Elizabeth: Historical Fiction – What’s Your Preference

historical fictionWhat do you think of when you think about historical fiction?

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or Jo Beverley’s The Dragon’s Bride, that have a historical setting, but focus more on plot and character than detailed historical content?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.

12 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Historical Fiction – What’s Your Preference

  1. I read a lot of historical fiction, Elizabeth, and I’m definitely a skipper of details. I want just enough to make the story credible, plus anything that’s important to the plot. I read an article somewhere (forget where) saying that the level of detail readers look for in a historical today is much less than it used to be. Jane Austen wrote contemporaries, so she assumed knowledge in her reader. Georgette Heyer more or less invented the historical, and she gave lots and lots of impeccably researched detail because it was new news, and readers gobbled it up. Now, readers know a lot of that stuff and have read it a million times; we expect to move on more quickly. I certainly don’t want to read paragraphs of Regency info-dump.

    All the peeves you’ve identified above drive me nuts. I think I asked you about the word ‘trousers’ for gentlemen, because I see it all the time now. You’d never see it in Heyer, so I assume it’s anachronistic. I’ve seen contemporary American English : ‘drapes’ (curtains) and worst of all ‘row house’ – seen that in two separate books recently. We don’t use that term, never did, never will.

    I hate ridiculous names and titles – Dukes are important people and there weren’t very many, so picking a place name at random from the map of England and adding Duke to it drives me bananas. Stupid first names that sound cool but would never have been chosen by the aristocracy, who use the same names over and over, even today. Abbreviating that name to sound even more cool and wrong. Anachronisms in dialogue, but most of all, the thing that drives me screaming out of a book is a misunderstanding of the social conventions – in particular how quickly the hero and heroine get on to first name terms with no explanation of how shocking that would be, using the hero’s name instead of his title (see Lord of Scoundrels for the right way to do this – after you’re wedded and bedded would be the time, not before). Informality in dialogue. Also heroines indulging in chit-chat with their maids ( not their wise old nanny or governess) and taking advice from them.

    Sorry this post is so long. I could go on (and on, and on). There are some brilliant historicals out there – I love Loretta Chase and Courtney Milan – but I’ve started a few lately that are more like contemporaries with a few bonnets, corsets, titles and period words grafted on. I can’t read them.

    Can’t wait to read yours, though 🙂

    • Long post Jilly, but your comments are spot on. You’ve identified some of the pet peeves that annoy me as well. I’m definitely going to have go to through my manuscript with a fine-tooth comb to make sure I haven’t fallen into “American English” or let my characters act in an overly familiar way. I may have to call on you for a vocabulary lesson to make sure I’m using the right words 🙂

      • I’ll gladly read your MS for Americanisms when you’re ready, Elizabeth. It will make a fun change from asking you Ladies to read mine to highlight the Britishisms 🙂

        • Jill – warning, I may take you up on that offer. Sad to say I don’t know if drapes or curtains are correct, as we use both here somewhat interchangeably.

    • See, this is where steam punk fits in. One can fudge around with the setting quite a bit because it’s an “alternative” version of the past — although the diehard history fans will howl with derision if the airship has nylon lines instead of, say, cat gut (I just finished listening to a podcast that tangentially involved Emma Newman, a disputed airship and a nutty professor — Emma got the tone for steampunk just right!).

      I suspect you can fudge some of these details if you are writing in a not-so-well-known era, but it would be better to go info-dumpy on the details in that case. Still, a lot of people who read historicals like history, and in this day and age, it only takes a minute to google something that seems odd.

      Then again, too much attention to detail and not enough to story is a real story-killer, too.

  2. Right on, Jilly! This is my main beef with historicals, too. I also dislike seeing modern social conventions imprinted on historical characters. As much as I like feisty heroines in contemporary novels, I dislike reading historical heroines who have all the freedoms and movement of twenty-first century women. Women’s legal rights and social position were so constrained in the 19th century and earlier, that it just throws me off when historical heroines are more adventurous—without consequence—than most women today.

    • Exactly Kay. A heroine can be feisty and still work within the social constraints of the time, but when she acts like a contemporary female, without any of the consequences that would have befallen her at the time, it pulls me right out of a story. I just had to modify I scene because I realized I had let my heroine go out and about alone late at night, which wasn’t done then (not without causing scandal).

  3. As with almost everything else, the answer for me is “It depends”, or maybe “Some of both”. If the descriptions are integral to the thoughts of the character (a woman jealousy of another’s dress because it drives home her lost social status, a man’s intense focus on the sweat on the skin of his One True Love), then I don’t even notice that I’m reading descriptive passages.

    If the descriptions are little more than an information dump, I quickly learn that author’s signs of an expository block and skim until I see the next bit of dialogue.

    • For me, it also depends on whether I’m reading a historical set during a time/place that I am familiar with or not. If it’s a brand new time/place, then I’m going to want more descriptions and details than if its something I’m already familiar with. Depends on my mood too. Sometimes I’m just a short-attention-span-reader and want to get straight to the story.

      My favorite authors blend in details and descriptions so well that I don’t even realize I’m reading them. For others, I too have learned the signs so I can skip ahead to the next bit of action.

  4. I’ve just finished reading a very old novel — if it were written today, it’d be a historical, but since it was written in the late 18th century, it was a contemporary of its day. And I come away thinking that a historical writer must, must, must read in her or his era. Not just scholarly stuff today, but the contemporary stuff that was written in that day (if possible). Not only does it give the writer a good feel for details (how many, what kind, what really gives it an old feel), but it also gives the writer a good sense of tone — how did they talk and act in a fictional setting?

    (-: Writing this, I want to make a rather artificial distinction between historical writing, and pre-historical writing — history is about the written word and has been chronicled. But a lot of interesting eras are only chronicled from the outside, so the writer has some extra freedom with details — poetic license, so to speak. But reader expectation will also play a large part in it.

    I love reading about details, and I’m the kind of reader who will stop, look something up, then go cheerfully back to the book. If you listen to all the writing advice out there, I’m apparently quite rare. Apparently if someone wanders off to Wikipedia, you’ve lost him or her forever . . . . I adore learning something new — the writer can tell me directly, or the writer can hint at it, and let me look it up.

    Oh, and for me, “historical” means Regency. I know that’s insane, but that’s what I think. I do really like other eras (Amelia Peabody’s Victorian/Edwardian era, and I like the Gilded Age a lot, and I’ve read a prehistory or two that’s been very fun). It’s just that if there’s no comedy of manners, I don’t feel I’m reading historical. (I know I’m mistaken, though, so I humbly submit to all your arguments otherwise.)

  5. Michaeline – I definitely agree that it’s good for an author to read books written in the era they are writing. I find it helps me get a deeper understanding of the time-period, as well as a good feel for the speech patterns and word choices that were in use.

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