I’ve had a reader take me to task – rightly – over an incorrect detail of clothing worn by the hero of my books, the 16th-century Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, even while they seemed quite happy to accept the much more flagrant invention of turning him into a spy who solves murders.
Stephanie Merritt (SJ Parris)
Feigning accuracy? Surely she means being totally accurate with the historical facts?
Well, I left this post until last because historical accuracy is a lot more complicated than it might seem, and the focus of a never-ending conversational loop for historical novelists. Recently, I was pulled up for inaccuracy by a reader. She had looked up one of my characters – called Koniev – probably on wikipedia, and said I’d spelt it wrong. It should be ‘Konev’. Yet here is a photo of some of the real newspapers of the period that I used for my research into this character.
So who is right? The answer is neither of us. Or both. But the problem is, my sources are different from my readers. You will always be accused of inaccuracy by someone, not because you haven’t done your research, but often because your research sources may be different from the reader’s.
If you write a unique view of a character, one that a reader knows and loves, if it doesn’t agree with their previous reading on the subject, it might be deemed inaccurate — even though your new interpretation is well-supported by primary historical sources. When editing, it is good to take account of the probable sources of your readers.
I write a lot in the 17th Century. A popular book right now on the period is a very good book called ‘The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain.’ Now I would be foolish to insert facts into my novel that disagreed with this perceived authority, because I would probably then have trouble convincing the reader that my facts were the correct ones. The cost of things for example, is widely contradicted in different books on the Restoration period, because of the fluctuation of currency in the period. But I am aware that the Time Traveller’s Guide will probably be one of my readers’ sources, so that is the secondary source I might choose to use. We are not historians, and yet the ‘man on the street’ presumes we are, and judges us by the ‘facts’ of today’s published historians.
But our job as a writer is to produce truth rather than accuracy. Accurate things may not ring true – inaccurate things might ring truer.
For example: As Sol Stein says about his play Napoleon, in which Talleyrand confronts Napoleon:
‘Talleyrand provokes the younger man (Napoleon) into a flash of anger. Talleyrand couldn’t say, “Don’t get so hot under the collar” or “Cool it” in the argot of today. He says “Save your blood the journey to your face, I meant no harm’. You won’t find anything like that in the recorded conversations of the time. It is dialogue invented to suit a period, as John Fowles said, a form of “cheating” in which writers use a newly-minted language to simulate an old.’
In the past I have used inaccurate dialect for a Northern girl from 17th century Cumbria. She tells her sister not to ‘get into a fratch’. Fratch is 18th century dialogue and therefore not accurate. But it conveyed the spirit of what I wanted more closely than anything else, so I used it. In a historical novel, invented dialogue goes on all the time, with the writer striving to make the characters live and breathe, preferably without sounding like they have come from a pastiche of Victorian literature.
Accuracy about the internal lives of historical personages is difficult to achieve. Often the novelist is writing about a woman who played an extraordinary role in history. Or a great man – A king, for example. Let’s take Henry VIII. Say I am tempted to put his thoughts on paper. I might use the most obvious; ‘How can I divorce Anne Boleyn?’ But the reality is much bigger than that, and the question much more complex. This is a man who has been enormously well-educated, who has talked with the foreign leaders of the day, who has multiple concerns about the religion and politics of the time, plus a keen sensibility for music and architectural beauty. Your job is to convey the scope of this man within the meagre pages of your book. It is a bold and presumptuous undertaking. A novelist must insert as much subtext as possible to round out the character, and genuinely try to understand the man. Otherwise the character will be a cardboard cipher.
There is nothing more off-putting than realising you have given King Henry VIII the ‘voice of a middle-aged hairdresser from Morecambe’.
To be accurate you must be able to enter the head of your character at that time, but to make him live you must be able to subtly parallel his attitudes with something of today. The Victorian emphasis on Henry VIII might be quite different from our 21st century one.
If you’re not an intellectual, don’t write about a historical genius and expect him to somehow come over as more intelligent than yourself. To do so would need a dash of divine inspiration – to write out of your own socks, so to speak, and it rarely succeeds. I recently read a novel in which one of the main characters was a ground-breaking scientist, and yet his dialogue showing his passion for his work was filled with bland generalities. It just didn’t ring true. Most writers humbly and sensibly choose to write history from the point of view of an ordinary or minor character within the milieu of the ‘marquee name’ of history.
If you choose a big name like Henry VIII, can you tweak a scene to make it more true? Can you give the witnesses an agenda which will give it extra emotional impact? The bare facts in the annals of history can be enhanced. Does your scene show the full vigour of the man? Is it truer than the bare facts of history?
You can feign accuracy by adding detail to the facts, as long as the detail is correct – the rough texture of the blindfold worn at the execution will stick in your reader’s mind although that ‘fact’ was never in any historical record. So when editing check that you have complete clarity about what your character is doing and saying, where they are, what they can see, feel, taste, touch. Clarity is what gives the novel truth and therefore the semblance of accuracy.
And actually, what the reader often wants, as well as a sense of history, is emotional accuracy. They want to feel what is was like to live through that particular time; not what it looked like from the outside, but what it felt like to be in someone else’s skin, and to be able to re-live it now. And you can only do that by engaging the heart of the reader.
There are many discussions about accuracy on Goodreads, or anywhere where writers of historical fiction gather. Each of us historical novelists has our own ‘accuracy barometer’, which is set to warn us of fair sailing or stormy weather ahead.
Find my other editing posts on these links:
Susanna Calkins tackles this for Writer’s Digest.