Historical Accuracy in Historical Fiction
By Stephanie Carroll
I used to get really angry whenever I read something in a historical fiction novel or watched something in a historical fiction movie or television scene that wasn’t historically accurate. I’d be like, “Oh come on! How hard is it to know that the word ‘hello’ wasn’t around until the 1920s!!!!”
However, after spending five years editing and re-editing A White Room, I learned that being accurate in historical fiction is a balancing act and sometimes factual sacrifices have to be made for the story while other times authors stand their ground in the name of accuracy but still get criticized for it.
I started writing A White Room the year I graduated college. I have degrees in social science and history, so I spent my entire college career obsessing over accuracy. Thus, when I started researching my historical novel, I committed to being as accurate as humanly possible.
I spent the first six months doing nothing but researching. I researched Victorian life, so I could describe how turn of the century people lived on a day to day basis. I researched Victorian deco and Art Nouveau furniture, making sure every single piece I described in the book would be based off of a real object. I researched how women cared for the home, each step of daily chores, cooking, food storage, parenting, values, belief systems, medical practices, speech patterns, calling etiquette, tea etiquette, grooming, hygiene, and I could go on for a really long time.
Then when I started getting feedback from some of my first readers, I was shocked to find them objecting to historically accurate scenes, saying they just didn’t believe it. There was this one specific scene that I really fought to keep. It showed my main character not knowing what was going to happen on her wedding night. Nearly every single reader said they couldn’t believe a woman of her age wouldn’t know what was to happen.
Yet, this is a historically reasonable circumstance. There was no such thing as “the talk” in Victorian times. They didn’t even speak of pregnancy in direct terms. I based the scene off of a historical letter from a new bride. She wrote to another married friend of how surprised she was on her wedding night and how afterwards her mother’s ambiguous comments suddenly made sense.
Still, in the end I cut the scene. Historically accurate or not, it didn’t matter. The point was that the suggestion was so unfamiliar that it pulled readers out of the story long enough for them to doubt it. Even though it is accurate for the times, the doubt in the reader’s mind is enough to have the same impact as if it was a mistake.
At the same time, I had readers literally yell at me for inaccuracies like using a modern spelling of the word “crape,” which I had originally spelled as “crepe” because I preferred the similarity to the word “creep.” Yeah, I got yelled at for that, twice. Well the second time was more of a snide eye rolling but still. The point is clear. It’s really important to not be inaccurate either unless it’s necessary for the story or believability because little inaccuracies will be noticed and will also pull the reader out of the story.
However, there are some choices that must be made regardless of the potential fallout. For instance, I decided not to use ornately Victorian language in A White Room, and I’ve gotten some heat for this, but the language I use isn’t necessary inaccurate. I based it off of the language used in “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. That short story was written in the late 1800s and the language is so simple, it almost reads modern, but it was actually written during the time.
Even though some readers will not believe that the language I used is true to the times, I still decided to keep it that way because Victorian language is very purple and flowery, which is no longer a type of writing that modern day readers can tolerate. I wanted readers to easily slip into A White Room and get carried away without having to wrangle with unfamiliar and complicated language.
Still, that doesn’t mean I didn’t make an effort to be historically accurate. I continued to research and double check facts for the book throughout the entire process, all the way up to copyediting and proofreading. I think the majority of historical fiction authors do this amount of research, however, like typos, mistakes happen. We found mistakes in my novel even up until the last round of edits and that’s with many test readers, editors, and proofreaders helping. They were extremely tiny mistakes like having my characters eat bundt cake when technically it wasn’t invented until a couple years later, but sometimes something that small is enough to pull a reader out of the story.
So it’s a balancing act, and the key thing needs to be the reader’s ability to accept what he or she is reading. Whether it’s true or untrue, if the reader doubts, it might as well be a mistake. Whether the reader assumes it’s inaccurate or actually takes the time and effort to double check, he or she has been pulled out of the story and has put the book down. Yet, sometimes authors have to make those calls to maintain the desired effect they want for their story. Sometimes it’s the right call and sometimes it’s not. Unfortunately, they can’t know for sure until they release the book and see what readers think.
Be sure to see my review of A White Room and find all of the tour stop information Here
About the Author
As a reporter and community editor, Stephanie Carroll earned first place awards from the National Newspaper Association and from the Nevada Press Association. Stephanie holds degrees in history and social science. She graduated summa cum laude from California State University, Fresno.
Her dark and magical writing is inspired by the classic authors Charlotte Perkins Gilman (The Yellow Wallpaper), Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden), and Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights).
Stephanie blogs and writes fiction in California, where her husband is stationed with the U.S. Navy. Her website is www.stephaniecarroll.net.
A White Room is her debut novel.
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