by Nancy Kelley
I can see you all scratching your heads, wondering one of two things: What is she on about, and how does this relate to actual history? (After all, I was asked to blog about an historical topic, not about writing.) If I can beg a little leeway on the second question, I’ll start by answering the first.
Authors in every genre are told over and over to read books like theirs, so we know what the cliches are and so we can find new ways to push the envelope. This is trickier in historical fiction, because oftentimes cliches are actually historical fallacies, told to us in so many ways and in so many books that we fail to question their accuracy.
Of course, any historical fiction author worth her salt will do actual research, rather than just reading a stack of novels and taking their collective word for it. We are all human however, and once we have seen a plot device used in a dozen or more books, it’s hard to believe it’s a topic that needs to be researched.
I put out a call on Twitter last week, asking for examples of historical inaccuracies found repeatedly in fiction. Almost immediately, two friends started a conversation on Richard III--who was not actually the monster portrayed by Shakespeare. I love Shakespeare, but regrettably he should not be considered as a replacement for actual historical research.
Shakespeare’s historical plays were shaped by the Tudor myth--the idea that the Lancastrian and Yorkist kings of the previous century held a lesser claim to the throne than the current Tudor royal family. Henry’s speech of self-doubt in Henry V is one example of this; Richard III is another. Richard was the last of the Yorkist kings, the monarch that Henry Tudor defeated in order to take the throne as Henry VII. Shakespeare’s play is revisionist history at its best, a classic case of the victor controlling the press.
And then there’s the factual tidbit that actually started me down this path: marriage by proxy in Regency romances. You’re probably familiar with the scenario. The bride is too young, or the groom is too reluctant, so the marriage takes place by proxy. Years later they meet, unaware they are in fact husband and wife, and despite their stormy fights, they fall head over heels in love.
Unfortunately, it just didn’t happen that way. Marriage by proxy wasn’t an option in England for two English subjects. Both parties had to actually be present for the marriage to be valid.
Of course, you should read historical fiction. Just be aware of the facts you’re absorbing, and make sure you double check them before you write your own novel.
Nancy Kelley is a Janeite, an Austenesque author, and a blogger. During the writing of His Good Opinion, a version of Mr. Darcy took up residence in her brain; she fondly refers to him as the Darcy in My Head, or DIMH.
If Nancy could possess any fictional device, it would be a Time-Turner. Then perhaps she could juggle a full-time library job, writing, and blogging; and still find time for sleep and a life. Until then, she lives on high doses of tea, of which DIMH approves.
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