Does it bring to mind long sweeping sagas, rich in details and descriptions like M.M. Kaye’s Far Pavilions or Colleen McCullough’s Thorn Birds (both popular during my long ago book seller days) or stories like Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels or Jo Beverley’s The Dragon’s Bride, that have a historical setting, but focus more on plot and character than detailed historical content?
The question came up when I read this comment from one of the judges of my recent contest entry:
“Also there just wasn’t the vivid description historical readers want. I’m not advocating paragraphs and paragraphs about limestone, but readers want descriptions of rooms, gowns, streets, etc.”
I thought that was an interesting bit of feedback. While I understand the need to provide readers with enough details so that they can immerse themselves in the story, I think the line between “enough” and “vivid description” depends on the reader you’re writing for. As I mentioned previously here on the blog in my Do you see what you’re reading post, I really don’t visualize the details when I’m reading a story. Typically, those are the parts I skim or skip past, and I know I’m not the only one. Those skimming/skipping readers are the ones I’m writing for. I know plenty of readers who soak up those same descriptions and details like a sponge and eagerly look for more, but those are not my readers.
Regardless of the level of detail you prefer in your historical fiction, there are some basic things that are likely to irritate any historical reader:
Historical inaccuracies – if you’re going to incorporate historical details, they should be accurate. Having your regency lady dressed in jeans and a t-shirt is probably going to throw your reader out of the story, unless you’re penning a historical time-travel piece.
Dialogue that that doesn’t fit the period – this one can be a little tricky, but words that feel too “current”, regardless of whether they may actually have been in use during the period you’re writing about, can be jarring. The most recent example of this from my own story was the word fiancé. As a beta reader pointed out, its first use was around 1835, which would make it in inappropriate for my story set in 1815. The replacement, betrothed, feels much more period appropriate.
Including too much detail – no matter how rich and vivid detail you like in your historical fiction, huge swaths of historical facts can slow down a story and detract from the characters and plot. It can be tempting to do, especially if you’ve done a lot of research for a particular story, but sparing use of facts can enhance your story without bogging it down.
Facts that conflict with established reader expectations – this one may seem odd, but it’s something that came up in a Regency writer’s group that I’m a part of. Many fans of Regency fiction have built their ideas about how he Regency period really was, based other books they’ve read. If you introduce a fact that conflicts with something they’ve previously read, regardless of whether your fact is correct or not, they may consider it to be wrong and be thrown out of the story.
So, do you read historical fiction? If so, what kind do you like best? Do you have any pet peeves when it comes to historical fiction? Inquiring minds want to know.