Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Historical Accuracy

I have been thinking a lot about historical accuracy as I work on these medieval French assassin books. Lucy had asked (quite a while ago—sorry Lucy!) if I would talk about historical accuracy on the blog, and since I was discussing historical research in general, I thought it would be a good time to address it.

But first, a warning: I am not a purist. If you are looking for someone who holds up pristine historical accuracy as the One True Shining Purpose, I am not your girl.

For one thing, I think historical accuracy is an elusive beast, especially the farther back in time you travel. But that very elusiveness is exactly why so many historians tackle time periods that have been written about before: because things change. Sometimes it is the actual information and facts that change—new discoveries are made, new methods of dating or interpreting old facts emerge. But other times it is merely US who have changed, our perspective on history. A great example of this was the influx of histories in the seventies that were told/viewed through the eyes of women or minorities who’d been involved in the historical events, but whose side hadn’t yet been told.

There is also great disagreement on a lot of historical concepts and facts. Just trying to define the middle ages or medieval time period for example, can lead you on a long and twisting goose chase. Some declare it ended in the middle of the 14th century, while others claim it ended in 1450, where still others claim it ended in 1492. You can find solid historical arguments for each of those dates. The truth is, you can often find a variety of sources that will support an even wider variety of interpretations.

So which does a writer choose?

The one that serves the story they are trying to tell.

Some writers are writing in order to convey absolute historical detail and accuracy and take great pride in that, as well they should because it is so tricky. But others (like me) are mostly interested in evoking the sensibilities and flavor of a time period. I don’t mean that we slap historical costumes on 21st century characters and calling it historical, but rather we try to explore the mindset and worldview of earlier times, but in a way that is accessible to readers.

This is especially true for me since I write historical fantasy. I am already drawn to the murky, under explored parts of historical periods—their folk beliefs, superstitions, relationship to Other, and their spiritual anomalies—things that most real historians have traditionally steered clear of.

Then there is the added layer of conveying the history in the story as the people of that time understood it, or so that it is accurate when viewed through our 21st century lens. A great example of this is that I’ve been dinged in a view Theodosia reviews for being inaccurate about mummies, and I so want to ask this person to please point me to their research. Not because I want to argue, but because the four sources I consulted all supported my dealing with mummies and the researcher in me would love to examine this source that disputes that. Or is her source a more 21st century source rather than the information Theodosia and other Egyptologists would have access to in 1907?

Another example is that even now, they is still disagreement and dispute as to who really reached mountain peaks first or who the first man to discover the north pole truly was.

You begin to see the complexity.

My medieval France book is proving the most difficult, not only because the time period was recorded in such a subjective manner, but because most of the earliest sources are in French! Middle French at that, and I simply am not dedicated enough or willing to wait long enough to learn that language before I write this story.

What I am doing for this book is dipping my hand in the cauldron of what we know of the events at that time and pulling out those that are most relevant to the story I want to tell. There are vast amounts of historical facts and details I am not even touching—to do so would turn an already huge book into an encyclopedia! But even more important, they aren’t relevant to the story itself.

My own guidepost, touchstone, call it what you will is that the history serves the story. (Again, I want to reiterate that this would never fly if I were writing historical fiction rather than historical fantasy!)


andalucy said...

Thanks for writing about this! I knew you would get to it when you had the chance. You make some excellent points about history being subjective and debatable.

Mae said...

My Egyptian book is, quite frankly, very historically inaccurate. As far as I know. I do know a great deal about Egypt, but I'm essentially putting my own face on the facts. I do like to imagine certain things we're not sure of- the Senmut/Hatshepsut relationship, for example.

But it couldn't be anywhere but Hatshepsut era Egypt.

Anne Broyles said...

I am really enjoying this series, Robin, as a writer and reader.

Tonja said...

Thanks for the post! I agree that a fiction writer should be given some latitude on accuracy, especially in time periods that are not well-documented. You shouldn't have to be a history professor to write a novel.

Jay Hudson said...

Thanks,Robin! I have been worried about the accuracy of some of my research. The writer has to have a wider latitude for period expression than a pure historian.