Accurate, Schmaccurate; As Long As It’s Right


“The clock hath stricken three…”

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act II, scene I

A.J.’s Friday post, and the discussion that followed has had me thinking about research, historical accuracy, and artistic license all weekend long.  So I decided to share some thoughts, in the hope of generating more conversation and perhaps more understanding.

Let me begin by saying that I have a Ph.D. in history, and that I am just completing a historical fantasy set in colonial Boston.  I have worked harder on this book than I have on any other, not just because I want to make this novel as good as it can be, but also because I want to fit the story into its historical context as comfortably and seamlessly as possible.  The last thing I want is for historical inaccuracies to jar my reader out of the story.  As Beatriz put it in a comment last week, I don’t want to give my readers any “WTF?” moments.

I’ve taken a similar approach with my other novels.  Because I was writing about medieval settings, I learned as much as possible about castle life, medieval weaponry, eating habits, customs, architecture, clothing, agriculture, etc.  Of course, those older books were set in alternate worlds, giving me a bit more leeway than I’ve had this time around writing in a real place and a specific time.

Yet, even with the new book, I have taken liberties with history.  Many.  In fact, the entire concept for the series flies in the face of history (and I’m not talking about the magic).  Thieftakers were fairly common in England in the 18th century, but not in the American colonies.  They emerged in the United States briefly in the early decades of the 1800s, but were quickly supplanted by organized constabularies.  The central mechanism for the series is a historical inaccuracy.  And there are a few other places where I have subtly bent time lines so that events fit better with my narrative.  Will some history buffs notice?  Maybe, though they’d have to be pretty OCD to find the details I’m talking about.  The better answer to the question “Will anyone notice?” is:  I don’t care.

I began the post with the Shakespeare quote for obvious reasons.  In Caesar’s time, there were no mechanical clocks, and sundials didn’t have bells to strike (nor did they function in the wee hours of the morning before dawn).  Shakespeare’s scene device is grossly inaccurate.  But it serves its artistic purposes, punctuating the exchange between Cassius and Brutus, and giving a sense of urgency to their discussion of the conspiracy against Caesar.  Did Shakespeare pause in his writing of the play to consider the historical development of mechanical time pieces?  Who knows?  Who cares?  It works in the context of the piece.

In fairness, I would not allow something so blatant into one of my books; it would be handy for my lead character in the thieftaker books to have a cell phone, but I’m not going there.  I once worked with a writing student who set his novel in a medieval society, but gave his character hot and cold running water, so that he showered after a long ride and fogged up the windows in the castle chamber.  I wouldn’t allow something like that to stand, either, because it is so anachronistic as to destroy the ambiance created by what was otherwise some very fine worldbuilding.

But there is a vast middle ground between taking extreme liberties and seeking complete historical accuracy, and this is where the battles are fought.  I spent six years training to be a professional historian.  I have spent the past 15 years writing fiction professionally.  The two are nothing alike.  There’s a reason fiction writers generally don’t footnote (Susanna Clark notwithstanding….) and historians try to avoid making stuff up.  My goal in writing a novel is not to educate.  That’s what professional scholars do, and they do it well.  With my fiction I seek to entertain, to evoke emotion, to captivate and enthrall.  I create a setting that, I hope, will transport my readers to another time and place.  I develop characters who, I hope, will fascinate my readers, who will make them laugh and cry, cringe and scream.  And I blend these elements into a tale that is intended to engage my readers from the opening line to the final page.  At times, historical accuracy helps me with this.  It enhances my setting, making it feel more genuine, more convincing.  It lends weight to my plot and context to my characters.  At other times, though, realism has to take a backseat to the exigencies of art.

It’s not just a matter of avoiding too much detail, though that is part of it. I don’t want to stall my narrative by having to explain to you, say, how a flintlock musket works — that is, unless the actual functioning of the gun’s mechanism is somehow central to a plot point.  The musket is a prop, a way of enhancing ambiance.  If my readers want to know how the thing works, they can do a little research themselves.  But more than that, while I will do what I can to follow the trail laid out for me by historical sources and scholarship, I also have to remember that these sources are themselves subjective and often prone to inaccuracies.  All that we know about old weaponry and other forms of technology is also subject to human error, distortions over the course of time, and the simple fact that sometimes people use objects in ways they weren’t intended.

Mostly though, writers and readers need to remember that novels aren’t supposed to read like textbooks.  Speaking as a writer, I am telling a story, one that is a product of imagination, of creative impulse.  Where accuracy serves to enhance that tale, I certainly strive for it. But first and foremost I try to be true to my characters, to my narrative, to the artistic vision that inspired me in the first place.  Speaking as a reader, I don’t want to be jarred out of setting and story by factual errors, but more, I don’t want to read a tale that gives over so much to the pursuit of “fact” that it no longer works on a literary level.

Put another way, I strive to find a balance between historical accuracy and artistic integrity.  In making decisions about plotting and what details to include in a book, my first test isn’t “is it 100% correct,” but rather “is it 100% right for my story.”  This is art.  This is fiction.  It’s not scholarship.  If I wanted to write history, I’d still be in academia.

David B. Coe

55 comments to Accurate, Schmaccurate; As Long As It’s Right

  • David, a tour de force! Thank you. Totally agree. Your Shakespeare example raises another point which is much on my mind these days as I’m finishing up a book on the stage history of Julius Caesar. Part of what the striking clock moment does in the play is that it steps momentarily out of history to affirm the play’s contemporary resonance. The play goes out of its way (deliberately in my view) here and elsewhere to remind the audience of where and when they really are, implicitly connecting the political world of the play to that in which the audience lives. There is a similar moment after the assassination when Cassius remarks “How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over/In states unborn and accents yet unknown.” Moments like this underscore what you are saying because they affirm that in spite of the historical context Shakespeare was always writing for and ABOUT his present, not just about the past. Novelists do the same. Our purpose primary responsibility, it seems to me, is not to teach the past but to respond to the present.

  • No pun intended, but your post truly resonates with me 🙂

    When I was writing traditional fantasy, set in my own, roughly-equivalent-to-11th-century-France world, I took cares to keep my characters consistent with the technology of their times. For example, they waited several heartbeats, rather than a minute, etc.

    And yet, two of the best-selling fantasy series that came out at almost the same time as mine had gross historical inaccuracies. In one, a character took one of those relaxing hot-water showers. In another a character picked up his briefcase and walked out of the room.

    I gnashed my teeth at those anachronisms, and yet they didn’t seem to hurt the authors (who are far more wildly successful than I. In fact, each has a reputation as a particularly “accessible” author.

    I don’t plan on changing my approach to historical fantasy. But I do wonder if we authors focus on accuracy, in ways that many of our readers don’t worry about.

  • Your post reminded me of why I’ve never made it through one of Tom Clancy’s novels (particularly the ones he actually wrote by himself) — all that technical detail just slows everything down, taking me out of the story and leaving me with a textbook. I don’t care that much about how a submarine works. Of course, there are plenty of people who like Clancy’s work, but for me, the story comes first.

  • Anachronisms spring up everywhere and some are so deeply rooted in the language that you don’t realize you’re using them. For instance in the first paragraph of AJ’s Chapter 28 excerpt, he describes the raiders “firing” arrows. Do you “fire” arrows? You fire muskets, pistols, and cannon because you put a spark to powder. You loose, release, or shoot arrows.

    Similar things happen with the old “Ready, Aim, Fire!” instruction that is deeply familiar to us but doesn’t belong anywhere near a medieval story (even though it shows up in Ben Hur). Not only do you not “fire” arrows or crossbow bolts, but the aim instruction wasn’t widespread until after the American Revolution. A volley of arrows would be shot with commands like “Ready, Draw, Loose!”

  • I’ve been reading this blog for a while, but haven’t felt compelled to comment until now. Thank you, David, for your point of view on this. As someone fairly new to writing fiction, I’ve struggled with this topic. I love history and enjoy the research end of it. While reading a novel, I get caught up in a story and don’t always notice inaccuracies until I think on it later (and honestly, I don’t get bent out of shape about it, either). But when I was writing, I felt somewhat guilty about changing historical details to fit my story. Over time, the feeling has lessened a bit but after reading this post, I’m not feeling so uptight about it.

    I do have a question, though. I’ve heard about some writers getting blasted by critics or fans over historical changes they’ve made for the sake of the story. It does seem to be a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” kind of situation that can’t be avoided. Have any of the published writers here had to deal with that sort of thing or have you found readers and critics understanding?

  • Jeff, you are right about my use of “fire.” I cover my back on that by framing the story (through a preface) as a modern translation of an ancient manuscript, so that I can use wholly unhistorical modern idiom to get a contemporary feel. But yes, it should be “shoot” rather than “fire,” though I wonder when that use of fire came into the language (with gunpowder) and started being applied to the shooting of things which didn’t actually “fire”!

    And EK is right. Some readers/reviewers (and Amazon has collapsed the distinction) get incredibly exercised about perceived inaccuracies. I think it’s a judment call. I’ve been irritated both by writer errors, and by what I take to be unreasonable reader responses. I got slammed once on Amazon for putting a character on the wrong road: a detail which affected a single sentence of the book and had no implications for plot or character but which alone gained me a one star review! You can’t always win on this.

  • Writing and reading would be too boring and tedious if we had to be so accurate and realistic. I would probably be pulled more out of the story if the language and writing were to be a representation of the actual time period. I doubt many of the phrases and words we use today would make sense if we were going for total accuracy. The use of more modern terminology and phrasing probably helps to keep us in the story.

    Great post David, more food for thought as I’m revising my WIP!

  • A.J., thanks so much for a terrific and thought-provoking comment. The fact is that no matter what kind of research and worldbuilding we do, our work is always going to be, at least in part, a product of our received culture. My worldbuilding for the Forelands books is some of the best I’ve ever done, and yet the books are steeped in the ethnic politics of 9/11’s immediate aftermath. This wasn’t intentional, but I think it’s unavoidable. And that’s not a bad thing; as a historian, I often turned to fiction as primary source material, because you can learn so much about a time in history from its art.

    Mindy, thanks for another great comment. I, too, have read authors who (how do I put this?) obviously expend far less emotional energy worrying about historical accuracy, and often they’re far more successful than I have been. That’s fine; that’s there choice. And you might be right: readers might not care about this stuff as much as I do. But I write for me, too — just as you write for yourself as well as for your readers. When it comes right down to it, I strive for historical accuracy because I want it in the books I read AND the books I write.

    Stuart, I’m right there with you. I *love* the movie version of RED OCTOBER (despite the lead Russian having a Scottish brogue), but I couldn’t get through the novel because of all the technical stuff.

    Jeff, thanks for the comment. I think that the explanation A.J. uses for his use of “fire” is a good one, but I agree with you, and have always tried to take care in my use of the verb “fire”. The verb itself dates from the 13th century, but it refers to kindling in both a literal and figurative sense. So that for a late medieval setting firing an imagination is fine; firing an arrow isn’t. As you say, “loosing” is better. “Letting fly,” works. I have a few others I’ve used. Thanks for the comment.

  • Mikaela

    I had one book that made me go WTF several times. It was a historical romance, set in Scotland during 1300-1400’s, I don’t remember exactly. The heroine wears cotton. In a riding habit. Sure, I can accept that cotton were available during that period. The main thing that annoyed me was that the riding habit was made of cotton.
    No explaination why, it just felt wrong.

  • Hi David,

    I absolutely agree that story trumps accuracy, particularly for historical settings. For example, I’ve tried reading Old English, and I don’t see a reason to use it except for color. As I posted on Friday, the good details are the ones that move the plot along, and the extra little easter egg details are to keep the knowledgeable people in the books

    OTOH–well you knew this was coming, didn’t you? I keep thinking about that little number: 1% fewer books published in SF last year. Population’s going up, English is now spoken (or read) all over the world, Neal Stephenson’s selling pretty well (as is Charlie Stross), and yet most of the rest of us are worried about sales. What gives?

    I’m going to give three brief scenarios that might help:
    –I was working as a conservation officer on a big reserve in California. California, as most know was inhabited for >10,000 years by Indians, and we’re now learning just how much active land management they did in their territories. As I learned about my job, I realized that my level of knowledge (graduate degrees and all) was about the level of an 11 year-old girl from the now extinct tribe. In other words, I was supposed to be restoring the land and was one of the most knowledgeable people in the group in that regard. Yet by the standards of the people who used to run the place, I was incompetent and knew it, and there used to be hundreds of them to one at me, which probably explained the problems we were seeing. None of what I know requires a genius, but it does take time and experience.
    Question: How to write about that extinct tribe, if I wanted to set a novel there? I have a good idea how they would see the landscape, yet I can already hear people screaming that I should dumb it down still more. As a conservationist, I argue that we NEED to see the world more like they did, because they managed to do things (like preserving biodiversity and keeping species from going extinct) that we’re horrible at. We need their vision and understanding.

    –I live in an ordinary suburb of an ordinary city, next to a strip mall with a karate studio in it. Sound familiar? A group of western martial artists started practicing traditional longsword, dagger, and spear in that karate studio every weekend. That’s how far knowledge of traditional European warfare is penetrating into our culture. I think it’s a mistake to think that no one knows that stuff, and that “it’s only a story,” is a good defense. If we’re writing about karate, most writers do a lot of research, because lots of kids do karate, and we know we’re going to get caught out if we screw up. I’d suggest it’s time to start thinking that way about European martial arts.

    –My partner recently read a book by a successful author. That book included a character who was in the same profession she’s in (a very common, ubiquitous profession). She thought the book was okay, but she was put off because the author obviously hadn’t researched her profession, and had no idea what my partner actually did during the course of a day. She struggled with the second book in the series, and I’m not sure I’m going to buy the third.

    Three examples, but I think you get the point: details matter, and I’d say they matter more than accuracy. But accuracy matters as well, particularly when the details are readily available.

  • Emily

    David> Great post! Thanks! (But, what do you mean history professors don’t make stuff up? You’ve just ruinied my theory on the narrative of history!!)

    I tend to be very flexible (and maybe this is a bit of a cop-out) when magic comes into play. If there is magic in the world, then lots of other things can and will change. Maybe magic meant there were more theiftakers (to use your example). Historical fiction, or alternate histories, (I know they aren’t the same) also mean differences (hence the words “fiction” and “alternate”) from the reality we (think we) know. So, if there is magic, then there can be hot and cold running water in a medieval castle and I’ll just shrug it off–if I notice it at all. (As a prof, too, I try very hard NOT to be “working” while I’m reading for pleasure anyway.) For example, I don’t get hysterical when the middle English in “medieval” novels is wrong. Because that would be silly. If an author is striving for accuracy, then I think more critique is reasonable.

    I’m struggling a little with a current WIP. It’s set in a modern faerie London. Now, what that looks like is complicated in my own head. What kind of “technology” do they have? How much does it mirror the human world? Etc.

  • E.K., thanks so much for joining the conversation. Glad you liked the post. To be totally honest with you, I remain slightly uncomfortable with the liberties I’ve taken in my newest novel. Not with the conceptual one — I need to have thieftakers in colonial Boston for the book to work, and I want the book out there, so…. But the tiny little change I made to the timeline niggles at me still. So I know exactly what you mean. I think that’s healthy — it shows a level of conscientiousness that will serve us well with future projects. But as you say, there comes a time when we just have to relax.

    That said, yes, echoing what A.J. said, I have been savaged by readers who believe that I have gotten things wrong historically. In fact, last year, after the release of THE HORSEMEN’S GAMBIT, I received a series of emails from a gentleman who objected to a scene in which one of my medieval healers uses alcohol to cleanse a wound. This is bad medical practice we now know, but I had sources showing that people have long used spirits — from wine to rum to purer forms of alcohol — to disinfect wounds. I told him as much, and he came back at me with one of the rudest emails any reader has ever sent me. I then sent this person the links I’d found and demanded an apology. I never heard from him again. We have had instances of such rudeness on this very site. People are funny; some things push their buttons and get them riled up. I guess for some folks, this is their pet peeve. [shrug]

    Alistair, thank you for the comment. I do thing that too much attention to historical or technical detail can suck the soul out of an otherwise good piece of fiction. I try to avoid anachronistic verbiage in my work — not only in dialog, but also in exposition and internal monologue. For me, it’s part of trying to get the voice right. Finding the origins of words isn’t that hard, and it goes a long way toward establishing the ambiance of your work. Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. (hardcover) includes the date when a word entered the language. There is also a book called ENGLISH THROUGH THE AGES that does the same. I use both.

  • Emily

    On Language> (really quick) I can’t imagine anyone using Old English in a text, aside from names and a few phrases that they’d have to translate from the audience (a la Tolkien). OE is a dead language (shhh! don’t tell Beowulf scholars, though!!) That is, no one speaks it anymore. It certainly isn’t readable for modern folk, not without a great deal of study. You can’t just pick up Beowulf and read it if you’ve never studied OE. Some words will make sense, but not many. Middle English, on the other hand, (and much to the disbelief of some of my students) is readable. Some of it, anyway, the older it is, the harder it is (that’s an oversimplification, but it works) and dialect matters. Chaucerian English makes sense, but the Pearl Poet (contemporary of Chaucer, late 1300’s) does not, really, without a lot of work.

    And, if you are near a research library (like UNC Chapel Hill, or Duke, or whatever) and they let you use the databases (most state school libraries I think are required to be open to the public on some level) then the Oxford English Dictionary online is AWESOME for word connections and history. Buying a subscription is expensive, and the hardcover one costs well into the thousands, so for one person to own it is pretty tough. I don’t know that local city public branch libraries would have a subscription. My college doesn’t either, but it has an older hardcopy. (Not so useful if you are interested in current words or slang).

    Anyway, that’s my suggestion for language questions (English, anyway).

    I’ll definitely check out English Through the Ages.

  • Wow. Okay, falling behind here. I post and three more comments show up….

    Mikaela, that (the riding habit) would drive me nuts, too. Or a modern aphorism showing up in, say, a 12th century setting. That is just the sort of thing I try to avoid in my work, and that I find frustrating in my reading.

    Het, I agree with everything you say here. As you notice, my post made it clear that I do a ton of research, that I believe books should strive for accuracy, that the types of details you mention can add tremendously to creating atmosphere and tying plot, character, and the rest to setting. All I said is that at some point story has to trump the rest. We strive for accuracy and understanding of an era or a technology, but we don’t sacrifice art for the tech stuff. That’s all. Many thanks for the comment.

    Emily, you’re right. I misspoke. Historians make stuff up all the time. But we never admit it, and we footnote to cover our butts…. I think you’re a more forgiving reader than I am, and you raise a great point, one that resonates with what Mindy said earlier: Sometimes readers care deeply about this stuff; sometimes, though, they don’t. They know that they’re reading fiction — fantasy, in the case of our books — and they willingly suspend their disbelief. Which is why, at the end of the day, we have to write for ourselves. I try to make my books as accurate as possible because if I didn’t my books would drive me up a wall. Not a good thing. As for your WIP, I actually think that bending a modern setting offers greater freedom. It sounds to me like you can do anything to a faerie London that you want! (Have you read Gaiman’s NEVERWHERE? Sounds like it would be right up your alley.) As always, thanks for the comment.

  • Many thanks for the references, Emily. Given your background and level of expertise, I think you’ll find ENGLISH THROUGH THE AGES wanting. For a non-linguist [points to self] it has been helpful, but it’s very simple and not at all comprehensive. A good tool for those of us looking for an easy way around a complicated problem. But for those used to perusing the OED, it will be laughable…. I don’t try to write in old or middle English. I think it’s important to make our work at least somewhat accessible to our audiences. I merely try to avoid using words that don’t belong. My medieval characters are never “paranoid”, they don’t have large “egos”, they don’t ever, ever, ever call one another “dude…” That sort of thing…. 🙂

  • David, I have a couple of comments and them I’m going to paddle a lovely river. Deadlines will start in a month and I’m getting in some rest time.

    One: I once read a book set in the 1100s. A character said something was *par for the course*. I threw the book across the room. I was younger then, of hotter temper, and less accepting.

    Two: In a critique some 15 years ago, an elderly woman started a fantasy set in the 1200s or 1300s. It was a *fantasy*. It had *magic*. But the historical inaccuracies were so bad that few of us in the group could see past them to the story beneath. I didn’t try. I wish now that I had tried harder to look beyond the history and help her grow as a writer – not a historian. Mea Culpa. Something I would change if I could go back and do so.

    Three: This is a great post, well thought out and presented, as usual. You have a gift for ordering your thoughts and presentation that I, quite frankly, envy. Well done.

    Four: I adored all the early Tom Clancy books. Especially the weapons, tech, and paramilitary methodology. I loved it when Tom told me how far and in what direction a certain bomb would explode, and how stable the explosive components and matrix (or whatever) was. Sigh… I’m supposed to be a girl… And now, I don’t remember a single technical device, while I do remember his characters and conflict. And as you said, as a writer, that was his job.

  • Wolf Lahti

    To smugly say that story trumps accuracy sounds like a lazy man’s rationalization to me, analogous to those writers who are sloppy with verb-noun agreement and who randomly throw apostrophes about as if they were sowing grass seed in a river. “Who cares if the grammar and spelling are correct or the sentences read like bad Engrish as long as they understand the message?” Well, based on the evidence of much of what gets published nowadays, a lot of people don’t care or can’t tell bad writing from good. “Who cares if the writing is full of anachronisms as long as I tell a good story?”

    Is there really some overwhelming reason we can’t have both good writing/accuracy and a good story?

    What I really wanted to mention, however, is the predominate “anachronism” I’ve seen in practically every pseudo-medieval I’ve read, and that is mindset. An author might include arbalests and chainmail and castles and battle tactics of the Middle Ages and have researched them well and fully – but without understanding and portraying how differently people thought and felt, without a thorough grounding in the fundamentally dissimilar paradigms of the time, all they’ve done is transplant a twentieth-century middle-class citizen to a landscape lacking in automatic dishwashers. As John Crowley put it, you just end up with “another pseudo-medieval non-society peopled by folks like themselves (and a few dragons and vampires, also much like themselves).”

    Heck, few people can imagine how grossly unfamiliar the perspective was of people prior to World War 1 is to modern sensibilities, much less get into the head of someone who lived five or more centuries ago without any concept of germ theory, sanitation, a remotely fair legal system, or class mobility. That is, they can’t imagine it without a lot of work – and I’ve yet to see this work done.

    The same is true writing about the future in science-fiction. Technological advances don’t simply change the way people perform tasks–they change the way people think. To take an oft-cited instance, Ford’s mass-production techniques for automobiles led to an overthrow of society’s sexual mores. What recent fiction writer has exercised a similar paradigmic revolution?

  • Hi, I like your take on this. When someone drops a lot of fact into their story, I find myself skipping pages to try to get back to the story – I remember skipping 41 pages of a Tom Clancy because I really didn’t need to know how the bomb became less destructive because of the mistakes made by the terrorists.

    When something is clearly wrong – and not part of the style of the book – I do tend to read more, but will actually stop reading if things are too wrong.

    So, we all walk the balance between making it believable and making it readable. You put it nicely, it’s fiction not a text book.


  • @Wolf: I agree with your points, but…

    David’s right: Shakespeare’s audience didn’t care about the fact that Caesar was speaking latin and using a sundial (or whatever–I don’t remember how the Romans actually told time).

    Similarly, technology will almost certainly change the way we think, but getting people to care about that is hard, and given US politics at the moment, I think a lot of people are afraid of a future that’s too different than what they know.

    That shouldn’t stop people from writing about the future, even about an alien future. However, it requires a relatively higher level of skill to get people to buy into an alien future, just as it does with an alien past (say the European neolithic).

    The point David and I agree on is that details matter. With specific regards to European history, we’ve got quite a few re-enactors out there, and increasing numbers of practitioners of the various old technologies. Getting sloppy with the details is problematic.

  • Faith, many thanks for the comment and the kind words. It is just hard to overcome those glaring historical errors. A few times while writing the Forelands books I had to stop myself from using the phrase “he followed suit,” for the same reason. I didn’t want copies of my books flying across people’s living rooms. I know that many people adore Clancy’s work — my wife included — and get lots out of the techie sections. But I think Nancy would agree with you. Character and story are what stick in her memory years after reading RED OCTOBER and others. Much of the other stuff has faded. Enjoy the river!

    Wolf, thanks for commenting. I have to say that I think you’ve totally misread my post, that you’ve focused on one point to the exclusion of all else. I didn’t recommend that people ignore accuracy, or attempt to rationalize anything. And to be quite honest, no one who knows me or my work would ever accuse me of being a lazy writer. The entire post is about how important it is to be accurate, to ground one’s writing in historical information that adds to the ambiance, to characterization, to plot. Nowhere do I say that we can’t have both story and accuracy; indeed, I make clear that one often depends on the other. And I agree with you — historical accuracy makes it imperative that authors go beyond props and surrounding detail to take on the mindset of those who lived in the world they seek to recreate. I merely go on to say that at some point we can go overboard, taking the quest for precision to a point where story suffers. And at that point I believe that writers, from Shakespeare on down, have correctly chosen to err on the side of entertainment and clarity of narrative.

    Het, thanks for the clarification and the comment.

    And Perry thanks for your remarks as well. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  • Thank you for the suggestions David. I’ll take a look at Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. and ENGLISH THROUGH THE AGES.

  • David, nowhere in your post was there any hint of laziness or smugitide. Being a writer means we all start where we are (even that writer who used *par for the course* in a book set in 1100.) We seek to tell a story. We ain’t writing history. That balance between fact and story is delicate, and your post was clear and concise, as always.

  • No problem, Alistair. Glad to help.

    Thanks, Faith. Finding that balance is the challenge. One can go too far in either direction.

  • Hey David!

    I don’t have too much to add to the comments, but it was a great post. Thanks 😀

  • Thank you, Hinny. Glad you liked it.

  • Emily

    David> I’ve read Neverwhere (one of my favorites, and the production of it is on my netflix queue!–and yeah, I know the teleplay came first…) but I’d never thought of it in terms of my world building–now I will, and that’s useful.

    Wolf Lahti> I have to say, and this may be to the side of what you’re saying, about dropping 21st century mindsets into a 14th century (for example) setting: that doesn’t bother me in a lot of ways because all texts are, to a large extent, about their own time, that is, the time in which they were written.

    First, as you suggest, a “medieval mindset” would be impossible for a 21st person to comprehend in many ways. We simply don’t think like they do. Authors, to an extent, CAN’T write that mindset. Even ones who’ve studied it extensively haven’t got an empathetic relationship to it. (This is true for other time-period settings too). This doesn’t mean that, especially for historical ficiton, accuracy shouldn’t be important, just that there is a certainly level of impossibility in writing that mindset.

    Second, and this is what I think is more important, is what I said above: every writer writes about their own time. We are products of our own time, no? I was born in the late 70’s in Bakersfield California, and raised there in a middle/upper middle class, white, protestant (if anything) family. Good, bad, indifferent, that’s the origin of me. I went to a small college in Los Angeles(ish). I went to a huge graduate school in Ohio. I teach at a small college in a military town in the South. All of those effect who I am and how I see the world and what I write. I’m not suggesting that everything I am is a product of the environment, but a good part of it (maybe more than I admit) is.

    How that relates to writing: anything I write comes out of those experiences. My concerns about values, right and wronge, happy and sad, what’s fashionable, what’s funny, are influenced by this, and so even when I write in another time, I write those values into the text.

    I believe that ALL writers, even those who struggle against it, will write their own times into their texts.

    So, while, for examle, “‘DUDE!’ said Lancelot as he lowered his AK-47 at Gawain, ‘You are such a frenemy,'” might make us cringe and be poor writing, a medieval ficitonal hero with concern for modern ideas of justice might be a reflection of the author’s concerns. (And this doesn’t mean that the author would be being preachy, either, necessarily.)

    I can read Tolkien and get a lot about what it was like to live through a landscape devestating war, even as it’s fantasy.

    After all, English medieval fantasies (that is, fantasies that were written between, say, 1000 and 1500 in England) often used the fantastic world as a means of discussing things like social justice, law, etc. Their own values put into the crucible of fiction for testing.

    Sorry this post is so long, but I’ve thought a lot about what it means to read stuff, and what author’s choices mean, and so when we talk about “innacurate” it always puzzles me a little. Anything that’s written about something outside an author’s immediate experience will be at least a bit inaccurate.

    But inaccurate doesn’t mean it isn’t true (or True).

  • Well put, Emily. You’ve put your finger on the nub of New Historicism: recognizing the absolute difference of the past makes it theoretically unreadable and absolutely unwritable. It’s like the problem of staging Shakespeare. Even if we could produce it exactly as it was originally done (we can’t), we wouldn’t understand it as the original audience did because we aren’t that audience.

  • One of those nebulous topics, for sure, but you’ve taken a really great approach to it, David. I waffle a bit with this in my own world-building, striking a balance between the historic periods a setting may evoke and elements that might not be ‘accurate’ to that referenced period, but are necessary or help to create the unique atmosphere that makes the setting feel like my own rather than a period of history dressed up in new clothes. Since independent worlds don’t have the exact same histories (fall of an empire, dark age, renaissance), things won’t always match up, and I find I can often find an example of something (such as folding knives) in another period, often older, even if it’s not something I can find evidence for in the period I’m roughly working with. If it’s significant or potentially jarring, I look at how and why development might have led to an advance in that area (such as timekeeping in a culture that reveres sun and moon passages). If it’s minor, but feels like it fits the atmosphere, then I feel your approach is best – make the decision for art’s sake rather than accuracy’s.

  • That’s a great comment, Emily. A.J. and I have been batting around the New Historicism thing for a while now, sometimes in the guise of my mention of “the human condition” or some such. The issue, I believe, is a complex one, and you handle it beautifully here, even if I’m not sure I agree with everything you say. (A.J. DOES agree with you, and that sets off alarm bells for me… 🙂 ) The point you raise at the end is particularly strong — all fiction (and I would add, all history) is at least somewhat subjective and informed by personal experience, received culture, etc. And so complete historical accuracy or sensitivity might be unattainable. Interesting stuff. Thanks for a terrific comment.

    A.J., see above. 😉 Looking forward to continuing this conversation at ConCarolinas.

    Hayley, many thanks for the comment. I definitely feel more comfortable taking a few liberties in my alternate world fantasies than I did with the historical I just finished writing. As you say, a world with a history different from our own is going to come to some things earlier than our world did, and other things later. We’re not talking laser beams in an otherwise medieval setting. But bending those boundaries a bit is all right, as long as you can explain the discrepancy in your worldbuilding either implicitly or explicitly. When writing in a specific time and place in our world, I think that those details have to be right. That was one of the greatest challenges of the thieftaker book. A small example: artistically, I wanted to have whale oil street lamps. But my book was set in 1765, and Boston didn’t get its first street lamps until 1774 (thanks to Paul Revere, by the way). So, no street lamps. I had to work out something else.

  • Emily

    David> When AJ agreed with me on this topic it set off alarm bells 😀 I’ve seen, and participated in, those conversations about “the human condition” before. I think I’m probably midway between the two of you. I believe we can connect to stuff and people in the past, but that the things they produce are a product of that past and not for us, and in some ways, inaccessible to us. To what degree they are or aren’t accessible is up for debate, I think. (Can I participate in the convo at ConCarolinas? I’ll be there again this year…)

  • Of course you can participate! The more the merrier. We’ll be in the bar….

  • Emily said, I believe that ALL writers, even those who struggle against it, will write their own times into their texts…But inaccurate doesn’t mean it isn’t true (or True).

    Well, shucks. I was going to come home and make the same point, but Emily, you beat me to it. And did a lovely job, so I’m just pointing at your comment and saying “That!”


  • A fellow blogger sent me this link and I am very appreciative because I found your posts and the replys so interesting and helpful. I write historical fiction. My almost finished w.i.p. is about the fall of Alexander the Great’s Empire. I have posted snippets on my blog and one reader (a ‘scholar’ on the subject took major offense that I had someone dying at a slightly different time than he was allegedly supposed to have. This is a minor character but his death is crucial to the last part of my novel. A classical scholar friend assured me that as calenders where not the same back in that time, there was no actual ‘date’ recorded. And in fact the history was written several hundred years later by Diodorus. So I have kept to my plot-line and was relieved when I also read that ‘historical-fiction writers can take any amount of freedom as they like. It is, after all ‘fiction'”. I don’t believe in changing things that are positively recorded in history, and you can’t have them eating hamburgers if they didn’t exist in that world. But a bit of poetic license for the sake of a good story isn’t going to create a huge controversy. Once I realized that, I didn’t feel so inhibited in what I was writing. (I might add, I have lived in Greece and done my research on site as well as with the help of classical scholars so I feel quite confident that I have the details pretty accurate. At least I hope I have created Alexander’s world so that my readers will really feel they have ‘been there’.

  • Wolf Lahti

    To clarify, my comment was more about the general state of affairs rather than David’s ably-written post. I mainly wanted to emphasize that, with a little extra work, we can both tell a good story and get the facts right. But we have to care in order to make that difference.

    I yoinked heteromeles’s phrase “story trumps accuracy” because I feel that both are essential, neither more important than the other. I guess it pushed a button for me.

  • Emily, I’d suggest that we narrow this a little bit more: most of the people reading this are interested in selling their projects, and that’s also going to color how we write. We’re not just writing in our times, we’re writing to sell in our times. That limits us even more. I may be a true master of Old English, but that doesn’t mean that Doubleday is going to buy my latest work in that language. Similarly, I may be able to accurately channel Sir John The 14th Century English Knight, but I’ll bet that my story won’t be well received, even if it’s absolutely authentic.

    However, I’m not fond of saying, “just because it’s inaccurate, doesn’t mean it’s true (or True).” That caused me to grab my smallest hardcover, Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit.” It’s a wonderful book that’s only 67 pages long, and if you haven’t read it, you should.

    Frankfurt’s basic contention is that there’s a distinction between lying and bullshitting. A liar is interested in the truth, primarily because he needs to avoid it. A bullshitter is concerned neither in truth nor in lies, but “in getting away with what he says. He just picks [facts] out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” (p.56). Another quote: “[The bullshitter]does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies are.” (p. 61).

    This is what we’re discussing, isn’t it? Whether it’s better to be a liar or a bullshitter. While bullshit is inevitable when one writes about something one don’t know about, personally, I’d rather produce more lies than bullshit.

    One other quote from the book. While I’m not a fan of Wittgenstein, Frankfurt gives this verse by Longfellow as Wittgenstein’s favorite (p.20), and I think it speaks for us too:

    “In the elder days of art
    Builders wrought with greatest care
    Each minute and unseen part,
    For the Gods are everywhere.”

  • David,

    Now this is off-topic, but it helps to keep in mind that strictly speaking your thief taker books are alternate history. The mere presence of working magic makes them alternate history. Depending on how magic works you could have telephones in the late 18th century

    Washington took the call in his private office, His Majesty didn’t even bother to hide his glee.

    “Mr. President,” he chortled, “I understand you’ve got a tax revolt on your hands.”

    “Pleases you no end,” George replied, “To think the leader of a tax revolt is having trouble with a tax revolt.”

    Looking smug with himself — the new castings must be working well on his troubled mind — the British monarch nodded agreement, adding, “Full amnesty and your own parliament, all you need to do is make a pro forma surrender to crown authority and it’ll be like old times.”

    “You had lost your chance when you refused to evacuate the Ohio Valley.”

    As he said good-bye and hung up the President wondered if maybe things would be better without the wonders of magical technology.

  • Ruth, thanks for the comment and for sharing your experience with us. Your book sounds very interesting. I do think that as you move back in time toward antiquity dates become more and more fluid and fudging a little bit for the story seems reasonable. I think the key section of the quote about historical fiction writers is “as they like.” Most writers — yourself included, from the sounds of it — WANT to be accurate, and so will strive for that. Welcome to MW. Nice to see you here.

    Thanks for the clarification, Wolf. I absolutely agree that good narrative and accurate history are in no way mutually exclusive.

    Het, I’m not even going to touch that one. Emily, feel free to fire away! 😉

    Alan, you totally crack me up. I love your imagination! I suppose I could have telephones if I have magic, although my relationship with AT&T is anything but magical….

  • Tom G

    David, I really hate to call you out on this, but your otherwise splendid treatise is seriously devoid of the necessary footnotes. Please revise and resubmit.

  • Beatriz

    David– brilliant post!

    Stuart– glad to see I’m not the only one around here who got bored with Clancy’s endless description. I broke a lamp when I hurled The Hunt for Red October across the room (started reading it because I fell in love with the movie).

    A.J. says: “we wouldn’t understand it as the original audience did because we aren’t that audience” Bravo, A.J. As a reader, I bring my own life experiences to the story. No two readers (or audience members) will ever have exactly the same reaction to and understanding of a piece of writing because they each bring their personal baggage with them. If that’s true of contemporary work, then its even more true for things written in the past.

    David mentions, We’ll be in the bar…” to which I’ll add, “the minion is buying the first round.”

  • Tom, thanks for the laugh!

    B, glad you liked the post. And thanks for the offer of drinks in the bar!

  • Hugs to the minion. No. Wait…
    It’s The MINION! (drumroll…)

  • So in other words, we should ask not, “Is it historically accurate”, but “Does it matter”?

  • Beatriz: I can’t find the original post, but YA fantasy author Shannon Hale once blogged about how the experience a reader derives from a book is 50% the writer’s responsibility, and 50% the reader’s responsibility. Readers come to the table with their own prejudices, preferences, and preconceived notions, and we can’t do anything about it. A disgruntled reader shouldn’t just consider how the book failed them; they should consider how they failed the book.

    Of course, most readers won’t do that. But it does mean that there is a certain amount of reaction to anything we put out there that we have absolutely no control over.

  • Moira, yes, in essence. “Does it matter?” is the way to go. Of course I’m a little ticked that I took 1100 words to get my point across and you did it in 3…. If you’re interested, I did a series of posts here at MW about a year ago called “The Writer and the Reader,” and they were all about this notion of shared responsibility. It’s a fascinating subject I think. I’ll have to check out Shannon’s blog. Thanks for the cite.

  • I thought I had solved the problem of historical inaccuracies and the like by simply creating my own universe to tell my stories. Of course, since I have to create a whole time line full of invented history I still end up finding myself needing to keep it as historically accurate as possible.

    Even if everything is made up, there will surely be readers who will notice if I mess up my own invented historical timeline. 🙂

  • >>Even if everything is made up, there will surely be readers who will notice if I mess up my own invented historical timeline.<<

    Oh yes, count on it! For better or worse, the assumption among readers, reviewers and editors seems to be that technology in alternate worlds will develop along the same lines it followed on earth. It's weird, really. But yes, you will still be expected to be "historically" accurate, even if your history is made up. Best of luck, CE!

  • Great post. I see a lot of arguing over whether a writer screwed up or not. It’s nice to see the situation presented in a more positive light.

  • Minions can buy rounds. Sweet. I’m up for that. Where’s the bar? lol

  • Special Minion; special bar. We could tell you who and where, but then we’d have to… Well, you know the rest.

  • We could tell you who and where, but then we’d have to…

    Order the most expensive drink in the place? *grin*

  • David:

    1) Sorry I forgot to reply to this. I’d love the link to those posts.

    2) Some people have made an art of amassing minions (yes, I’m one of them). It’s fun AND profitable!

  • Er, I’m one of the minions, that is.

  • All MW words needs is their own Cafe Press minions shirt to go on this page.

  • Moira, if you access the archives by month (in the right-hand column just below the “Character Keeper” link) and go back to June 2009, you’ll find all three of the posts. I believe they were my first three posts of the month.

    Dave, yes I’ve been thinking that MW needs t-shirts, as well as more minions….