Accuracy, Authenticity, and World-Building in Historical Romance

Robin’s review of Julie Anne Long’s latest Pennyroyal Green book stimulated a lively discussion of accuracy in historical romance and the (over)use of the Regency era. Robin loved the book, even though she is not a fan of Regency-set historicals, and she was willing to overlook glitches in the historical setting because she found the writing and the romantic relationship so compelling. I was skeptical. I’ve avoided Long’s books ever since I had to DNF her first one. It featured an improbable plot and the overuse of a phrase, “wee Becca,” to the point where the endearment became like nails on a chalkboard to me. I later attempted an earlier Pennyroyal book which Janine really liked, but I gave up because the implausibility of the opening scenes pulled me out of the book. Also, I am a fully paid-up member of the Society Against The Overuse Of Italics.

Nevertheless, the review of What I Did For A Duke made me want to give Long another try, and after repeatedly posting about historical accuracy in the comments, I thought I should read the book before I went any further. And guess what, I loved it. I still saw all the historical implausibilities and anachronistic language, but the hero and heroine were so engaging, and the relationship was so compelling, that I gave up counting the before-their-time words and the alternate-universe society faux pas and just went with the story.

The conversation continued in the comments and then wandered over to twitter, and a lot of thoughtful, knowledgeable people tried one more time to figure out what the boundaries of historical accuracy should be. And, of course, once again, we couldn’t do it. I made the passing comment early on in the blog discussion that I didn’t think there was any such thing as “real” historical accuracy in fiction. By that I didn’t mean that authors didn’t try to achieve it, but rather than each author and/or reader has her own criteria and her own lines in the sand.

I used to pride myself on being a stickler for historical accuracy and picking out mistakes in historical novels. Then I went back and read some of my favorite old Regencies (e.g., Marion Chesney’s The Six Sisters books) and realized that they didn’t begin to meet that standard. Yes, they capture the era in some ways, but they completely violate the rules in others. Similarly, I love Anne Stuart’s medievals and Georgian historicals, but her biggest fan couldn’t call them historically accurate. I realized that if I was really swept up in the storytelling (whether because of plot, characterization, or just the sheer style), I let a lot of things slide. And if I didn’t know the era (cough medieval Europe cough), I just read happily and ignorantly along. The only shortcoming that consistently pulls me out of my reading zone regardless of the historical era is repeated word usage mistakes, and that’s probably true for a lot of people. But it’s only part of historical accuracy.

If accuracy is a lost cause, how about authenticity? Robin suggested that alternative years ago on the old AAR boards. But that one eventually falls down for the same reason. How do we define the boundaries of authenticity? Is it basically accuracy with atmosphere? If someone can do it, I’m happy to listen and discuss, but I freely admit I can’t to my own satisfaction, let alone other people’s.

But once again hope has triumphed over experience, and I have come up with a spectrum of historical accuracy/authenticity/conviction. It draws on the various smart things people said on twitter yesterday.

Category 1: Wallpaper historicals. These are books where the characters are basically modern, but they wear period clothing, live in period houses, and refer to period events.There is no real pretense, by authors or readers who like the books, that these books represent serious attempts to depict a particular historical era. Think of it as going to a historical theme party: everyone dresses up in the theme, but they talk in their normal accents and use contemporary vocabulary and wear Spanx under their costumes.

Category 2: Historical mashups. These are books which have more of a historical feel in the voice and setting, but which aren’t consistent at depicting a given era, even when they are set in it. The characters and settings don’t behave in 21st century ways or use 21st century speech patterns, but there are enough anachronisms for a reader who is familiar with the period (though serious non-fiction or contemporary fiction) to notice. The author often combines behavior and context from a range of historical periods (usually unintentionally).

Category 3: Single-era historical lite. In these books the setting is relatively true to one era, but the characters and context slip often enough that both knowledgeable and less historically informed readers notice the anachronisms.

Category 4: Single-era historical serious. In these books there may be occasional slips, but the author is successful at depicting an internally consistent fictional world which draws from a single, recognizable historical era. Knowledgeable readers find these books satisfying even when they spot the errors.

Notice that I haven’t talked about world-building in these categories. This is because I think that all historical romance authors engage in world-building. But they have a variety of goals. I doubt most authors consciously set out to write wallpaper historicals. But there are probably not many authors who are determined to pull off the single-era historical serious novel, either. The latter takes an enormous amount of time-consuming and often tedious work, and since many readers either don’t notice or don’t care as long as the romance is good, it’s an end in itself rather than a means to publishing success.

I also think that it’s fruitless to try and assign authors to categories. One reader’s wallpaper is another reader’s historical lite. One reader’s historical serious is another reader’s historical lite. And so on.

For my own reading pleasure, I’m trying to read more books in categories 2 and 3 when reviewers I trust recommend them. I don’t think I’ll every really enjoy category 1 books, because I read for world-building as much as romance. That’s probably why I like medicals, not to mention police procedurals and dark fantasy. I love entering a world I wouldn’t otherwise have access to. But after I read, say, an Ian Rankin, I don’t feel as if I now understand what all Scottish detectives are really like.

I have enormous respect for authors who write category 4 books, and I love to read them. But they aren’t the only books I can enjoy, and if I exclude too many of the non-category 4 books, I lose out on reading some great, great, romance storytelling.

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36 thoughts on “Accuracy, Authenticity, and World-Building in Historical Romance

  1. Sunita, I don’t know if you saw this post and discussion (http://www.courtneymilan.com/ramblings/2010/12/15/fairytales-of-meritocracy/#comments) over at Courtney Milan’s blog a couple of months ago, but it dovetails with your post nicely, I think.

    My quick and dirty take is this:

    IMO accuracy is a more objective standard than authenticity, although I definitely think it has subjective elements, as well, because a) at some level historical “fact” is disputed, and b) we can argue endlessly about getting things *exactly right* because our context is necessarily removed from the time in question. However, I’m not sure how many uses of history in Romance CANNOT be executed with a fairly high level of objective, verifiable accuracy.

    The reason I still argue for the so-called authenticity standard is in part because of the context issue to which I referred above (and discussed more extensively in the comments on Milan’s post), and also because I think a Romance can have a fairly high level of accuracy but still not *feel* historically sound. So in my definition of authenticity, some level of accuracy is necessary, because IMO you can’t really create a strong feel in a period if you don’t have a basic level of accuracy. However, IMO authenticity is also broader and more subjective, because different readers will respond differently to different books.

    For example, this morning I was skimming through my Twitter stream from yesterday and I saw Elizabeth Hoyt’s books being discussed. I read the first couple Prince books, or whatever the series was called, and while I found some elements interesting, the writing felt much rougher and more modern to me than even Long’s books. And this morning Fia linked Quinn and Long, a connection I agree to in regard to the privileging of story over accuracy, but which I would not agree in regard to historicity (I’m pretty sure it was in a Quinn book that I came across the word “stuff” used in a way that made the heroine sound like she just time traveled from the San Fernando Valley circa 1983– and I’m still scarred) or even authenticity. Although I’m reluctant to say that because I don’t want to give the impression that I place Long waaay above Quinn on the historical accuracy or authenticity scale. Some of it, I’m sure, is the fact that I just find Long to be a better writer (a COMPLETELY subjective standard, I know). But obviously this is where we get mired in the subjective aspects of authenticity, because of its amorphous quality.

    Still, I think both elements are important because I’m not sure what too much historical accuracy would look like. And also because I think the issues of context I discussed in the comments to Milan’s post shape a book’s sense of authenticity. I sometimes get frustrated in regard to, say, the bathing discussion that often pops up in regard to historicals. Of course those of us who regularly douse ourselves in antiperspirant, cologne, perfume, fragrant soaps, and take daily showers/baths, people of the 19th or 18th C might seem smelly. Just as people who are allergic to fragrance (I know a couple myself) can barely stand all the crap we put on ourselves to mask or erase our natural odors. Because it’s all about how context defines the norm, and this is where I think both the skill of a writer and the depth of research and worldbuilding can make all the difference. Ultimately, I privilege authenticity above accuracy because for me it’s the word that best captures the mix of accurate details and less tangible elements of context.

    As a sidenote, I am wondering how other readers feel about the CS Harris historical mysteries (Harris is Candice Proctor, whose Romances I lovelovelovelove). Harris is an academic with a PhD in European history, but her books have been criticized on Amazon for taking liberties with the history. To me the books seem to have a good period feel, but that may be because they conform better with the ways I have experienced the Regency through my own academic research (which does not really match up with most Regency Roms, because I’ve been looking at the early 19th C through a different lens).

  2. I didn’t realize that conversation had wandered over to Twitter, or I would have joined it and moseyed over there myself. It seems like I all the best Twitter convos happen without me.

    Re. What I Did for a Duke, the beginning is the weakest part of it IMO. If you stick with it till after the chess match (which happens in the first few chapters), it gets so good after that. Totally worth reading.

    I left you a long comment on the DA WIDFAD thread yesterday which dealt with the anachronism topic so I won’t duplicate what I had to say here.

  3. I may have to print this out and put in on my bulletin board! Excellent blog … and as you know, a subject that eternally fascinates me. I loved your description of coming back, turning away, coming back and on and on, to Julie Anne Long. I’ve read her, don’t think she’s on my keeper shelves but if enough people I respect say Really, Try her Again, I will. The story, for me, always trumps history but then, as I’ve said on twitter, it’s a sliding scale for me. What might pull me out of the story might not even bother another reader. I certainly don’t walk around with a litmus test.

  4. @Robin

    For example, this morning I was skimming through my Twitter stream from yesterday and I saw Elizabeth Hoyt’s books being discussed. I read the first couple Prince books, or whatever the series was called, and while I found some elements interesting, the writing felt much rougher and more modern to me than even Long’s books.

    I felt that way about Hoyt’s first book as well (I have not read the later ones, but have been thinking of trying one of them) but then I recall getting into a discussion of accuracy at DA in which someone who knows the period better than I do (TKF, perhaps?) insisted that Hoyt was far more accurate than Long. And it is possible that Long gets more of the facts right and I wouldn’t know it, but the language, which is something I am pretty attuned too, simply sounded more contemporary to me in The Raven Prince than in any of the Long books I’ve read.

    Which goes to show that yes, authenticity is at least partly in the eye (or ear?) of the beholder. I agree that accuracy is less subjective, but even there, as you say, sometimes there are discrepancies between research sources.

    For example, I’ve recently been researching 1880s English breakfasts, and in reading a book called Eating with the Victorians, I came across some samples taken from a survey done in 1900 which would seem to indicate that most people stuck to bacon and if they could afford them, eggs, with a few other accompaniments like toast or tea. The more money they had, the more diverse was the menu, but in general, they ate pretty similar meals from day to day.

    However, if you only looked at some of the cookbooks of the period, you would get a very different idea. There you can find items like Dry Curry of Salmon, Omelet aux Fines Herbs, Saute of Kidneys, Potato Ball, Mutton Cutlets, Bouchees of Eggs aux Truffles and I could go on.

    Now part of this is surely a class issue; the cookbooks were written for the middle classes (one is titled Things a Lady Would Like to Know) while some of the surveys I mentioned were of poorer families (they are taken from a book called Poverty: A Study of Town Life). But others of the surveys in the latter book were of servant-keeping families, so they couldn’t all have been that poor.

    Eileen White, who wrote “The Great British Breakfast” in Eating with the Victorians, postulates that there was less variety in the Victorian diet than in Victorian cookbooks, and I find that very plausible, given that even today our cookbooks are more diverse than most people’s diets.

    According to a chef who once worked in Queen Victoria’s kitchens and who is cited in the book, rumor had it that even Queen Victoria, who had an array of dishes available to her, generally stuck to a boiled egg later in life (though she ate it from a gold cup with a gold spoon, or so her upper servants said).

    After researching this for my 1882 scene though, I still had my heroine eat dishes that are found in 1880s cookbooks: broiled haddock and buttered eggs, along with toast with marmalade, and cocoa. Her father, who she is dining with, has a kidney as well as eggs.

    Why? Because they are wealthy, and I wanted to illustrate that wealth. Because she isn’t hungry, but is trying to force herself to eat at her father’s behest, and I wanted enough food on her plate to reflect that. The scene may get changed or even cut from the manuscript, but as it stands right now, it’s more reflective of 1880s cookbooks than of what most Victorians probably ate in actuality.

    My point is that as a writer, I sometimes feel the need to make choices that have more to do with characterization, mood, scene-setting, etc., than they do with perfect accuracy. I try not to be completely inaccurate, but I feel that in attempting to write a novel, I have a variety of considerations and priorities, of which historical accuracy is only one.

  5. Robin, thanks so much for that link. I agree that basic factual accuracy is not a high bar, especially given how easy the digitization of old books is making it. And I agree that it’s very difficult (although theoretically possible) to get authenticity without factual accuracy. Accuracy in terms of attitudes and settings is where the discussion gets lively and conflictual, because readers have varying expectations. And sometimes it can turn into a “I know it when I see it” definition, which is not helpful to furthering the debate.

    As an example, I keep using Long’s Pennyroyal Green “going down the pub for a pint” setting as part of why I get thrown out of the book. Of course it’s entirely possible, even likely, that there were aristocrats who drank with their tenants and servants. But probably not that many, and they probably didn’t have the other characteristics that make them hero material. On the other hand, why is that just a big deal to me? In the case of the Pennyroyal books, it’s because it reinforced other features that seemed off to me and it was treated as normal rather than unusual. Maybe it was explained in the first book of the series, which I haven’t read. But whereas a few years ago I would have said “eh, wallpaper, forget it,” now I try to keep going to see if the story is worth reading for. I remind myself that I read for both context and relationship.

    I found some of the author’s comments over at Courtney’s blog post illuminating, because they helped me realize what some of my parameters are. Many readers want “extraordinary characters in ordinary times” whereas I want ordinary people in ordinary or extraordinary times, for the most part.

  6. Janine, that’s a fascinating insight into how authors go about figuring things out. And it’s a good reminder of how much work can go into a couple of sentences or paragraphs.

    Now, if you hadn’t insisted on looking stuff up and getting the atmosphere right, you could have just gone with “kedgeree” and we all would just have nodded our heads and kept reading … :-)

  7. Janet, I think you would like WIDFAD. The romance is just so wonderful. I liked Genevieve, but I LOVED Alex. And best of all, he wasn’t a fake almost-40.

    I am such a WordPress newbie. I must find the edit button and the preview button plugins, because I need them more than anyone!

  8. I bought the book as well and will see how I like her. Seems this author is liked by some and not others in my social circle. I hate to beat a dead horse but I can never read Julie Garwood because I think she is a storyteller first, historical accuracy not a priority in her books and there’s nothing wrong with that. My biggest complaint though is how modern her characters act/sound within those time periods. That is very distracting to me and I think Meredith Duran does the same thing but I’ve only read two of her books. But you know, a good book will have you overlook a lot of flaws. I love Roberta Gellis because she is heavy handed on using real historical events in her stories. I think she’s a compelling writer while others think she is well, boring.

    My question though is and playing devil’s advocate here: is it fair to dismiss or criticize those authors who don’t care to be historically accurate when their sole purpose is to give us a compelling romance? Readers have a plethora of choices out there and as you have categorized nicely in your some authors fit within those definitions. You just have to stick to those authors that write what you like (not saying that you don’t). I remember enjoying a Sandy Hingston historical and she criticized all up and down the AAR boards because of the name of hero? AND because she got the titles wrong and it was something that a basic search probably could have helped save. But I enjoyed the book and was completely clueless about the errors. Enough babbling from over here. I enjoyed reading this post.

  9. I felt that way about Hoyt’s first book as well (I have not read the later ones, but have been thinking of trying one of them) but then I recall getting into a discussion of accuracy at DA in which someone who knows the period better than I do (TKF, perhaps?) insisted that Hoyt was far more accurate than Long. And it is possible that Long gets more of the facts right and I wouldn’t know it, but the language, which is something I am pretty attuned too, simply sounded more contemporary to me in The Raven Prince than in any of the Long books I’ve read.

    For me this exemplifies one of the differences I see between accuracy and authenticity (and that I tried to articulate above). Namely that an author may have a base level of factual accuracy but not capture the sensibility of the period in which she is writing.

    I don’t know if you remember a discussion about one of Lisa Kleypas’s Wallflower historicals over at AAR, but one poster argued that Kleypas’s language was too flowery for her. Kleypas entered the discussion and OMG so graciously (since the poster had been, well, less than flattering, lol) indicated that she was trying to replicate the Victorian sensibility of her characters’ world. I was on Kleypas’s side in that discussion, but I’m not sure I’d argue that Kleypas is the most accurate historical writer in the world, either.

    Re. your point about food: IMO it’s the same way today. I love love love cookbooks and food magazines and I cook a pretty wide variety of dishes. And even though I do not feel that I am as adventurous as many, I KNOW I’m eating more diversely than most of America, at least most of middle class America, of which I am a member. Which is why I see no problem allowing a character to eat according to what was available in cookbooks, nor would I necessarily designate that as “extraordinary.” As I said on Milan’s blog, I think there really is enough diversity in any historical period to justify a protagonist who is not ‘run of the mill’ so to speak (another phrase that’s kind of interesting, since mill run grain is usually the crap stuff, while we use the phrase to mean commonplace or undistinguished. Hmmm).

    My question though is and playing devil’s advocate here: is it fair to dismiss or criticize those authors who don’t care to be historically accurate when their sole purpose is to give us a compelling romance?

    As long as these books are marketed as “historical Romance,” I’m probably going to be complaining. If pubs want to redesignate them as ‘whiff of historical Romance’ or ‘don’t really give a shit about history historical Romance’ or ‘fantasy historical Romance,’ I’d be thrilled. For me it’s mostly about genre designation rather than quality of the book. Since I often love books written by Long or others like her, I don’t dislike the wallpaper historical, per se. But I dislike the designation “historical Romance” as applicable to books that don’t even make an effort to be historically accurate (e.g. some of Katie MacAlister’s books).

  10. @Robin: there are plenty of fantasy historical romances out there that’s for sure. But, unfortunately, you’re gonna be disappointed as there will always be those books that won’t meet the expectations of the genre designation that’s slapped on them. Such is life. Thanks for the heads up on Katie MacAlister’s books though.

  11. I want to address some issues mentioned here, but I’m too exhausted (or lazy) to put thoughts in order so I’ll focus on just one angle for tonight.

    Many readers want “extraordinary characters in ordinary times” whereas I want ordinary people in ordinary or extraordinary times, for the most part.

    This is what I want from fiction in general, too. I generally enjoy the idea how an extraordinary situation could bring out certain traits – or provoke unconventional reactions – in an ordinary person. This is why I find those who are extremely privileged *and* extraordinary rather dull. I like good characterisations.

    It also relates the notion of ‘plausible scenario’ that goes hand in hand with this discussion about accuracy and whatnot. Let me outline two versions of the same couple:

    VERSION A
    A world-class handsome, super-rich but oh-jaded duke falls for a squire’s daughter – who recently became the society’s most celebrated society deb due to her exceptional beauty or talent – and their romance becomes a national scandal that “forces” the viscount to marry her.
    They go to live on the viscount’s estate where they would squabble with the feisty heroine putting him right while making best friends with servants. On top of that they shag all over the place. Up comes a cousin who’s unhappy that the couple are married so she sets to drive them apart with lies and the like.
    Upset, the heroine dashes to London and throws herself into a world of balls and blah blah. The duke dashes to London and punches a man who’s making eyes at his wife, then makes a public love declaration to her in front of everyone. HEA.

    This doesn’t interest me and furthermore, I don’t find it plausible. Not only it’s dull, it fails to acknowledge or/and include so many various aspects that the couple faces in “real life”.

    VERSION B
    An ordinary man – happens to be a duke that focuses on making sense of his estate and other business/legal stuff while making a round of attending the usual social events in the county – meets a squire’s daughter at a mutual friend’s dance.
    Their flirty courtship leads some in the society to believe they might elope to marry, which is bad, because they are a social mismatch. Rumours of a possible elopement multiply enough to reach the duke’s ears.
    He travels to London and there at a ball, he openly rejects her by turning his back on her when a friend brings her to meet him. Brutal, but the usual method at the time. She is embarrassed but takes it and walks away with the gentleman friend.
    As the ball progressed, more she thinks about it, more angry she gets. Plus, there are already some women ignoring her mother and her sisters. So she finally says, “Sod that!”
    She informs the gentleman friend: “I’ll instruct our family solicitor to file a lawsuit against His Grace for causing emotional distress (especially for my mother) and ruining my future marriage prospects (even though I prefer to marry him)! Could you tell His Grace to expect our letter tomorrow.” She departs. The friend delivers the message. The duke implodes. Those who overhear this tell the others. Soon, her rejection of his rejection becomes the centre of a mini but still national scandal.
    Suitably pissed off, the duke rejects *her* rejection (and threat of a lawsuit) of his rejection by asking her father for her hand, which puts him a very difficult position.

    The duke knows that if the father refuses, he will walk away, scot free, with a possible lawsuit in tatters. If the father accepts, he will be the object of general social disapproval for “not doing the right thing”, e.g. he shouldn’t get above his station by marrying his daughter off to someone socially superior like the duke. His acceptance would make him a social ruin, basically.

    The squire’s daughter, having realised all this, is seriously pissed off. Her old quiet self is disappearing. It’s not about her or her pride any more. It’s also about her family particularly her parents and younger sisters. So what to do? The duke would love to know this as well. So he’s now interested to see what she would do next.

    (The romance genre’s favourite trope – get him and herself caught in a compromise position – won’t be a sensible solution as the society will protect the viscount by denying the incident took place while ensuring a story about *her* being in that position would be common knowledge, ruining her and her family in process. The upper-class society always looks after its own.)

    Her solution: visit his estate as a guest, along with her sister, companion or whomever.

    It was a standard etiquette to welcome a guest – however unwelcome – to stay until the guest is ready to leave. Believe it or not, this can take up to a year or more.

    That’s where the romance aspect can take over during her stay. They could fall in love and blah blah. They will overcome their corners’ objections over the difference in social status by spending most time at his estate while knowing their future generations won’t deal with that kind of crap as it’ll only be remembered by the few won’t forget in a couple of decades’ time. HEA.

    I’d accept this story as a plausible scenario. Even though similar events like this one happened in real life, it generally fits the usual (social, political and legal) surface of the story’s chose setting, which makes the story work.

    Their ‘game’ is what the duke’s world was like. It was a chess of game most times. People generally didn’t work so they focused on what they could do without “ruining” themselves (no trade, no having fun with socially inferior people, etc). They did things like manipulating, betting, gossiping, inventing, taking part in recreational sports and hobbies, investing, experimenting, shagging and so on. So the game in Version B fits that kind of make-up. Or so it seems to me at least.

    So for me, where stories are concerned, it’s about plausibility, no matter how unusual or conventional a story is. Or indeed, regardless of how accurate some historical details – clothes, food, horses, weather conditions, whatnot – are. Interestingly, I do file names, the feel of a language (dialogue etc) and domestic arrangements under ‘Don’t Ever Treat These Lightly’. I’m making this response far too long, so I’ll leave this for another time.

    For the Romance genre, though? I don’t think most readers and authors would like Version B because
    a) the hero isn’t “Alpha” or “heroic” enough (some flaws are more acceptable than other flaws)
    b) they aren’t instantly “I must have you at all costs!”
    c) it doesn’t jive the Romanceland edition of English history
    I don’t know. What do you think?

    Argh, I think this is too long now. I’ll just cut off here. Sorry, but I’ll try to return with a proper (and much shorter) response tomorrow or so.

  12. Hi Keishon! I think I got my Roberta Gellis recommendations from you, and I can’t read Garwood at all (50 pages of The Bride was all I’ve ever managed). So we are on pretty much the same page.

    I’m okay with everything being called historical romance but I really wish there was some way to tell the Katie McAllisters from the Courtney Milans, especially with new authors.

    Also, I was struck by one author over at Courtney’s blog basically saying, if you want authenticity/accuracy read historical fiction not historical romance. That was just very odd to me, both because she didn’t seem to realize that historical fiction has the same problems, and because it suggests historical romance isn’t supposed to have standards about historicity.

  13. @FiaQ:
    Why? We like long responses here at the VM!

    I really like Version B. I agree that it would probably not be very popular, unless many hijinks and secondary romances ensued when the Squire & daughter were houseguests (because It Is The Law that there must be a houseparty). But I would read it in a minute.

  14. I’m enjoying this conversation, and I do think it is both interesting and fun to analyze. That said, when it comes to what I like, I find it hard to actually pinpoint what is going on. All I know is that I want to be drawn into what I consider a different world from the here and now. So if I seem to bump into contemporary language or attitudes enough to distract me from the story, it can be hard for me to continue the book. I’m not getting the experience I want from a historical romance.

    However, which premises, factual details, attitudes and whatnot will distract me from enjoying the story, and which won’t, vary from book to book, from author to author, and no doubt also depend on me and my frame of mind.

  15. @VacuousMinx,

    Janine, that’s a fascinating insight into how authors go about figuring things out. And it’s a good reminder of how much work can go into a couple of sentences or paragraphs.

    Maybe because I’m not that confident in my abilities as a researcher, I find it is one of the hardest aspects of writing historical romance. Sometimes I spend all day on research without even one sentence to show for it, and other times I luck into a treasure trove of information that translates to a scene that reads as well-researched.

    I sometimes envy those writers who don’t pre-plot because when they stumble on good info they can just say, I’ll have my characters go there and that will be the setting for the next scene. I’ve been able to do that a few times and I have really liked the results. But because I do pre-plot (less on paper and more in my head) I can’t take advantage of those opportunities as much as I wish I could.

    @Keishon

    It’s been so long since I read Garwood, and I think I was less sensitive to these types of issues in the years when I did. I stopped reading her books after The Gift because the heroine annoyed me so much.

    But with regard to Meredith Duran, I have caught some inaccuracies when critiquing her manuscripts, and missed some as well, which I always regret, yet I know that she loves research a whole lot more than I do, and does quite a bit of it.

    I also once got into a discussion with a friend of mine, a huge fan of Written on Your Skin, who struggled with some of the period terms used in Bound by Your Touch, like “London Generals” for a bus company and “garden seats” for the seats on the roof of the bus. My friend felt these terms were confusing, for example she pictured something military for “London Generals” and an actual garden for “garden seats.”

    At the time I explained to my friend my own reasoning for not flagging terms like these that might be confusing during critique. My reason was that I felt they added to the authentic atmosphere since they were actually used in the late 1800s (I researched them so I knew they had been), and that I thought their meaning could be deduced from context. Since that discussion I have tried to be more sensitive to the confusion that terms specific to a particular setting might create in readers not from that setting. It’s a fine line between clarifying things for the reader and dumbing down books, but one that writers have to walk.

    The thing about the writing process is that one has to keep so many worthy goals in mind at the same time, and sometimes they conflict with each other.

  16. @Janine oh I didn’t have an issue with Ms. Duran’s research. Sorry to imply that. I love her first book because it was half-based in India and I felt it was the most compelling part of her story. My problem was the modernity of her characters IN this time period or whatever time period she places her characters in. I can’t say that this consistently throws me out of the story but when it does I take note on who it is that does it.

    @Sunita – yeah, that is quite revealing re the historical fiction comment/argument but I think I know what they mean. I guess each author will determine how significant research is to his/her work (setting wise) and as we can all see that there is an audience for those who care or don’t care for historical accuracy. After all, it’s just fiction, so there’s no need to take this so seriously. I get that lament a lot. I say live and let live. There are so many books published each month that I think we can enjoy what we want and not begrudge others their whatever. There is very little thank goodness that refers to my profession or expertise to irritate me otherwise I think I’d go nuts like some other folks. I am so enjoying this conversation, Sunita and have very high expectations for this blog of yours :-)

  17. @Keishon:

    I am so enjoying this conversation, Sunita and have very high expectations for this blog of yours

    Thanks! And eek! I will try. I figure there is some physics law of the conservation of blogs. You ended your romance blog, so I had to start one. :-)

    @Jorrie:
    Once you get past basic factual accuracy it becomes much more individual, although we can certainly find sets of people who approach HR with similar expectations. One of the things that led me to write this post was that I realized that I was much more inconsistent in my judgments of these issues than I thought I was.

    @Janine:
    You are not alone. The amount of scholarly material I’ve found that never made it into print, or that was shrunken to a tiny fraction compared to the work it took to get it, is something that would make me sob if I thought about it for too long. I tell myself that’s what real scholarship and research are about. I hope it’s true!

  18. I realized that if I was really swept up in the storytelling (whether because of plot, characterization, or just the sheer style), I let a lot of things slide

    I think this is key. Often readers read a book, recognise their level of enjoyment/satisfaction at the conclusion of the book and the process then becomes working out the justification for their ‘grade’ with hindsight. Hence inconsistency between hating one author’s inaccuracies and not minding another’s in the least. I’m not suggesting that readers are dishonest about this at all but they don’t call it a review for nothing – it’s precisely that; a re-view, going back over what you’ve read to try to identify what it was that worked or didn’t work. Sometimes I find myself debating the ‘why’ of my own enjoyment (or otherwise) at some length. Is that really a fair criticism or is it just something I’m focusing on to explain my dissatisfaction? If so, what really bothers me about this book? Since The Raven Prince has come up a lot, I’d have to say that that’s a book that I forgave any language etc. issues I came across – I adored it.

    Also historicals are in a particular category – we view our ideas of how ‘accurate’ they are through a myriad of personal lenses. For example, as a British reader, I tend to read language that deviates from ‘proper’ but fundamentally pretty contemporary English as ‘inaccurate’. That may well not be fair. There may be historians based on different continents who have a better sense of spoken Georgian English than I do. But that’s one of my lenses.

  19. Can I add another category?
    American style historical romance. This is when it’s obvious to everyone outside the States that all the characters have “American” attitudes – it’s hard to define, but there is something that defines it as such. The cult of individualism, where everything thinks it’s their “right” to pursue their own personal dream, the throwing off of responsibility, even the “English versus Scots” thing in Highland Romance. And the idealisation of society. Sometimes the details can be meticulous, but used wrong. The characters hug and touch a lot, they don’t have a public and a private persona, which can be very different (neccessary in a geographically smaller place).

    And, may I hasten to add, it has little to do with the nationality of the author. I’ve read titles by British authors which have the “American” attitude (it’s in inverted commas, because it’s an attitude and a style, rather than real nationality), and some US authors get it really, really well. Laura Kinsale springs to mind immediately. Her duke in “Flowers From the Storm” is a ‘proper’ duke, not one of those weird ones with no responsibilities and ideas that the title belongs to them and not to the Crown, and therefore they can do what they like with it.

    Neither does it have to do with readability. It might explain why most US published (not necessarily authored) historicals don’t travel. Most Brits are pretty ignorant of their history, truth be told. It’s there to see in the old buildings and the way the landscape is structured (read Hoskins for that) and it’s absorbed that way, but most know a couple of dates – 1066, 1815 and 1945 just about does it – so it’s not just simple accuracy. It’s attitudes.

    I’m coming to the conclusion that many of the books should be read for what they are, rather than what they’re pretending to be. They’re no more historical than steampunk, but they can be just as much fun.

  20. @Tumperkin

    the process then becomes working out the justification for their ‘grade’ with hindsight. Hence inconsistency between hating one author’s inaccuracies and not minding another’s in the least.

    Yes! I agree with this point and what follows completely. Getting pulled out of a book, unless it’s egregiously a Category 1, is almost always a combination of issues, and historical verisimilitude (TM FiaQ) is only one of them. That said, the language thing can hit at the most unexpected times. Julie Anne Long describes a manor house in WIDFAD as “redbrick” and all I could see was the University of Birmingham.

    BTW, I blame you almost entirely for my recently-acquired Charlotte Lamb obsession. AND it led me to a long spell of reading 80s HPs, after avoiding them in the actual 80s.

    @Lynne

    American style historical romance. This is when it’s obvious to everyone outside the States that all the characters have “American” attitudes – it’s hard to define, but there is something that defines it as such. The cult of individualism, where everything thinks it’s their “right” to pursue their own personal dream, the throwing off of responsibility, even the “English versus Scots” thing in Highland Romance. And the idealisation of society. Sometimes the details can be meticulous, but used wrong. The characters hug and touch a lot, they don’t have a public and a private persona, which can be very different (neccessary in a geographically smaller place).

    I wasn’t thinking about this when I wrote the post, but I know exactly what you mean. In fact, one of the reasons I stopped reading most trad Regencies and other historical romances was because I’d run out of British authors and the American ones sounded so wrong in my head when I read them. But I think we’d get hammered for raising this distinction, on the grounds that “it is possible” or “people didn’t all conform to conventions in any given period.” Which is true, but when you start piling the improbabilities on top of each other, you wind up with a historical that bears very little resemblance to any society that existed, especially if the unconventional characters are treated as perfectly normal in their milieu.

    I find the lack of social distance (of all kinds, not just physical) in most historicals jarring. I understand that if contemporary authors authentically reproduced the social distance that most people took for granted, it would seem wrong to readers. In fact, I think I’ve seen people talk about relationships as cold, or stiff when authors have done that. I wish readers would give it a chance, though, because it would help them make sense of all kinds of relationships. Hmmm, I see a future post …

  21. @Keishon

    I love Roberta Gellis because she is heavy handed on using real historical events in her stories. I think she’s a compelling writer while others think she is well, boring.

    I forgot to address this point. I’ve only read one Gellis book (Masques of Gold) and it took me nearly four weeks to finish it. The problem wasn’t her use of history (I quite liked the setting details about merchant life in the medieval era) but rather the slow pacing of the book and her tendency to infodumps. So I would agree with the “boring” description, at least in the case of that one book, but I don’t agree that it’s because she relies on real history that some readers feel this way about her books.

    @Robin

    For me this exemplifies one of the differences I see between accuracy and authenticity (and that I tried to articulate above). Namely that an author may have a base level of factual accuracy but not capture the sensibility of the period in which she is writing.

    That’s a great point and now that you’ve made it, I agree.

    I don’t know if you remember a discussion about one of Lisa Kleypas’s Wallflower historicals over at AAR, but one poster argued that Kleypas’s language was too flowery for her. Kleypas entered the discussion and OMG so graciously (since the poster had been, well, less than flattering, lol) indicated that she was trying to replicate the Victorian sensibility of her characters’ world. I was on Kleypas’s side in that discussion, but I’m not sure I’d argue that Kleypas is the most accurate historical writer in the world, either.

    Yes, I do remember that conversation. I think Kleypas handled the situation better than many authors would have, and yet, I felt a lot of sympathy for the poster (Lurker1, I believe) because to have the author join the discussion when you are venting your frustration with her book is never an easy thing, no matter how gracious that author is.

    I digress, but yeah, from a writerly standpoint I do understand why the language often has more flourishes in historicals than in contemporary romances so I get your perspective and Kleypas’.

    It’s actually one of the reasons I prefer to write historicals — I like the language better, though I think contemporaries could stand to be a little less nuts-and-bolts than they are, in terms of language.

    Which is why I see no problem allowing a character to eat according to what was available in cookbooks, nor would I necessarily designate that as “extraordinary.” As I said on Milan’s blog, I think there really is enough diversity in any historical period to justify a protagonist who is not ‘run of the mill’ so to speak

    I don’t disagree with you, or I wouldn’t have made the choice that I did. But I was using it as an example as one of the many dilemmas I face with regard to incorporating my research into my writing. If I had more confidence in myself as a researcher, they might not stress me, but they do.

    The fact that I can’t get in my time travel machine and go find out what things were exactly like is a source of frustration for me. I’m sure I get some things wrong because I don’t know better. The other day I even caught an error I should never have made to begin with — I referred to a minor character as adopted, even though I knew long before I ever wrote that scene that adoption didn’t yet exist in England during the time period. I just forgot that knowledge when I was writing because I was so absorbed in writing the scene And then I didn’t notice it for months afterward, possibly because it’s in one of my favorite sections of the manuscript and I was so absorbed in the story whenever I reread that section.

    Now that I’ve caught it (and in the funniest way– I woke up one morning and while still lying in bed had a lightbulb moment) I will fix it, but it really freaked me out that I could get something wrong even when I know it’s wrong, and not notice for months. It makes me wonder, what else might I have missed?

    My point is that it’s not always as simple as doing the research. That’s a huge part of it obviously but sometimes there are priorities that conflict with perfect accuracy and sometimes it’s possible to unintentionally overlook something important even when you know better.

  22. I read the Long as well after all the positive buzz even though I hated the first book by her I read with a passion. I have to write a review for WIDfaD and I’m not entirely sure how to do that. I really enjoyed Alex and Genevieve and for the relationship and the character arcs I’d give it an A, but the setting, language, grammar, word meaning, typo and anachronism issues make it an F read. It makes me outright angry that a book that could have been excellent with just a little bit of care did not get that attention that would have made it great.

    There are some things in this book that I just cannot believe an editor would let slide unless the author insisted on it. To me it feels like she’s deliberately thumbing her nose at readers in a ‘let’s see how much I can get away with’ move. Ascribing motivations is always a problem, but at this point it doesn’t really matter to me whether or not my impressions are valid or are doing Long an incredible disservice. I feel disrespected by her as a reader, because whether or not it really is lazy or deliberate, that’s what it feels like to me. I can hear screams of reader entitlement and there is certainly a sense of that in what I hope to read/expect to see in a book that has ‘historical romance’ on the spine.

    On a more general level, I find I can forgive more if I’m not hit over the head with it on the first page/chapter. If something is really wrong later on in a story once I’m emotionally invested, it’s easier to overlook and not go into analytical mode. The problem are books like Long’s where the errors/implausible setups tickle my ‘oh nom she didn’t meter’ right out of the gate and I never get to the immersive stage of reading.

    I very much feel like this issue is all about the ‘I know it when I see it’. I look at books I love and yes, they have accuracy issue on occasion too, but I think the overall personal trigger is whether I can make it into the story, be engaged before the inner critic either politely knocks, pipes up or screams in a rage. Once that starts, immersion becomes impossible and even while I enjoyed Alex and Genevieve, inner critic was pointing out all the stuff wrong with the writing in a constant commentary. Distracting that!

    Here lately, I’m not having much luck and it seems to me that mythical beast ‘high concept’ has a lot to do with it, because what is called hc by those acquiring seems to mean that the more implausible and ahistoric a setup and character behavior is, the more the editors will like it. I really wish there were a ‘historical fantasy rom’ category so those of us you really don’t want to read those would know to stay away. I’ve learned over the last year that I cannot depends on reviews for new authors any longer because overall there seems to be more tolerance for category 1+2 these days than there used to be and conversely I’ve gotten a lot less tolerant in recent years. Also, even some ‘proven’ authors seem to be writing books that are just not making my cut any longer.

    It feels a bit like getting a wonderful present, but it’s wrapped in a stinky garbage bag instead of the shiny box it deserves. If a book is meh overall that’s not so much of an issue, but if I know I’d have gone bonkers over a book, if the ‘wrapping’ had just been better, the disappointment is all the sharper.

  23. Tessa Dare accidentally coined a term on Twitter that I love, although it won’t ever replace Almackistan. She claimed, thanks to a typo, to write books set in the “Recency” — how we all laughed. She clarified that the Recency must be a version of Regency England where the historical details are a little different; they have oven-baked scones and the color mauve, for instance. Since neither of those cropping up in a Regency-set romance would bother me, that’s all the proof I need that I’m not any judge of historical accuracy.

  24. @Growlycub
    yes, yes so much, especially the “High Concept” bit. I came to that conclusion, too, that the desperate search for “high concept” which never really worked, anyway, not only put paid to some excellent authors’ careeers, but added to the absolute nonsense that is facetiously labelled “historical romance.”

  25. @GrowlyCub:

    On a more general level, I find I can forgive more if I’m not hit over the head with it on the first page/chapter. If something is really wrong later on in a story once I’m emotionally invested, it’s easier to overlook and not go into analytical mode. The problem are books like Long’s where the errors/implausible setups tickle my ‘oh nom she didn’t meter’ right out of the gate and I never get to the immersive stage of reading.

    Yes, exactly. I stopped reading the last one because the opening annoyed me so much. Now that I’ve read and liked WIDFAD, I’m going to go back, because Janine liked it so much and we frequently overlap.

    Emotionally invested is such a good way to put it. If authors who write Category 1/2 would just start out with less establishing shots, so to speak, and get me sucked in to the hero and heroine’s characters and relationship, I’ll forgive them a lot along the way.

    I really wish there were a ‘historical fantasy rom’ category so those of us you really don’t want to read those would know to stay away. I’ve learned over the last year that I cannot depends on reviews for new authors any longer because overall there seems to be more tolerance for category 1+2 these days than there used to be and conversely I’ve gotten a lot less tolerant in recent years.

    But as I said to Lynne about “American” as a category, we would get so hammered by the people who are just fine with what they are reading *and* think they are getting history! There was a comment over at Jessica’s Monday Morning Stepback post saying that most people probably get their history from romance novels anyway so they shouldn’t complain about accuracy! O. Kay.

    I too am less tolerant. I have neither the time nor the patience. I’ve read my share of unsatisfying books in my life. Don’t have to keep going with them.

  26. BTW, I blame you almost entirely for my recently-acquired Charlotte Lamb obsession. AND it led me to a long spell of reading 80s HPs, after avoiding them in the actual 80s.

    *thrills*

    You HAVE to tell me which ones!

  27. I will do a post! Lamb, Donald, some others; I haven’t been able to get up the intestinal fortitude for an Anne Mather yet, though. I even have a review of a Robyn Donald that drove me crazy but which I also loved. I’ll post it once I get the links added.

  28. An author confesses:

    Having made the attempt myself to write historicals that do not jar the reader out of the story with too many plumpers, I can tell you that historical accuracy is a very slippery fish. The details one truly needs in order to write a romance are the very details that are unknowable in the 21st century. How did people really behave behind closed doors? How formal or informal was the language they employed? Did they, or did they not, touch each other – and in what ways? Without books or movies to inform people how to kiss, wasn’t it a matter of luck – with some people having better instincts than others – whether you ended up with a good kisser or a guy who just mashed his mouth against yours? Or, perhaps worse, gave you a dry peck from time to time? What were people really wearing under those clothes? Since underwear wasn’t discussed, and certainly not written about or otherwise recorded, and since those garments ended up trashed rather than preserved, you’d be amazed how sketchy our knowledge is about something as simple as “did Regency-era women wear drawers or what?!” As I said – the very details that are crucial when writing a romance!

    My personal feeling about the Regency is that it bore little resemblance to Georgette Heyer’s version. But Heyer’s version is superior. (There. I’ve said it.) So this history buff deliberately sets her books in Heyer’s version of the Regency – with eyes wide open. I am well aware that the language I employ is probably more Edwardian than Georgian, and probably the social mores are closer to Victorian as well. But I love Heyer’s world, and do my darndest to set my Regency characters squarely in it. I wouldn’t dare write books set in Jane Austen’s Regency. I would find the task daunting — and I suspect the resulting book wouldn’t attract many readers.

  29. Thanks so much for commenting and sharing your perspective. As you know I’m a big fan of your work. The Fortune Hunter is one of my favorite novels; I think I read it four times before I decided I needed to put it away for a while!

    I agree that the intimate aspects of daily life are particularly difficult to know. I wouldn’t necessarily agree that Heyer’s Regency is superior to the non-Heyer one, but it is a fully realized world and it’s a wonderful place to visit. I can certainly see why authors find it so attractive.

    There are any number of authors who are not absolutely “accurate,” however we choose to define that, but whose books I love and reread. They probably fall in the “historical mashup” category, and they work for me because the characterizations are really strong and the worldbuilding is adequate to keep me from counting up the possible errors. Your characters are terrific, and I like the world you create.

    • Good heavens — thank you! I’m thrilled that you enjoyed THE FORTUNE HUNTER so much. I certainly enjoyed writing it.

      I think that when we do set books in Heyer’s Regency, authors should be honest with our readers and ourselves. I have had a character or two drop into my books from hers, and had one group of my characters attend a ball of her creation … all done tongue-in-cheek as an homage, of course, and an acknowledgment (on my part) of the debt I owe her.

      I hope everyone understands that I don’t mean to impugn Heyer’s research. But reading Heyer is not like reading Austen or any other “real” Regency author — at least none that I have read. She brings the era vividly to life, but viewed through the lens of a much later day. What I mean when I say that I prefer her Regency to the real Regency is that it is so much more accessible, at least to my mind. And when I say that it’s superior, I mean that if I had to set my books in the real Regency, I might feel a certain degree of pressure to leave in the smells and the dirt and the poverty and the air so thick with coal smoke that it would cover your skin and clothes with grit when you went out in it. If I set my books within Heyer’s books, and wrap her work around mine like a protective cocoon, my characters never have to deal with any of that stuff. ;)

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