How historical do you want your historical fic?

The Big Peat

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I wouldn't regard books on Arthur as being historical fiction any more than I'd consider a retelling of Thor's adventures as being historical. They're myth, legend and folk lore. And I wouldn't want to read/watch a piece of work that compressed history in the way you say Vikings did.

Which comes down to the crux of it really - how much deviation from the historical record, such as it is, is each reader comfortable with?
 

Teresa Edgerton

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As a reader, I want to feel that the author knows the period at least as well as I do, and preferably better. I hate it when the author makes historical blunders that could have been avoided by ten minutes of the most basic research, or when the characters are plainly twenty-first century people thinly disguised in historical costumes. Dialogue that is too modern takes me out of the story, but clumsy attempts at period dialogue (tortured syntax, weird use of vocabulary) are even worse.


I'm more tolerant of minor mistakes if the plot and characters grab me. But with an unfamiliar author if I find those mistakes in the first couple of pages (by glancing over the first pages in a bookstore, or downloading the Kindle sample) the chances of reading far enough to find out how I feel about the story and characters are very low. On those occasions when I pick up such a book at a time when I am really, really bored and desperate for something to read and therefore buy it anyway I almost always regret it, because the sloppiness in terms of historical research portends an equal sloppiness in other aspects of the writing (plot, characterization, continuity, etc.).
 

svalbard

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I wouldn't regard books on Arthur as being historical fiction any more than I'd consider a retelling of Thor's adventures as being historical. They're myth, legend and folk lore. And I wouldn't want to read/watch a piece of work that compressed history in the way you say Vikings did.

Which comes down to the crux of it really - how much deviation from the historical record, such as it is, is each reader comfortable with?
I will have to stick my Arthurian hat on here and defend the historicity of the man. There is evidence(slight) of his existance but stronger evidence for a number of characters and events in the traditional stories. For a great HF story about Arthur try Helen Hollick's Pendragon series. No magic, no Merlin but firmly grounded in late 5th century Britain drawing off real events mentioned in the Annales Cambrai, Historium Brittonium, Gregory of Tours and Jordanes. She also grounds her characters in the time. A splendid story.

Rant over ☺
 

Theophania Elliott

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As a reader, I want to feel that the author knows the period at least as well as I do, and preferably better. I hate it when the author makes historical blunders that could have been avoided by ten minutes of the most basic research, or when the characters are plainly twenty-first century people thinly disguised in historical costumes. Dialogue that is too modern takes me out of the story, but clumsy attempts at period dialogue (tortured syntax, weird use of vocabulary) are even worse.
What she said. Especially the bit about twenty-first-century people. One thing that irritates me no end is all these feisty females who defy convention, yet somehow never have to suffer the consequences, not even a little bit. Apart from anything else, it makes their defiance much less a demonstration of their own strength of will: after all, they haven't had to risk anything. Makes you wonder how stupid and lazy the author thinks all the other women are, if defying convention is as risk-free as all that...

I also remember reading, or possibly speaking to an author, about writing Roman fiction - the difficulty of writing a protagonist who was convincingly Roman, yet still acceptable to modern sensitivities (what with the slave-owning, and the conquering other countries with fire and sword and all that). So you tend to see a lot of republicans who own a couple of slaves but make poor purchase choices and feel guilty about it.

Personally, I think attempts at period dialogue are worse than the author just going for modern syntax. I tend to assume that the speech should be mentally translated to whatever is appropriate - so Lindsey Davis's Falco in first-century Rome talks like a 1930s noir detective, and that fits - and it gives you an instant feel for what Falco is supposed to be like: a PI who's tough, honest, down on his luck, and a sucker for a pretty girl. Back in Rome, I there was probably an equivalent tone, but in Latin, and I assume that that's what Falco is 'really' using.

As for deviation from the historical record, for me - as little as possible. It's always a disappointment to find that an author has moved things around for plot purposes, especially when there's so much history just lying around for the taking, with all sorts of good bits. To go back to Lindsey Davis again, her first Falco novel (the Silver Pigs) [currently on offer at £1.99!] features some lead ingots. The ingots are real, and were found by archaeologists - and the fact that they had been found by archaeologists meant that fictional Falco had to leave his fictional ingots for real archaeologists to discover... Thus demonstrating Davis' faithfulness to history, or at least to causality!
 

Calum

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While I’m thinking about movies rather than books here I think a lot of it comes down to the intent and tone of the piece. The godawful King Arthur movie from 2004 tries to frame itself as a gritty, no nonsense historically accurate take on the Arthur mythos… and opens up with the Romans leaving Britain in 452 AD, just over 40 years after they did so historically. By the end it also take time to fling woad clad Scottish warriors and crossbow wielding 5th century Saxon warriors at us. These inaccuracies undermine the film’s efforts to frame itself as grim historical fiction, and only serve to make its glum, po-faced tone seem absurd by contrast*.

On the other hand you have Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, the silliest silly film and in the history of silliness and it is glorious. It’s absurd, cartoonish and about as accurate a depiction of England in the 12th century as a Disneyland theme park (Highlights include a battalion of woad clad, half naked ‘Celts’ descending on Sherwood Forest 1000 years too late) but unlike King Arthur it’s aware of its own absurdity and completely embraces it in a devilishly fun extravaganza of swashbuckling silliness. It’s hard to nitpick something for historical accuracy when it has the villain look straight in the camera and order his minions to cancel Christmas.

So if you’re going for strict, dead serious historical drama then authenticity is your goal. If you’re aiming for light-hearted, pulpy adventure and fun then feel free to play around with things.


* Even exculding the questionable history King Arthur suffers from a script that has Arthur and his knights set off to rescue a Roman diplomat living hundreds of miles north of Hadrian's Wall with only 2 bodyguards, an idea that makes as much sense as the President of the United States taking a vacation in sunny North Korea (Though considering who's currently in the White House that might not be such a bad idea).
 

Theophania Elliott

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On the other hand you have Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, the silliest silly film and in the history of silliness and it is glorious. It’s absurd, cartoonish and about as accurate a depiction of England in the 12th century as a Disneyland theme park (Highlights include a battalion of woad clad, half naked ‘Celts’ descending on Sherwood Forest 1000 years too late)
Don't forget whatshisname's peculiar navigation: Dover to Nottingham via Hadrian's Wall. Maybe something to do with an inability to figure out which direction was east... or north.

And the best line of all: "You - my room - 10.30. You - 10.45. Bring a friend!"

And for historical silliness, what about A Knight's Tale? With naked Geoffrey Chaucer. "I was naked for a day; you will be naked for centuries. I will eviscerate you in prose..." Or something like that.

Personally, they're so far from actual history that I think they stop being 'historical fiction' and turn into 'history-inspired fantasy'. They're very, very good at being what they are - so much so that even die-hard history buffs will not only watch with pleasure, but also quote extensively and repeatedly.

I think there's a big difference between films/books that are clearly playing the whole thing for laughs, and those that clearly think they're Doing Proper History but failing (Braveheart - with the battle of Stamford Bridge... without the bridge! [the director wanted a dramatic charge, I heard]).
 

Teresa Edgerton

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Personally, I think attempts at period dialogue are worse than the author just going for modern syntax. I tend to assume that the speech should be mentally translated to whatever is appropriate
Well, syntax is one thing—I agree that it's best to leave that alone (especially in periods, like the Victorian era, where it wouldn't actually be different, but the author gets the weird idea that it would be!), but translating the vocabulary is a lot trickier. Because a lot of words, and especially slang, don't directly translate, and when you use them modern attitudes sneak into the dialogue along with them. Pretty soon your characters can end up thinking a lot more like their modern equivalents than like the people they would actually be as products of their own environments. And from thinking like they were born in the modern era it is only a short step to acting like it. So vocabulary has to be handled very carefully, unless the intent is to be light and humorous.

And yet, the author shouldn't be using words that keep sending readers to the dictionary on just about every page. Or using words that they should have looked up, but didn't, and consequently end up using them in a way that would be incorrect in any period.
 

TitaniumTi

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Because a lot of words, and especially slang, don't directly translate, and when you use them modern attitudes sneak into the dialogue along with them.
I agree. I was recently reading a book in which an early 19th century woman used the term 'lifestyle choices'. I gave up on the book after that, because not only are the attitudes conveyed very modern; it also implies much greater freedom than people then would have expected. (Although I might have kept reading if the book had been more interesting.)
 

The Big Peat

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I will have to stick my Arthurian hat on here and defend the historicity of the man. There is evidence(slight) of his existance but stronger evidence for a number of characters and events in the traditional stories. For a great HF story about Arthur try Helen Hollick's Pendragon series. No magic, no Merlin but firmly grounded in late 5th century Britain drawing off real events mentioned in the Annales Cambrai, Historium Brittonium, Gregory of Tours and Jordanes. She also grounds her characters in the time. A splendid story.

Rant over ☺
With the same hat on, I must disagree. Accepting his historicity for the sake of argument, it still leaves the problem that virtually everything we know of him is myth and folklore and therefore, any reconstruction of his tale will primarily rest on those. I'm reading Helen Hollick's website and from the sounds of it, her primary sources are non-Galfridian Celtic legend (although why anyone would doubt a Celtic Arthur getting cuckolded after reading the other Celtic myths is very, very beyond me). Planting those legends into a realistic historical reconstruction of Dark Ages Britain doesn't make them historic. Nor does conflating Arthur and Riothamus make Arthur historic either.

Although, honestly, I just don't really accept his historicity. The source evidence for him is too late, too scant, and too tied up with pseudo-history - while the evidence for him being a folklore figure is pretty strong. At best, we have the conflation of a historical figure with a folklore figure, one in which we know nothing about the history and everything about the folklore.

I love Arthurian tales and thank you for the recommendation but really can't accept them as historic. Which characters and events do you think there's evidence for? Mount Badon and Owain mab Urien are the only two that really spring to mind.
 

Martin Gill

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One thing that irritates me no end is all these feisty females who defy convention, yet somehow never have to suffer the consequences
Interesting given the crux of my story is a "feisty female" who defies convention (runs away from a political marriage), and as a result everyone she cares for winds up in massive trouble and she has to shoulder the consequences and a bunch of them die.

I think where I've ended up is "historically inspired, mythically fueled". I've mixed real world locations, characters and archaeological evidence with elements of Norse and Finnish myth, but hopefully firmly rooted in a world that feels real as people from the C7-8th would have believed it.
 

Toby Frost

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Personally, I think attempts at period dialogue are worse than the author just going for modern syntax. I tend to assume that the speech should be mentally translated to whatever is appropriate - so Lindsey Davis's Falco in first-century Rome talks like a 1930s noir detective, and that fits - and it gives you an instant feel for what Falco is supposed to be like: a PI who's tough, honest, down on his luck, and a sucker for a pretty girl. Back in Rome, I there was probably an equivalent tone, but in Latin, and I assume that that's what Falco is 'really' using.
Definitely!
 

Teresa Edgerton

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Interesting given the crux of my story is a "feisty female" who defies convention (runs away from a political marriage), and as a result everyone she cares for winds up in massive trouble and she has to shoulder the consequences and a bunch of them die.
This is what I would like to see more of in books. Because of course there were people who, historically, defied convention but (unlike the characters in so many books) they did have to face consequences, sometimes quite nasty ones.
 

Martin Gill

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Because of course there were people who, historically, defied convention
Agreed. Realistically I think we want to write and read about exceptional people, not mundane people, but I totally agree with you. I was really conscious when plotting the thing that I've got 2 female characters who step out of convention and take huge risks. One is a POV character, who pretty much starts a war due to her actions. The other gets one of the male POV characters to do her dirty work and meets a sticky end as a result. I wanted them to be bold and exceptional, but rooted in a world that owed them nothing and bit back.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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Realistically I think we want to write and read about exceptional people, not mundane people,
But sometimes writer do want to write about mundane people, people just like them, who have exceptional things happen to them and come out on top. I don't have a problem with that, so long as the characters win by rising to the occasion and becoming exceptional (because there are people who really do that). What I don't like is when they stay the way they are and miraculously succeed anyway (because in real life they'd be ground to dust).
 

Martin Gill

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Fair point. But doesn't that make the mundane people who weather the exceptional become exceptional? I agree though, especially in horror I like normal people thrown into the void.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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If they weather it through their own efforts or endurance they become exceptional—but not if the author simply provides a last minute way out.

In horror, I suppose characters might sometimes reasonably prevail by simply displaying more common sense than those around them. Stupidity does seem to kill a lot of characters.
 

svalbard

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With the same hat on, I must disagree. Accepting his historicity for the sake of argument, it still leaves the problem that virtually everything we know of him is myth and folklore and therefore, any reconstruction of his tale will primarily rest on those. I'm reading Helen Hollick's website and from the sounds of it, her primary sources are non-Galfridian Celtic legend (although why anyone would doubt a Celtic Arthur getting cuckolded after reading the other Celtic myths is very, very beyond me). Planting those legends into a realistic historical reconstruction of Dark Ages Britain doesn't make them historic. Nor does conflating Arthur and Riothamus make Arthur historic either.

Although, honestly, I just don't really accept his historicity. The source evidence for him is too late, too scant, and too tied up with pseudo-history - while the evidence for him being a folklore figure is pretty strong. At best, we have the conflation of a historical figure with a folklore figure, one in which we know nothing about the history and everything about the folklore.

I love Arthurian tales and thank you for the recommendation but really can't accept them as historic. Which characters and events do you think there's evidence for? Mount Badon and Owain mab Urien are the only two that really spring to mind.
Sorry for the late reply. A few of the characters that have some element of historicity would be Urien the father of the afore mentioned Owain. Ambrosius Aurelianus(another personage who could be conflated with Riothamus, although I believe Riothamus was who he is said to be and not someone with another name. The name business in Arthuriana can get very confused and vitriolic. I also think Riothamus came from Brittany and not Britain). There is evidence for a King Mark, Sir Tristam under the earlier name of Durstan. Merlin or Myrddin Wllyt possibly existed, although later than Arthur.

All the evidence is scant and unreliable. However it is enough that you can base a novel about the myth and call it HF. The same way we can say a book about Robin Hood based in late 12th century England is both HF and fantasy we can aslo make the same claim for a novel about Arthur and Riothamus(who was undoubtably historic).
 

Brian G Turner

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I was just reading this piece by historical fiction writer Elizabeth Chadwick: BEYOND THE DRESSING UP BOX: How I write historical fiction @ Elizabeth Chadwick

and noticed she made an interesting point:

in the case of historical fiction the story must rest solidly on historical integrity. Note that I don’t say accuracy because that has different connotations
...

Story and historical integrity and authenticity – that’s another word, do not have to be mutually exclusive.
 

MWagner

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I was just reading this piece by historical fiction writer Elizabeth Chadwick: BEYOND THE DRESSING UP BOX: How I write historical fiction @ Elizabeth Chadwick

and noticed she made an interesting point:
I agree with Chadwick's emphasis on historical authenticity. Immersing myself in a different outlook and social milieu is certainly the main appeal of historical fiction for me. Chadwick offers this excellent advice for bringing historical authenticity to fiction:

How would it feel in 1200 to be 14 years and be told that I had to marry a man in his 30’s? I would be terrified and grossed out, but how would my 12th century person feel? Very possibly the same, but what alternatives might her culture and upbringing bring to the mix? What might be the responses of those around her? If she refused or threw a tantrum about it then she might find herself punished and seen as a disgrace to her family. Or, she might feel nervous but proud to do her duty for her family and go through with it for her dynasty. She might feel pleased to have a strong protector. She might feel honoured. You have to get under the skin of that society and look at how it functioned.​

The difficulty as a writer is the trade-off between authenticity and popular appeal. There's a reason Hollywood projects modern sensibilities onto historical characters, and it's because a great many people are uncomfortable with foreign value systems and behaviours. Medieval men-at-arms, duchesses, and innkeepers looked at the world in a dramatically different way than modern readers do. They are likely to be devoutly religious in a raw, passionate way that is alien to most modern readers. Their tolerance for violence and its application in enforcing the social order is monstrous in our eyes.

To return to Chadwick's example, let's say you want to make the father of the 14 year year old girl a sympathetic character. Can you have him carry out the plan to marry her off to a man in his 30s, even if that's perfectly consistent with being a loving father in the 12th century? Maybe. But it would be very difficult. A great many readers are going to dislike this man, regardless of what other tactics you employ to characterize him as compassionate and sympathetic.

Historical social norms around gender roles, child-rearing, individual autonomy, and class can make it difficult to engage the sympathy of many modern readers. I'd go so far as to suggest one of the reasons fantasy has eclipsed historical fiction in the popular consciousness (not to mention sales) is because so many readers today find the past unpalatable, and prefer stories set in worlds that can be tailored to suit modern sensibilities while still evoking exoticism and adventure.
 
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sknox

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It is comparatively easy to write historical fiction--it's just research. I think writing historical *fantasy* is harder because you are mucking with the timeline, and the reader comes to the work with certain expectations.

As an example, in my WIP, goblins invade the Roman Empire. So far, no problem, just futz around with certain events. But I also posit that while Constantine converted, he never favored the Christian religion in the Empire, so when my story takes place, most everyone is still pagan. The tricky part is how to let the reader know about this deviation without being clumsy about it. And if you don't say it somewhere, fairly early, you're going to drive certain readers nuts every time you talk about the Divine Valens or invoke the gods. Straight historical fiction doesn't have to contend with this.
 
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