Does period accuracy matter when you’re writing historical fiction?

Costa award-winning author Andrew Miller said on the Today programme that he chooses a historical period and a setting for his novels then pretty much does what he likes with them. If you write gasp-out-loud prose like his, with extraordinary ideas and unforgettable characters, that’s absolutely fine with me.

Julian Fellowes was recently criticised for using colloquialisms in Downton Abbey that weren’t in use during the 1910s in which series 1 and 2 were set (http://slate.me/wA8R9e). Did it spoil our enjoyment of the shows? Not one iota. In fact, using the jargon of the era can make dialogue confusing for modern readers and slow the pace of the narrative.
If you’re telling a story, you don’t want to weigh it down with phrases that require clunky explanations, such as ‘goldbrick’ (1850s), ‘barnburner’ (1840s) and ‘horsefeathers’ (1920s).

We long ago accepted that characters in Hollywood’s historical epics dress and talk more like movie stars than ancient Greeks or Etruscans. If your story and characters work, you have an entertaining product, whether it’s a novel, a TV series or a film. So why do I knock myself out trying to ensure my historical novels are accurate?

Partly it’s because I like reading books that I can learn from and I’m hoping my readers feel the same way. I love immersing myself in an historical situation and trying to imagine what it must have felt like to be there, breathing the air. Before I had Reg, one of the main characters in Women and Children First, buy a hot dog from a hot-dog seller in Times Square, I made sure that hot dogs were sold there in 1912 (they were, but it was too early for burgers in America). I read the works of contemporary authors, especially Edith Wharton, to get a feel for the way they spoke in
New York society at the time. I consulted old editions of Vogue for the clothes upper-class ladies would have worn.

And although I invented some characters on board the Titanic, I made every single description of the ship and its sinking factual… at least I hope I did.

But feel free to let me know if you come across any bloopers!

1 thought on “Does period accuracy matter when you’re writing historical fiction?

  1. Heck, I write vampires (they’re secondary to the plot but I needed immortals and they did need to be scary) and I try to get things right as far as the periods they’re from. When you’re mixing moderns and ancients it’s sometimes even helpful. One is Roman. His first-century values on subjects like human sexuality are…disturbing to the twenty-first century protagonists. But they’re accurate for someone with his upbringing. I am kicking around a backstory piece involving my immortal characters and the Titanic (and have been hopelessly sidetracked by the badly-undertold stories of the senior officers) and it’s not working because I’m having far too much trouble not showing my work. (Do readers CARE about the age-old argument over whether Carpathia’s mechanically capable of 17 knots? No…but it’s INTERESTING…) Heck, if you saw the “Patrick” episode of Downton, I was laughing at Julian Fellowes showing his work from his upcoming Titanic miniseries (does the audience care about Lowe’s name and rank? NO. Is it INTERESTING….?)

    Now I’m going to read your book on the honeymoon couples! Please. Make the Bishops intereseting to me. I’m so tired of these people and I have to talk about them for five minutes in my locals of the Titanic lecture (and I’m not allowed to just rant about them tearing down Dickinson’s house for the new hospital. Killjoy boss.)

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