Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Why Historical Fiction Authors Should Not Read Historical Fiction

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.

His Good Opinion can be purchased in e-book format from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, Amazon UK, Amazon DE, and Amazon FR. The paperback is available from Amazon.


  1. Great post. I too get tired of that mindset regarding authors must read their genres. Yes, I love historical fiction - both reading and writing. However, I'm not a fantasy lover, but wrote in the genre at my daughter's request. I found my historical fiction background was more helpful than reading multitudes of so-called fantasy books that had no world structure.

  2. Great post. I have long avoided reading fictional books in the same time period in which I'm writing for the very reasons you have mentioned. I want my work to be factually based with my own unique story lines.

  3. Nancy, your comments regarding weddings by proxy brought to mind a real wedding where, indeed, both were present, although the bride was roused from her bed in the middle of the night to attend. The only other participant was the vicar and two witnesses, workers on his lordship, Lord Berkeley's estate. Later the bridegroom insisted they had never married. This occurred after his wife had given birth to five children.
    His wife, Mary Anne, daughter of a local butcher and a famed beauty, won her battle and went on to give birth to a further four children. She was also responsible for sponsoring Dr Jenner on his smallpox research. Her husband was a close friend of the Prince Regent. Just thought you Regency fans would be interested. Jeannie Johnson

  4. Well said! I find if I read historical fiction, I'm safest if it is not a time period with which I'm terribly familiar -- and definitely not the time period or subject of my novel. That way, I can't get caught up in how true or untrue a novel is.

    The last novel I read on Mary, Queen of Scots (subject similar to mine) was so full of historical liberties I had to return it. Safer to read about 15th or 17th century if I want a great historical read.

    When I really want to know "the facts" (or which facts are in dispute) I go to the history books.

  5. There are so many historical fallacies out there! Which is why I'm so glad there's this blogspot to correct some of them! We've had great blogs on all sorts of things that regularly appear in novels and are just wrong.

    I visited Gretna Green a few years ago (where they still perform marriages) and 'struth, is the fictional information about that place wrong...it's actually quite funny.

  6. Although I do read and enjoy historical fiction books, there is no substitute for research! You have raised some valid points here. Thank you for a very interesting article.

  7. Nothing replaces accurate research! Great post.

  8. I agree with all the above. I love my fiction, but I also love accuracy when it comes to practices of a specific time period. I appreciate the distinction between Historical Fiction and Historical Romance.

    Good post! Thanks! Look forward to reading about the DIMH. (-;

  9. We're not all female, BTW.

  10. Several of you have hit on one of my personal solutions. I still read historical fiction, but I try to read periods other than Regency works. Of course, the reason I write Regency romance is because it's a genre I love, so I haven't managed to avoid it entirely.

    M.M. Bennetts--While researching this post, I discovered there's still a healthy wedding industry in Gretna Green. The website made me laugh.

    calvarytales--No, we're not all female, but "their" is grammatically inaccurate in that sentence.

  11. Enjoyed the post, thank you Nancy. New to reading this blog, but I can already tell I'll be keeping it up with it regularly.


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