Historical Fudgery: Making Readers Comfortable

One of the things that happens? Sometimes authors intentionally get it wrong.

I ran across a good example in More Magazine today, where they talk with costume designer Joan Bergin (regarding the upcoming miniseries Vikings). She had a very pertinent point, saying,

“If you’re watching a film and your first reaction to seeing characters from another period is ‘Oh, how strange they look,’ then that interferes with your experience. So I try to go for a modern take that isn’t so distracting….What I do is about 70 percent historically accurate and about 30 percent creative license.”

I’ve found this to be true when writing historical fiction. If authors stick with 100% accuracy, they might risk alienating or distracting their audience. It’s hard to relate to the social norms of the past, particularly when we’re trying to draw out a specific reaction in our readers. For example, if you’re writing in a period where arranged marriages are the norm, but you’re writing a Romance….well, you may need to bend history a bit.

When I researched 1200 Russia, reading the excellent book Sex and Society in the World of the Orthodox Slavs: 900-1700 by Dr. Eve Levin, I ran across things I thought my readers wouldn’t readily accept. Not if I’m writing short fiction with a romantic element. Apparently, in general, the early Russians didn’t believe in love in marriage. Nor did they believe that love had any part in a sexual relationship. (The author refers to a story where an infatuated boyar approached his master’s wife, wanting to initiate an affair, and she tells him to go find a loose woman (paraphrased) because if he wanted sex there wasn’t any difference, was there? Not exactly romantic, huh?)

So my general rule was to ignore those two tenets of general social behavior. I did try to pick up a lot of the historical details that the author talks about…but others I chose to ignore.

Can you think of times when you specifically chose to ignore history?

2 thoughts on “Historical Fudgery: Making Readers Comfortable

  1. I think since you’re writing romance, your approach is understandable and it’s fine. After all, you’re writing historical FICTION. I might also add that just because ‘love’ isn’t mentioned in the writings of the period, it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. However, I think that settings, costume, social behaviours and the like are important to anchor your story in the correct time frame, and they should be accurate.

    I have written a historical fiction novel which is really a dramatisation of actual events. In that case, I felt I had to ensure my history was correct and that the characters did what they had actually done. That is, you can’t change the facts. To illustrate, in historical fiction you can’t say Louis XVI escaped the guillotine. You CAN write that story, but it has become alternative history.

    1. One of the instances of this is the recent movie “Kingdom of Heaven” which took huge liberties with historical fact to create a romance where none liekly existed. Because this movie -looks- historically correct, most people will be bamboozled into believing that it is. So it should have been billed as ‘alternate history’ perhaps, when it was billed as historical epic.

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