“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 http://DavidBCoe.livejournal.com http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://magicalwords.net