Pitfalls for Writers – no.6: Historical Accuracy

 

‘Dear Mr. Author.

Whilst reading your book ‘Oh what fun and laughter we had during the time the Black Death wiped out our village’ the other day, I was disappointed to notice that you mentioned July 23rd 1449 as having been a sunny day in your fictitious village. From the descriptions you provide, you have clearly located said village a little to the south of present day Norwich, and my extensive researches prove that July 23rd 1449 would have been a rainy day there.

Yours disgruntledly,

A Pedant.’

How accurate do you need to be, as a writer, with historical facts?

If you are writing a non-fiction book, you have to be scrupulously accurate, no matter what subject it is.

End of.

On the other hand, if you are writing fiction, you have a certain amount of leeway. First of all, though, it is worth saying that if you sell enough copies of your book you will eventually attract correspondents like the fellow above. Is that something to worry about? Only if they get to know where you live, perhaps. Otherwise, send them a nice reply, thanking them for their diligence, and assuring them that you will correct your dreadful fault in the next edition. On the other hand:

‘Dear Mr Author.

The Black Death was actually sweeping the country in 1349, not 1449.

Yours smugly,

A Historian.’

This time, you’ve screwed up.

And yes, it matters.

Very minor inaccuracies are bound to slip through, and very few people will notice them. And if they do, they will not think anything of them.

Except for Arthur Pedant, of course.

The big things are another matter. Imagine reading a novel set in the days around the Russian Revolution, and then the author tells you that the Bolsheviks rose up against the state in 1927 instead of 1917. Or that they were led in the beginning by Stalin. Immediately, the author’s credibility has evaporated, as has their story.

Because the reader no longer believes the author, and they no longer accept their story.

The moral here, then, is don’t skimp on the research!

It is possible to radically change the facts of history, but the difference is that to do this the author must present it as the whole point of the story. In steampunk novels, the whole history of Victorian Britain is altered, but the reader accepts this as it is the premise behind the genre. It is seen not as a mistake, but as a narrative invention.

In many science fiction novels, the premise is a future that is the result of a different history than that which actually happened. For example, the Germans won the Second World War, or of different worlds or dimensions in which history diverges from the accepted version. Again, this is accepted by the reader, as it is the premise that the story is set on.

It is possible to break this rule, but to do so the author has to break it in such a way that it is quickly obvious that they have done it deliberately, and not by mistake.

One might, for example, set a novel in Victorian England that is not steampunk – a detective story, perhaps – but in which Queen Victoria is assassinated in 1860. As this is something that no one could possibly put in by accident, it will be seen as part of the invented narrative and accepted.

Well, probably. Where is Arthur Pedant?

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