor what was said in the person's private conversations. But if an author doesn't reconstruct these things, there's no story - or at least not a satisfying one. The whole point of fiction is to be "inaccurate" in this particular way.

Second, interpreting the historical record to supply a major conclusion about an event or a historical person's motivations, etc. An example is The Sunne in Splendour, which takes known historical facts about Richard III's life and times and interprets them to conclude that, contrary to previous assumptions, he was an admirable man and king who, far from murdering his nephews, did what he could to protect them. Readers and historians may disagree about the extent to which this interpretation is justified, but Penman takes no major liberties (as far as I know) in the hard, documented, historical facts she uses to support her interpretation. Another example is The Other Boleyn Girl, which has been criticized for portraying Anne Boleyn as having had sexual relations with her brother. Historians have generally concluded that this was a charge trumped up by her enemies and accepted by Henry VIII because he wanted to get rid of her - nevertheless, there is no hard, documented, historical evidence that definitively shows she was not guilty of the charges against her. Gregory may be going way out on a limb with her interpretation of Anne's story, but it's still one possible interpretation of the historical evidence. It's "inaccurate" because we simply don't know things happened the way Gregory portrays them and the evidence as a whole seems to support a different conclusion, not because we know for a fact that it didn't.

Third, deliberately altering a known fact in order to craft a simpler or more exciting story. A lot of authors include historical notes admitting to shifting the date of a minor battle or some other event a few days forward or back in order to plausibly allow a main character to be present and have the event fit smoothly into the development of the plot. Another, more egregious example, is the choice made in the recent HBO production of a Henry VIII story to change which sister of his married which king because the producers were afraid viewers would be confused by the story if there were too many different Marys involved.

Fourth, the attribution of modern attitudes and beliefs to characters from the past. This is a tough one, and many authors fall short here. Ken Follett's otherwise well researched medieval novels hit a sour note for me because this problem kept cropping up. And frankly, many novels that do an exceptionally good job in making their characters's attitudes and beliefs true to the time period are unpopular with readers, because it can be hard to identify with characters whose beliefs and attitudes are rightly condemned in our own time.

Fifth, if the author doesn't do enough research, a lot of the events and customs are likely to be completely inconsistent with the known facts about historical events and customs. This can range from the inexcusably sloppy (a real wallbanger in which everything from the dates when things happened to the characters' language and attitudes to the clothes and general surroundings is just wrong, wrong, wrong) to the excusable "oops" (like Dorothy Dunnett's implication in one of her otherwise meticulously researched novels that cheetahs have retractable claws).

You guys may be able to think of some more categories, but I think this covers the big ones.

Online reviewers who condemn a historical novel as inaccurate without explaining more specifically what led them to this conclusion are, IMHO, being irresponsible.
Browse over 5000 historical novel listings (probably well over 5000 by now, but I haven't re-counted lately) and over 700 reviews at www.HistoricalNovels.info

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EC2
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Post by EC2 » Thu September 18th, 2008, 7:23 pm

I agree with Boswellbaxter re the story - if it's about a real person - should be in keeping with the known traits of his or her character. It's true that different slants can be put on that character's actions and it will depend from who's minddset the reader is seeing that person, but even with those caveats, a general truth and integrity should be attempted.
There should be nothing that pulls the reader out of the story be the characters imaginary or not. An author enters into a pact with the reader and if they break their side of the bargain by having someone called Wayne in Harold's shield wall in 1066, or by portraying Elizabeth I as a man obsessed wimp, then it's their fault if they get panned.
I think a good story and reasonable historical accuracy are not mutually exclusive. No historical novelist can get everything right, but a good effort and a determination to have integrity go a long way.
Les proz e les vassals
Souvent entre piez de chevals
Kar ja li coard n’I chasront

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Are always to be found between the hooves of horses
For never will cowards fall down there.'

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MLE (Emily Cotton)
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Interest in HF: started in childhood with the classics, which, IMHO are HF even if they were contemporary when written.
Favourite HF book: Prince of Foxes, by Samuel Shellabarger
Preferred HF: Currently prefer 1600 and earlier, but I'll read anything that keeps me turning the page.
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Post by MLE (Emily Cotton) » Thu September 18th, 2008, 8:29 pm

I like historical accuracy. But sometimes it is hard for people to get into a story that is really out of sync with their culture. For instance, in Gortner's Last Queen, Juana's spirituality was almost completely absent, when the record shows that she would have been considered obsessive by today's standards, especially in the matter of the Poor Clares (there are financial records and letters showing her support and work on their behalf, both in Spain and Flanders. Plus the problem of her insisting on wearing their habit.) My take is that what most likely made her loyal to the creep she married was her religious beliefs.

But I didn't fault Gortner for leaving it out, because what he did put in was within the bounds of accuracy and besides, the modern reader simply would not have related to the character. And the events moved along historically much as they really did, within reason.

On the other hand, I had a problem with the Twentieth Wife. Not coming from a Zenana culture (although I know plenty of modern-day muslim women raised in primitive places) I simply could not relate to the women in the book. The situation kept jarring me because I found their attitudes so unsympathetic, even though I knew they were accurate. So there's the culture thing for you. If I can't relate to the characters, I might as well learn the stuff from a history book.

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Ludmilla
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Post by Ludmilla » Fri September 19th, 2008, 1:17 pm

For me, this is very much linked to authorial intent. Before the internet which has made authors much more accessible, we didn't always know what the author's intent was (an accurate representation of the times and attitudes of the people being written about, or just a good page turner that appeals to the sensibilities of a readership and our own times, e.g.), but advertising, marketing, and more interactive styles of communication with authors these days usually leave little doubt about what kind of story the author has chosen to write. With that said... I would ask how much of how a story is marketed is under the control of the author (probably very little). Are we disappointed because so many books get advertised as something they are not? Are we disappointed because other readers misrepresent what the book is? I think what I react to more than inaccuracies and badly interpreted research is that misrepresentation about what kind of story it is. I can forgive a good page turner that isn't great history if it's presented to me as the former and not the latter.

Ash
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Post by Ash » Fri September 19th, 2008, 1:34 pm

[quote=""boswellbaxter""]A blonde? :confused: [/quote]

Here we use the word blonde to denote bubbleheaded ladies. And just so I don't offend any blonde headed ones out there, one of my favorite blonde jokes: What is brown and black and blue? A brunette who told one too many blonde jokes :) /off topic
Last edited by Ash on Fri September 19th, 2008, 1:39 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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boswellbaxter
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Post by boswellbaxter » Fri September 19th, 2008, 1:38 pm

[quote=""Ash""]Here we use the word blonde to denote bubbleheaded ladies. And just so I don't offend any blonded headed ones out there, one of my favorite blonde jokes: What is brown and black and blue? A brunette who told one too many blonde jokes :) /off topic[/quote]

OK. I'm relieved to see that at least Gregory didn't turn the redheaded Elizabeth I literally into a blonde!
Susan Higginbotham
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Margaret
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Interest in HF: I can't answer this in 100 characters. Sorry.
Favourite HF book: Checkmate, the final novel in the Lymond series
Preferred HF: Literary novels. Late medieval and Renaissance.
Location: Catskill, New York, USA
Contact:

Post by Margaret » Fri September 19th, 2008, 5:42 pm

I would ask how much of how a story is marketed is under the control of the author (probably very little). Are we disappointed because so many books get advertised as something they are not?
It seems very weird to me that publishers would do this, because it seems like the perfect way to kill a book. Why market it to readers who won't like it, when it could be marketed to readers who would love it and talk it up with their friends? Company of Liars is being marketed as a reinterpretation of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, when it is really nothing of the sort. (I commented on that in my review at http://www.HistoricalNovels.info/Company-of-Liars.html, and have since seen other reviews that make the same point.) The only thing Company of Liars has in common with Canterbury Tales is that ít takes place in the same century (but at a very different time in that century - Chaucer's pilgrims were not in the midst of a plague epidemic) and it deals with a group of travelers on their way to a religious shrine. Company of Liars is not a collection of short stories, it has a strong central theme, and the plague epidemic the travelers are trying to escape pervades the setting. I think the Canterbury Tales are great - but many readers think of them as something they were forced to read in school, and the comparison will turn them off from reading a novel they might really enjoy.

MLE makes a good point about the importance of authors striking the right balance between complete faithfulness to the historical record and making the characters sympathetic for a modern audience. I'm not certain I agree with her conclusions about what to leave out and what to put in. I haven't read The Last Queen yet (it's on my TBR), but if Juana (who after all was known by her contemporaries as the "Mad Queen") was obsessively religious to the point of wearing a nun's habit, then portraying her as someone for whom religion was not high on the list of concerns would seem to do a disservice to history. There are various ways of handling this. One might include the details about the obsessive religious practices but show why these are such an important comfort to the character, so that they become a sympathetic element to even non-religious readers. Or one might tell the character's story from the perspective of a more sympathetic character whose life is intertwined with hers.

On the other hand, it's very difficult getting the balance right with some historical figures. And if authors included every known detail about their lives, they would get stuck with a never-ending story!
Last edited by Margaret on Fri September 19th, 2008, 5:44 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Ariadne
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Post by Ariadne » Fri September 19th, 2008, 6:57 pm

Having read Company of Liars, I'd hesitate to label the Canterbury Tales comparison solely as marketing hype in the sense of the publisher exaggerating the similarity in order to sell books, or "if you'll like one, you'd like the other." Because the latter isn't true; I agree that the two works are different. But I thought it was fair for the publisher to mention it as a way of establishing a frame of reference for potential readers, since (imho) there are enough similarities to justify it. The author has essentially said (link to Publishers Weekly interview) that she was influenced by Chaucer and even included a deliberate yet camouflaged homage to him within her novel. So the idea that the comparison is outside of the author's control... she's not here to give her input, but it's hard to say.

In fact, I expect many readers who come across the novel won't have read Canterbury Tales at all, but will know that it's medieval-set and has a group of travelers revealing their own stories in turn. That may suffice to get their attention. I actually did read it as a reinterpretation of sorts - a much darker version, of course, and with a twist. That sounds like a good question for book discussion groups, actually - looking at the similarities vs. differences.

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princess garnet
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Post by princess garnet » Fri September 19th, 2008, 8:09 pm

[quote=""MLE""]I like historical accuracy. But sometimes it is hard for people to get into a story that is really out of sync with their culture. For instance, in Gortner's Last Queen, Juana's spirituality was almost completely absent, when the record shows that she would have been considered obsessive by today's standards, especially in the matter of the Poor Clares (there are financial records and letters showing her support and work on their behalf, both in Spain and Flanders. Plus the problem of her insisting on wearing their habit.) My take is that what most likely made her loyal to the creep she married was her religious beliefs. [/quote]

I thought of Madame Royale by Elena Maria Vidal as I read this. Her novel is the story of Marie-Therese, eldest daughter of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Like her parents, Marie-Therese was devoted to her faith and it shows thoughout the novel. Like many Catholic European royals before and after, Juana and Marie-Therese supported the work of the church and maintained devotion during both good and bad times.

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diamondlil
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Post by diamondlil » Fri September 19th, 2008, 9:02 pm

One of the aspects that hasn't been mentioned yet is where what is known about historical characters changes after a book has been written. If it was ever definitely determined what happened to the the two princes in the Tower would that mean that every book that had ever been written that came up with a different solution to the mystery was historically inaccurate, when they were based on the historical record that was available at the time.

For example, recently I read a review of Brief Gaudy Hour by Margaret Campbell Barnes which talked about historical inaccuracies like the fact that Anne Boleyn was portrayed as having had a stepmother. It was pointed out in the comments that nearly all of the books that were written about Anne is the particular time when the books were written including one by Plaidy used the same assumption, so it is all together possible that the authors were using the same reference as their research tool.
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