Accuracy in Historical Fiction

I began my publishing career in the Regency romance sub-genre. Now, a lot of folks don’t know what the regency period is, and for those who don’t, strictly speaking it is the English historical period between 1811 and 1820, during which the man who would become George IV of England held the regency, or in other words, had nominal control while his father, George III, was off his nut. That is a very brief historical period, considering most named periods (Georgian, colonial, etc.) span at least more than one decade.

But that’s beside the point; my point is, I blush to admit that I didn’t even REALLY know that much when I began writing Regencies. I was writing a genre of novel, not a historical piece. I got my first big wake-up call when the fabulous, generous and intelligent reviewers (Am I kissing up a bit? No, no, not at all!) at All About Romance mentioned that the title of my first novel with Zebra (Lord St. Claire’s Angel) was a mistake, since the hero was not entitled to be called Lord St. Claire.

Of course, the problem was, I had already submitted and had approved my SECOND novel with Zebra (Lady Delafont’s Dilemma), and it had the same errors strewn through it. Ever since then, I have had an absolute horror of making historical mistakes and I’m rather obsessive about fact checking. Even so, I STILL make errors. My first book with Berkley (Awaiting the Moon) had some words and phrases in German, and I did my absolute best to check and doublecheck meanings, but apparently I still erred. Sigh. Such is the life of any writer, and I won’t just confine it to historical writers this time.

Because no matter what genre you write in (I also write contemporary murder mysteries, and I know far more about how to kill than any person really needs to know – 😉 ) there are mistakes just waiting for you, lurking around every corner like some kind of wild-eyed maniacal villain, hoping to catch you with your guard down.

And pretty soon, in your obsessive search for accuracy, you begin to second-guess every little bit of information you thought you knew. And too often find out you really know next to nothing.

Case in point: most literary people know what a Redouté rose is, right? Redouté was a painter who did some of the definitive studies of flowers and plant life, most especially roses. So I am writing a piece set in Georgian England, 1786. I made a passing reference (just a passing reference!) to silk wall coverings with a pattern of Redouté roses… but wait… what years did Redouté work? Had he completed his rose studies by 1786? Fact check. Darn. Pierre-Joseph Redouté had indeed begun his career a few years before that date, but his definitive work was not done until later.

And it goes on. What word would a woman in 1786 use in her own mind to describe throwing up? (Don’t ask why I need to know this.) Vomit is an old word, but would she use it? Would she use the colloquial ‘cascade’, or not? She is traveling to the West Riding of Yorkshire… but wait! What year were the divisions of Yorkshire first made… long before 1786, right? But am I SURE of that? Well… no. Fact checking time again.

What I’m afraid of is, if this gets any more obsessive, I will be stopping every few seconds to check my facts, and will spend hours researching for every few minutes of actual writing. It is a humbling experience, writing a book. The more I learn, I realize how little I know. I suppose it’s a good thing I adore researching. And on the positive side, because of the internet, research is MUCH faster than it used to be, when one had to go to the library and take out a cart full of books, and then still not find what you needed.

But you have to be careful. I was researching gypsies for my book coming out in September (gratuitous plug – Awaiting the Fire – September 4th) and thought I’d found a fabulous site that had all kinds of interesting gypsy lore, only to discover after a while – it really wasn’t evident up front – that I had stumbled across a website dedicated to a role playing game that featured gypsies, and that all of the lore pertained ONLY to that game. It was made up. Pretty convincing stuff, mind you, but like learning about archeology from an Indiana Jones movie.

So, to quote Ellen Degeneres, my point – and I do have one – is twofold. Go a little easy on historical writers… most of them are doing the best they can, but the problem is, sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. With my first Regency novels it never occurred to me that people’s last names and titles were not the same in the English peerage. Now I know better. Boy, do I know better! And second, as a writer, do think about what words you’re using, and even the fine points of period – dress and hair changed not just with broad ‘ages’, but from year to year. There are such great research sites out there, so, do your homework!

‘Nuff said for now.

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