Why discussions on historical accuracy go off the rails

They do have that tendency, with people getting hurt on both sides, and accusations being flung about with abandon.

There are some fundamental vocabulary problems at work here. That is because people do not use the same words to mean the same things.


When people talk about a “historically accurate book,” they can mean any of the following:

  1. an attempt to recreate a period piece, in which the author mimics the formal sentence structure and word choice of Regency-era works.
  2. a book, set in historical times, where the author gets all of the major (e.g., plot-dependent) details right, and the vast majority of the minor ones.
  3. a book, set in historical times, wherein the author demonstrates that she has done her homework by including as much detail as possible.
  4. a book, set in historical times, wherein the characters adhere firmly to the strictures of their time, without any deviation, no matter their (otherwise historically accurate) motivations.

I have heard books decried as “not historically accurate” or “wallpaper historicals” for failure to meet any of the above 4 qualifications.

I attempt to write books that are historically accurate as per definition 2. My personal taste does not run to books written to definitions 1, 3, and 4, although there is clearly a market for those books as well.

Right now, apropos Sarah F.’s post on Dear Author, there is a massive discussion ranging on twitter about historical accuracy. I think 95% of the disagreement is that those who are claiming historical accuracy is less important are talking about books of the 1 and 3 variety, and those who are in favor are talking about books of the 2 variety.

Courtney Milan writes historical romances, which might lead people to think that she could be cool. In reality, she's about four different kinds of geeky. At present, this blog is where Courtney applies semi-dormant geek skills to publishing.

14 thoughts on “Why discussions on historical accuracy go off the rails

  1. Writing a historical novel right now going from West Point in 1840 to the battle of Shiloh. The me the key is I must get WHAT happened and WHEN correct. However, as a novelist, WHY, is what I invent. I did this in my Area 51 series. Almost everything I put in that series was factual. My why was fictional– aka the aliens did it.
    The reality is, historians don’t know WHY very often. Because motivation is psychological. But motivation is at the core of character development as a novelist.

  2. I consider historically accurate to mean #2 as well. My biggest pet peeve with 19th century, British-set historicals is that the setting usually feels like one big homogeneous entity known as the “Nineteenth Century.” I can’t tell the difference in the manners and mores, not just the clothing and other details, between characters set in 1812 and characters set in 1872. It’s more than recognizing that your heroine wore a bustle in 1872 and high-waisted dresses in 1812, it’s delving into what makes a 19 yr old girl in 1812 different from a girl coming of age sixty years later. And the same goes for male characters–a rake in Victorian England would behave in a drastically different manner than would a rake in the Regency. All I ask is that if you choose a time period in which to write, love it. I wrote romances set in a number of time periods before I found my voice fit best with the Edwardian era, and I try my best to show how unique and exiting this setting can be without writing that dreaded “history tome.”

  3. I honestly do believe it’s a difference in words and perception of terms and that most of the time we all want the same things, we just speak about it differently and get hung up on hot button words.

    When it comes to romance novels, I want them to be wallpaper (BTW, is this an offensive term? I use it and I realized earlier today it could be an insult). Obviously I don’t want the characters wearing Doc Martens and cracking their gum, neither am I interested in pages and pages of very detailed information as to what someone’s shoe buckle was like and what shape it was, or whether or not ices came into fashion two years after a book was set.

    I want to read about the couple and I expect the setting to be accurate and described in the level of detail appropriate to the story. Personally, I seek books of the #2 variety, though certainly I’m not saying others with varying levels of historical detail are bad or wrong, just not what I personally seek out to read.

    But when I delve into historical fiction, I expect the focus to be different, the attention to detail to be different. If I’m reading a novel about the Napoleonic wars I’m going to be looking for the book’s focus to include a lot more detail about the events and historical setting.

    Different doesn’t mean better or worse, it’s not a value judgment in any way. It’s, to me, about the focus of the book and story.

  4. I definitely think the “what” and “when” are critical, but IMO both are dependent on the larger social, political, scientific, and economic, etc. context of a particular time and place.

    I have a great deal of sympathy with Romance authors, for example, who find themselves criticized for authentic and accurate details that deviate from certain well-accepted historical misrepresentations that still flow through the genre. But as a reader, I am also frustrated by the feeling I get in a number of books that the characters are not *products* of their time and place, but are rather like paper dolls who can be dressed up in different costumes and transferred from time to time, and place to place. Certainly, aliens give an author the freedom of constructing an outsider’s perspective within a certain historical context, but I’d argue that the social, political, economic, etc. context still matters.

    Of course it is impossible to authentically replicate people of the past in ways that are not overlaid and shaped by our contemporary perceptions and perspectives; but I still feel that history in genre fiction, especially, is too often treated as an accessory to the story instead of its foundation. And I’m not just talking about “wallpaper” books, but about any work of fiction set in another time and place that does not respect the way in which people are shaped by what we see as the “factual” historical context. Which isn’t to say that historical settings imply a weaker need for the author’s imaginative powers, just that there is a logic that binds every setting and every set of characters, and a setting pulled from an actual past may require more than a solid knowledge of what happened when.

    Actually, when I think of that dreaded “history tome” to which Evangeline refers, I often get that same sense of disconnect between character and setting, despite the overweening presence of “accurate” historical detail. As a reader, I want to feel fully immersed in a another time and place, and while I don’t need to know how every chair is constructed and covered, I’m also not looking for Darcy and Elizabeth in ancient Rome.

    And it may be that there are really no hard and fast “rules” for what passes historical muster for readers. I think a talented, thoughtful, circumspect author can successfully bend and break all sorts of historical standards, while other talented, intelligent authors might do everything “right” historically and still not produce a book that resonates with readers who love books set in that time and place. I tend to get most frustrated with the extreme arguments (i.e. history doesn’t matter except in historical fiction; no one really knows what happened anyway, so anything goes; everything has to be “perfect” or it can’t be called historical, etc.) and find the middle a pretty mucky, complicated place. I don’t consider most wallpaper books “historical,” but I’m not sure whether that’s because they’re lighter on the history or because of certain inaccuracies, both of factual events and social mores/individual behavior and beliefs.

    I guess for me it comes down to how much respect for setting and characters I perceive in a book. I know this is a subjective standard, but I do think there’s an objective basis to the judgment (i.e. are the characters consistent, do they conform to the setting as it’s been rendered, is the setting internally consistent, etc.). In the end I tend to favor consistency and a *feeling* of authenticity over the “correctness” of every detail. A slippery, amorphous standard, to be sure, but one I do think is related — although perhaps not always directly — to the historical knowledge an author brings to his or her story.

  5. I’m just staggered that in all this self-congratulatory discussion about accuracy, there doesn’t seem to be a single word about appropriation. None – not one – of the posts and commentors are bothered at all about the fact that the main issue about Bonnie Dee’s book was the casual dismissal of colonial history and the impact on those colonialised.

    If an author is going to worry about champagne flutes, but not actually care that she’s reinforcing tired old tropes like the white man’s burden and so on, or not make the slightest effort to show a perspective on history that’s not white and male, then the book might be ‘accurate’ for certain values of the word, but it’s still essentially worthless and offensive.

    Now that’s something I’d like to see discussed in Romancelandia. But I don’t think 99% of people involved even understand what cultural appropriation *is*, let alone cares about it.

  6. I’ve been fortunate to work with historical romance authors who take their craft and their research seriously. They take pains to construct a believable world and make the period details as authentic as possible. I double-majored in English Literature and European History, so historical accuracy is important to me…up to a point. I would argue that most historical romances aren’t strictly accurate because people in the past didn’t have the same concerns, attitudes and expectations we do today. Most romance readers want a story about a hero and heroine who believe in romance, love and happy-ever-after. They want their hero and heroine to value and practice fidelity and monogamy. Your average Viking, gladiator and crusader wouldn’t share those values. So it’s probably not historically accurate to transport our contemporary notions about relationships to the ancient, medieval or Renaissance worlds. I think it’s okay to do this, in the interest of storytelling and to adhere to the conventions of the romance genre. I want my heroine to expect her hero to be devoted to her, and I want them to experience romantic love and yearn for a HEA together.

    Although I prefer historical accuracy in settings, as a personal preference I like reading historical romances with natural-sounding dialogue, which is hard to pull off without using contractions. Another area where accuracy gets sticky is the issue of using terms that weren’t in common use during the period depicted. It’s possible to write 19th century settings using historically appropriate English words, but this is difficult if you go back further in time, because readers wouldn’t be able to understand the language. So as long as authors don’t use twentieth-century words, slang terms, or anything that feels jarring, I’m fine with them using, for example, a word attributed to 1680 in a book set in 1650. After all, if you go back far enough, there wasn’t an English language at all, so the whole question becomes moot. It’s more important that the language feel authentic to the reader.

    One final point: history isn’t a black-and-white set of facts. It’s a fluid beast, composed of as much perception and interpretation as “facts.” Historical sources don’t always agree any more than eyewitnesses to the same traffic accident today always agree who’s at fault. The old adage that history is written by the victor is important to keep in mind when trying to determine exactly what happened in the past. Certain things accepted as convention are later challenged as new evidence comes to light and/or new interpretations of the evidence are put forth.

  7. Ann, I didn’t talk about cultural appropriation because I was not writing in response to Sarah’s post on Bonnie Dee’s Jungle Fever. I have not read Jungle Fever and after Sarah F’s review, I have no plans to do so, and so I do not think I could competently take it to task.

  8. Robin, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. It’s about authenticity versus accuracy.

    One of the things, though, is that what feels authentic for one person will not feel authentic for another. I think some of the hands-thrown-in-air attitude comes from the fact that readers who police historical “accuracy” often don’t know the facts themselves.

    If you look at Kalen Hughes post, you’ll see at least two comments about “historical accuracy” in the comments that are flat wrong: the first, that there was nothing like “white flour” in the Regency, and the second that nursing as a profession flat out did not exist until Nightingale invented it in the Crimean war.

    I know that the single biggest thing people have dissed me for in PROOF is my use of the word “shag”–which was actually first attested in 1783–but despite the dubious honor of being “right” about that, I’ve come to realize that it was wrong of me to use the word, precisely because while it’s accurate, it doesn’t feel authentic.

    So I think sometimes authors think “Why bother?” because they are going to get dinged for historical inaccuracies even if they are accurate (the famous champagne flute discussion on AAR, IIRC, was one such). I’m not endorsing that attitude, mind, but I do understand it.

    Along those lines, Deb: There is nothing not historical about contractions! Shakespeare used contractions. If you go far enough back that contractions are not in use, as you say, you’re dealing with a period where they simply were not speaking a language that people today would understand.

    That being said, I do think that while all of this stuff is “knowable” the difficulty of knowability is… hard. I’ve talked to one very famous author, who does a lot of historical research, and she made the comment that Blackstone was basically unintelligible. Well, it’s not, at least not to me–but then, I’ve had a great deal of legal training, including a substantial component on trying to figure out what the law was in 1792 (I would like to thank Scalia and Thomas for making that possible–probably the only time I will write those words on this blog). But I can understand how it would be unintelligible for others, and it seems hard to tell people that in order to understand the law of the time they have to have my background.

    Ideally, there would be an organization where people could share their expertise and get answers back on issues they really didn’t know about. The problem is, without policing of expertise, you get people answering questions when they really don’t know the answer, and can’t provide any sources–and their answers being taken as truth.

    As it is, on some areas I feel like that other author did on Blackstone–I think I know the answer, I have tried to know the answer, but I don’t know everything I do not know–and that’s why I have someone who DOES know such things read my manuscripts with a very critical eye.

  9. Ann,
    Have you read Bonnie’s book? It’s about a man raised by apes & later found by a Victorian expedition, and the difficulties of communicating with someone who doesn’t know a language, and the difficulties of pursuing a m/m relationship in that situation and in the constraints of that culture.

    It’s a wonderful romance. Why should this story have to be about the evils of imperialism? None of the main characters are native Africans (although there’s a smug, privileged character who has no qualms about exploiting his “inferiors” and who conveys the awfulness of colonial attitudes). I’ve read many historical romances set in the Victorian period that don’t have that focus, and I’ve never seen those books attacked as being offensive and worthless.

  10. There is a really good place to discuss Bonnie Dee’s book, and that would be on Dear Author, where the review came out.

    I was deeply troubled by some of the comments on that review in defense of the book, and don’t think I could discuss it on this site in an even-handed, fair way. I managed not to participate in that discussion because it took off an hour before I got on a very, very long plane ride, and I had crap internet access for the weeks thereafter.

    I have a post brewing on the broader questions raised, and I’ll get to it when I’ve had time to sort some stuff out internally.

    But this is not a good place to discuss the merit (or lack thereof) of Bonnie Dee’s book.

    Thanks for understanding.

  11. Courtney, I wasn’t expecting you to discuss Dee’s book, or the review, and my comments weren’t really about your post so much as how the wider debate over accuracy almost always completely fail to understand what Deb says: “The old adage that history is written by the victor is important to keep in mind when trying to determine exactly what happened in the past.”

    See, I studied history at University, and have done my own academic research, so I know that ‘historical accuracy’ is a nebulous thing, and so much that we accept as settled fact is nothing but. The hand of dead white men on history education lays heavy, even now. Unfortunately, a lot of writers and readers don’t have training in historical study, or understand the intense bias in popular sources, and therefore don’t understand how skewed their perspective is, and how whitewashed the narrative is.

    Perhaps it’s asking too much from a genre which thinks western thinking and acting muslim Arab Sheiks run around in the Far East looking for pretty Christian virgins to marry, and looks down upon non-white leads, but I would love readers to be more questioning about Romances set in Regency England, propped up by British colonialism, or the Age of Sail, which was about exerting British domination over non-white territory. I would love them to accept and expect a sensibility about the impact on the actions of noble white heroines and fragile, privilege heroinces, upon the people and lands exploited and suppressed to provide the wealth which makes all the idle drawing room games so luxurious.

    I’ve been debating this with one of your commenters in email, and she disagrees with me that issues of historical accuracy and historical appropriation are inextricably linked. However, depending on the setting, I believe you can’t meaningfully discuss one without the other, and ‘accuracy’ is a valueless term if you don’t want to critically examine your ‘canon’ sources.

    I didn’t mean to start any off-topic discussion, and I’m not interested in talking about a particular book. I only mentioned it because Sarah’s post was sparked by her own review, and yet it and the discussion failed to mention a very important issue arising from that review.

    Oh – and just to add on your point about ‘accurate’ details being unacceptable to modern audiences, despite their authenticity, Tamara Allen wrote a nice little post about that issue here:


    Ironically, Tamara is also a trained historian. It seems the more you know about a period, the more alienated you become from the readers who want to read about it because they ‘know’ it so well, they don’t want any departures from their vision of it!

  12. @Ann Somerville

    IMO, cultural appropriation is both entwined and separate from the historical accuracy in historical romance debate. I write historicals set during the height of European (and American) Imperialism, and though the more I research this period the less likely I am to blithely write about English aristocrats. Yet, the more I research this period the more I love it because of its complexities (such as Ida B. Wells speaking against lynchings in the United States in a country [England] with its own set of racial issues), and I love to explore this complexity–which is why I do agree that historical accuracy and appropriation go hand in hand.

    However, the aim of historical romance is not to critique the past. We no more ask writers of contemporary romance to write with an awareness of today’s social injustices than audiences of the 19th and early 20th centuries did their contemporary authors, and singling out historical romance as a vehicle for railing against all of the -isms of the past does history and the people who lived back then a disservice.

  13. When I actually throw up my post on cultural appropriation, we can discuss this in more depth. As it is, this discussion is teetering on the edge of impoliteness.

    This is not a public forum, even though it appears to be one. I will not be able to effectively moderate over the next few days. This is an important, interesting topic, where feelings run high. We are already having superlatives thrown around that are potentially offensive. I simply will not have the internet access over the next few days to play effective host to this discussion.

    I’m going to ask again that you please take this elsewhere.

  14. Courtney:

    One of the things, though, is that what feels authentic for one person will not feel authentic for another. I think some of the hands-thrown-in-air attitude comes from the fact that readers who police historical “accuracy” often don’t know the facts themselves.

    Oh, I agree. But I think the bickering that often occurs over particular details reflects the seriousness with which many readers take the historical aspects of HR, whether or not they know the “facts,” so to speak.

    And this is something that I think is sort of disregarded when these debates come up. Authors (often rightly) feel they can’t win for losing (pick a more modern term and readers complain; pick a historically accurate term and readers complain). Readers feel they cannot trust the “history” in HR. And then there is the widespread investment we all seem to have in the HR category, inclusive of whatever marketing power such a label has, as well as the expectations of readers for that label.

    My own feeling, which is fuzzy, anecdotal, and still kind of nascent in my own thinking about it, is that the reason readers get so nitpicky about historical details is that they don’t feel confident that what they’re getting is authentic history. And obviously I’m talking here about readers who indicate that the history is important to them, not the readers who prefer the so-called “wallpaper” historical. Also, I think that when readers are turned off by those small details, it’s symptomatic of a larger disconnect with the book. That may be an issue well beyond the history question, but in regard to the accuracy issue, I definitely think all the pesky detail debates are reflective of a strong reader investment in the history, and a desire for HR to respect and represent the historical aspects of the book seriously. For example, I think when the infamous “champagne flute” incident occurred, the author’s off-hand comment that she didn’t really think about the issue or research it turned some readers off and broke an implicit trust.

    The contemporary filter question is still there, obviously, and I doubt there will ever be agreement over how much should be/needs to be modernized to engage contemporary readers, but I’m starting to think we need to take a closer look at whether/how readers are invested in the category of HR and what that means re. expectations & desires.

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