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


Debra E. Marvin said...

Hmmm. A part of me dreads the faction that I might create someday - inadvertently. Having one reference is just not enough! I plan to just come out and say, hey I did the best that I could! I depend on fiction to teach me more than I know about certain eras and setting but I don't take it as 100% fact. Even the written testimony of by-standers proves everyone sees events and individuals differently.

Of course I trust you, Diane! 100%!

Servetus said...

I couldn't agree more -- for any reader who knows something about the period, stupid or silly anachronisms can spoil a whole story.

However, there are fictions about the past that all or many of us subscribe to that are not true -- but if a novel author doesn't include them, she gets taken to task. As a professional historian, this annoys me as well.

Linda Fetterly Root said...

Within the past two weeks I got an 11pm call from one of the select few people who would dare, asking me why in the First Marie and the Queen of Scots Henry Tudor only had one sister and I gave him two, and "what happened to the old fart from Portugal that Margaret killed?" And I recognize that screenwriters are force to use more license that the rest of us, but too much is too much. In The Last Knight (the Adventures of Kirkcaldy of Grange, I cover most of my fabrications in Author's Notes, explaining, for example, that there is no evidence that the Knight of Grange had an affair with Marguerite, Duchess of Berry, the French princess royale, but I felt each the appropriate life experience and personality to make it feasible. Still I had a review published that felt I was too enslaved by historical fact. For a novelist,it is a tricky balance. I do feel that we have an obligation to stay true to the historical characters and not misrepresent them. For that reason, I quarrel, for example, with the title and cover of a recent YA offering about the Queen of Scots from a widely acclaimed writer. The Queen of Scots was many things, but wild was not one of them, and as to her nights, most of them were filled with anguish. It does please me that Lord Ian Maitland, Earl of Lauderdale thought my portrayal of his famous relative Maitland of Lethington was generally accurate, although he thought I was a little tough on David Rizzio. There are so many grand adventures in history that we should have no difficulty staying true to the facts. I especially like the observation in your offering that, given the availability of data on the web, we have no excuse putting hotplates in the cabins of 18thcentury sailing ships. One of my most critical pre-publication readers sent me a note questioning whether they had midges as far south as Edinburgh.I was happy to report that while they were rarely found that far south in Mary Stuart's Scotland, there were some varieties that swarmed as far south as the stockyards and slaughterhouses on the northern edge of the capitol. Otherwise I would have had to ditch the first line of The First Marie, "As the sun lowered, midges swarmed in the still air of the Flesh Market, feeding on the blood of animals and men." But I appreciated the challenge and grateful to have the resources at hand to resolve it. One issue I have with historical novelists seeking endorsement from a protagonist's descendants is the tailor the character to suit the folks who are paying for the book launch.

Barbara Gaskell Denvil said...

I do so strongly agree with all of this. Sadly all of us can make a mistake sometimes - and regret it later. But at least let us try. As an author of medieval fiction I am fanatical about historical accuracy and it drives me nuts when very popular writers of fiction (especially regarding my favourite era - the late 15th century) purposefully play with facts, and are then taken as gospel truth by the public. As it happens I also adore researching my era of choice - so I suppose that helps a lot.

Deborah Swift said...

Lovely post. The judges of whether we have acheieved historical accuracy are often our readers - very occasionally these people are not as well-informed as they think they are when criticising our work.So even with the best research all of us historical fiction writers have to learn to accept criticism about the accuracy of our novels, and appreciate it as an expression of interest in our books.

Francine Howarth said...


Good points all round and interesting article. Must take up issue re English women mid 18th century didn't wear drawers. In actual fact, some did, and as far back as Elizabethan England. In Tudor times they were called Pantaloons after Pantalioni a court jester, and later in the Elizabethan period became known as breeches. Good Queen Bess wore mens' breeches when out hawking in cold weather. During the English Civil Wars (Charles I)women wore silk breeches resembling those worn by their menfolk as outer garments. The same fashion carried on into the Restoration period, through the Georgian/Regency era, American Civil War and Victorian era. Not all women were bare beneath their gowns, the poor yes, and those whose husbands banned their wives from daring to be less than ready for an opportunistic hump.

How do I know this? From diaries read, and from bills of sale as seen in a royal display at one of the royal castles. One seamstress' bill happened to be as old as the Elizabethan era in which it stated 2 prs girls fine lawn breeches alongside 2 prs boys wool breeches. Whether the latter were undergarments is open to question, but how did "long johns" come about? After all, men wore them below breeches in cold weather.


Anonymous said...

Spelling accuracy in posts too. I before E in the word achieved.