In a recent discussion on Goodreads, we lauded the few authors who go out of their way to make certain their historical details are accurate, but slammed the ones who didn’t bother. In today’s mass-media world, research is too easy and you shouldn’t slip up on whether your female character in the mid eighteenth century wore drawers or nothing at all. It turns out, that depends on the country she lived in. French women wore drawers, but in England, apparently, the women did not wear any underpants.
Others in the discussion lamented over all the knowledgeable virgins in novels set in medieval times. Girls from good families would have been cloistered from the seamier side of life and would have gone to the marriage bed with very little information. They would not behave like randy vixens as soon as they hopped in between the sheets.
I once reviewed a novel set on an eighteenth century sailing ship where everyone was cooking in their cabins as if they had hot plates. On wooden ships, fire was a huge threat. Cooking was done in the galley, not in separate cabins. This was an easily researched fact.
One person in my discussion was annoyed over a novel set near The Second Boer War (1899-1902) in which someone used a latex condom. Latex wasn’t invented until 1920. She said, “Please. It's a simple peek into Wikipedia for something that simple.”
My current pet peeve is a popular author whose recent novel is about Marie Louise of Austria, and then France. The author shows her as a strong, independent woman, mistreated by, and never in love with, her husband Napoleon. She’s portrayed as having had a lover before she even meets her future husband. All this is untrue, but the author bragged about her extensive research of the period. If you’re playing with the facts, put this in an Author’s Note. People I spoke with had taken this “faction” as fact after reading the book. I’ve spent years at the Library of Congress researching this era, reading memoires from servants, valets, and members of Napoleon’s staff. The author’s depiction is far from the truth. Sadly, many will believe otherwise.
I reiterate, it’s so much easier today to do research; these gaffes shouldn’t be tolerated—or admit to your readers that you’re writing fantasy or alternate fiction or have changed the facts to suit your purpose.
I’ve played with writing “Alternate” fiction, which does change history. I based it on “what could have happened” not a complete fantasy.
My novel Elysium depicts what might have happened if Napoleon had the means to escape his final exile. Set on the remote island of St. Helena, the story follows a servant girl who joins Napoleon in a dangerous plan to flee the island.
To see my meticulous research into the eighteenth century, read The False Light: when a ruined countess flees to England from France during the French Revolution, she discovers betrayal, cruel family secrets and a passion that may destroy her.
And the sequel, Without Refuge, completes the story in sultry New Orleans and a France still torn apart by war. Will my heroine find the man she loved and lost without sacrificing her life?
Diane Scott Lewis
Diane Parkinson (Diane Scott Lewis) writes book reviews for the Historical Novels Review and worked at The Wild Rose Press from 2007 to 2010 as a historical editor. She has three published historical novels: Elysium and The False Light. Her sequel to The False Light, Without Refuge, was released in March 2012.
Visit Diane's website to read excerpts and find out more about her historical novels: http://www.dianescottlewis.org
Check out her books at Amazon.com