There was recently a fascinating discussion at Dear Author about accuracy in historical romances. Some very interesting and intelligent perspectives were shared. Here are my own thoughts about it. I don’t write historical romance, and I don’t read a lot of it any more. It’s not that I don’t like it, but it’s not my first love (which is contemporary) and these days my time for reading is limited.
I suppose if I read a book that was full of inaccuracies that kept pulling me out of the story, I would be annoyed. I might think less of that author because he or she didn’t do enough research, or was sloppy or careless in their world-building. I suppose there are books like that out there. But more often you’re likely to encounter a couple of small slip-ups in a book. How serious is that to readers?
When an author writes a book, he or she is building a world. A world that readers have never been to. Whether it’s science fiction, paranormal, or contemporary, it’s still building a world. In science fiction (which I fully admit I do not read) I’m guessing that writers make stuff up. It might be based on science or scientific principles, but I bet a lot of it is made up. In my contemporary romances, I’m building a world that my characters live in that nobody else has ever seen. We may all live in contemporary settings, in houses and apartments, and work in office buildings or whatever; but nobody has ever seen the world my characters inhabit―because I’m making it up. A reviewer commented on my contemporary romance Breakaway that I had gotten the names of the NHL teams wrong. I didn’t get them wrong―I made them up. And to me, a historical romance is the same. It’s building a world that readers have never been to. Base it on reality to make it realistic for me, something I can visualize in my mind and enhance with my imagination, make it plausible―as with any fiction. But the writer is making it up.
I don’t think it is possible for an author to write a romance set in an historical setting without having some inaccuracies and anachronisms. Even scholars don’t always agree on history. We all know that personal hygiene standards were much different then than now. (Or do we?) I will admit that when I read a historical romance and the hero has perfect white even teeth I chuckle a little. In historical romances, it seems the characters do a lot of bathing, which is also apparently inaccurate. If romance characters talked the way people really talked in the middle ages, nobody would want to read it. On the other hand, few contemporary romance characters ever have morning breath. We forgive these inaccuracies because it is a romance. I guess I’m forgiving of some inaccuracies in any romance sub-genre. Yes, I’ve read books where I’ve come across a detail I know is wrong. I enjoy my little moment of smug superiority, but if it’s a good book, I move on with the story.
I guess I don’t understand reading a book for the purpose of finding things wrong with it, rather than just reading it for the enjoyment of it. So there was no such thing as yellow silk back then? I don’t care! And I also can’t imagine doing research to find out if I’m right. Oh...I know there was no yellow silk in that time period. Or do I? How do I know that? Do I know it because I read it in another romance novel? Or do I know it because I studied history in such detail? Maybe I’d better make sure I’m right before I spout off about this historical inaccuracy and do the research. No, thanks. I’d rather just accept that in that fictional world, there was yellow silk. I’d rather just read the book for the pleasure of it than spend hours doing research to prove I’m right and the author is wrong.Do readers need to be alerted that there are inaccuracies in historical romances? Or in any romance sub-genre, for that matter? Do you want to know that she could not possibly have been driving east on Main Street in Anytown, USA because that street runs north and south? Do you want to know that that was not the type of corset women wore in 1844? Do you want to be told that there are really no such things as vampires or werewolves