Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Historical Accuracy

At the moment in Romancelandia, there's a debate going on regarding historical accuracy in Historicals. I'm not sure the average reader is truly ready for the real deal. As far as I can tell, most of the most vociferous critics are belly-achin' about the the way the various classes were portrayed.

Most readers don't want to read about how servant girls were fair game to be raped by the men in the household until they became pregnant at which point they were summarily tossed out. Nor are they likely to be enchanted by the lack of safe food practices in the Regency period. Really.

We can't fail to read historical novels filtered through our own experience in the twentieth century. Recently my cousin was here visiting. In our mid-teens we both visited the family ranch in west Texas. She had grown up in northern Indiana, in a temperate climate with a serious shortage of outhouses and creepy crawlers and snakes. I had grown up in desert Arizona where we had an abundance of all those things.

So when we were discussing our visit to the family ranch, we experienced those visits in vastly different ways. There was noooo running water or electricity at the ranch. Yep. There was an outhouse. And creepy crawlers. And snakes. It was hot. There was no shade and no where to get cool.

For my cousin, it was a visit to the lower rings of hell. She detested it. On the other hand, for me it was just like home. And therein is my point. We both experienced the same things. But we viewed the ranch through the lens of our personal experience prior to the visit.

In the same way, we view the Regency period or the Georgian or Edwardian period through our personal experience. We find the behaviors and mores incomprehensible because we have no possible way to truly experience what life was like then. We have no idea.

Several years ago, PBS had several different series where families voluntarily spent a specific period of weeks totally immersing their lives in another time period. One family lived in a Victorian home in England. Several other families lived as pioneers both in Canada and the American west. What did they discover?

They all found the little things were the most difficult. The lack of feminine products. Shaving with a straight razor. No refrigeration. No grocery stores. Hunting and butchering their food.

All of the people involved were volunteers. None of them had a clue about historical accuracy. When we're reading a book, we really don't have any idea whether it's accurate or not. We can look up stuff on the internet. We can study drawings of clothing or carriages or horses, but unless we have been up close and personal with a horse, we don't really know what it smells like. Unless we've ridden in a carriage, we don't really know how incredibly uncomfortable riding across country in a carriage was. Unless we've had to spend time without the convenience of modern feminine products, we won't really understand the sheer aggravation of using rags for that time of the month--let alone washing the rags and drying them for reuse.

It seems to me that at the very best, a writer can only give the flavor of their historical period. No, I don't advocate allowing stupid mistakes. No, if the Medieval heroine breaks a lamp, she can't buy another one on eBay. But after avoiding those types of mistakes, the best the author can do is try. Research. Read the literature of the time. Go to museums and study the technology and materials from that era. And if possible, try using some of the equipment from the era.

There's a huge difference between looking at a butter churn and actually wielding the beast. Once you've churned butter, you'll never look at butter the same way. Once you've heated an iron on a cast iron stove and ironed a shirt, you'll never look at ironing the same way.

Heh. Once you've gathered acorns and ground them to flour, you'll never look at an acorn the same way either. If you'd like to read about my great acorn hunt, click on the link at the upper right of this page.



  1. One of the best series I read that is set in Victorian England is the Charlotte Pitt series by Anne Perry. They're mysteries & so meticulously researched -- I can easily visualize how the household is run, what the parties are like, and so on. The details add so much to the story! A well-done historical can be a real learning experience.

  2. I LOVED Pioneer House! I missed the others...they seem equally interesting.

  3. Just read an historical romance set in the Scottish Highlands just after the ascendancy of Robert the Bruce. I'm no expert, but I think someone should have caught it when the hero says to the heroine, "You're so hot." No she didn't have a fever.