This is not a book on how to write historical fiction. There are many good books out there, including Persia Woolley’s How to Write and Sell Historical Fiction and Kathy Lynn Emerson’s How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries, that do an excellent job of that.
It is a book on how not to write historical fiction.
About fifteen years ago, when I was a member of a certain online
discussion list for writers (published and unpublished) of historical
fiction, a hopeful unpublished member posted some chapters of her work
in progress, a romance set in 11th-century England, and asked for
comments. I imagine she was naïvely eager to hear from other members
about how good it was, and how they could hardly wait for her to finish
it so that it would be published and become an immediate bestseller.
Unfortunately, this poor soul proved to be a painfully, hopelessly bad writer, the literary equivalent to American Idol’s
screeching, tone-deaf contestants who have no idea how ear-shatteringly
awful they are. But even if she had been blessed with the most
beautiful and perfect of writing styles, her complete lack of any
realistic conception of life in the past, people’s attitudes in past
centuries, or indeed solid historical knowledge whatsoever would have
doomed her; the extent of her historical study had probably been one book about the Norman Conquest and the
not-very-attentive reading of some third-rate bodice-ripper romances.
The first page of this writer’s sample chapters included (this is supposed to be England in 1066, remember):
• A character lighting up a cigar [tobacco originated in the Americas,
which, if it’s slipped your mind, weren’t "officially" discovered until 1492; and
smoking cigars—rather than pipes—didn’t really become popular until the
• Two characters chatting, while sitting on a leather sofa, in a
roadside inn’s cozy lounge [11th-century English roadside inns were not
remotely cozy and had neither lounges nor leather-covered furniture; and
no one in Western Europe had had anything like a sofa since the days of
the Roman Empire]
• One character casually mentioning that, since the coronation of King
William [autumn 1066], he had just been on a vacation to the Far East
and had had a good time seeing China [two centuries before Marco Polo
spent years on his history-making, overland journey from Venice to China
and back, and when a traveler was lucky if he covered forty miles a
day—did this fellow get to China, and back to England, within two months by going to Travelocity.com and buying a discounted airfare?]
• One character greeting another with "You look great." [Ouch. Just ouch.]
There were probably many more howlers of this sort, but (thankfully) I’ve forgotten them . . .
* * * *
Most anachronisms and errors in published historical fiction, from now
on to be referred to as “HF”, aren’t this obvious or ludicrous. But
plenty do crop up, and many common errors keep on reappearing from book
to book to book because inexperienced writers (and sometimes even
experienced writers and their editors) haven’t done their homework
We HF writers all make mistakes. None of us has lived in ancient Rome or
11th-century England or 19th-century America and we can’t possibly know
every single detail of events and everyday life and what a person
living in such an era would take for granted. There’s probably not a
historical novel anywhere that doesn’t have some errors or anachronisms
in it, whether teensy weensy or so painfully obvious that you wonder
what the editor was smoking to have missed them. I’ve made a few
mistakes that ended up in my own published novels. But I’ve caught them
in the end (or other people did) and I sure won’t make those particular
The teensy weensy mistakes are the ones that (thank goodness) will only
be caught by the handful of scholarly experts across the entire globe
who have made a career out of that particular obscure subject. If you
mention, as I did in my own novel The Cavalier of the Apocalypse,
the Montansier Theater in Paris in 1786, probably only people who have
advanced degrees in the history of late-18th-century French theater are
ever going to catch that and snicker briefly because they remember that
the real Montansier Theater in Paris—as opposed to the Montansier
Theater in Versailles—wasn’t founded until 1790.
Yes, I was careless and goofed there, while trying to add period color,
with a tiny, unimportant, incorrect detail, because I didn’t check my
“facts.” Fortunately, there aren’t that many readers out there with
advanced degrees in the history of late-18th-century French theater.
The big, honking, obvious howlers, however, the howlers that many, many
non-expert but well-read readers will know are dead wrong, are the ones
that no self-respecting author/researcher should commit and no editor
should let him get away with—though they often do.
“Never mind,” the amateur writer thinks, when she gives her knight a
cigar without wondering whether or not people smoked cigars in the 11th
century, because she’s much more interested in describing the effect of
the heroine’s sex appeal on the hero’s “manhood”: “Nobody will notice.”
“Never mind,” the professional writer thinks, when he’s describing the
food at Emperor Marcus Aurelius’s banquet, but is too busy or lazy to
look up the histories of individual foods and find out whether or not
tomato and basil salad dressed in olive oil (a nice modern Italian dish)
could actually have been served there. “Nobody will notice.”
Yes, they will.
Some people will notice.
Inevitably, some people who know their history will know that
both tobacco and tomatoes come from the Americas, were unknown in
ancient Rome and medieval Europe, and couldn’t possibly have shown up in
Norman England or at a Roman emperor’s banquet, and now the author’s
just set him- or herself up with them as a sloppy researcher whose
historical details (and who knows what else?) can’t be trusted. If you
dress your aristocratic ancient Roman heroine in a toga, for instance,
or give her a dinner involving tomatoes, just about anybody who has
studied ancient Rome—or even anybody who has read a lot of (more
reliable) historical fiction about ancient Rome—will say “Whaaat?”
Because before you write your Roman novel, you’d better have learned at
least enough about ancient Roman life to know that only men wore togas,
and enough about world history and food history to know that tomatoes
didn’t make it to Europe, Africa, and Asia until the 1500s (CE) at the
very earliest. Displaying this kind of blatant ignorance about basic
facts will, most likely, get your book tossed across the room by 95% of
its readers, who love ancient Rome and read lots of HF about ancient
Rome and have picked up lots and lots of details about life in ancient
Rome, and now you’ve just proved that you know less than they do and
your historical research is not to be relied upon.
Some people will notice, and the mistakes will drive them crazy,
and if you make mistake after mistake they’ll soon resolve to never,
ever read another book of yours.
* * * *
This guide is intended to point out, remind you about, and help you keep
your historical fiction free of, not only the big honking howlers, but
also the many, many lesser gaffes and howlers that keep turning up again
and again in all kinds of HF written by authors who should know better.
Its focus is primarily toward European/American history, since my own
specialized knowledge is centered in Europe and the 18th century in
particular, and the great majority of historical fiction written in
English is set in Europe, the Europeanized Americas, or the ancient
Mediterranean. Many topics here, however, can be applied on a broader
scale to fiction set in other cultures, regions, and eras. Babylonian
ziggurat builders and 14th-century Japanese samurai, after all, didn’t
have cigars or tomatoes any more than 11th-century English knights did.
I am also writing from an American perspective and primarily for North
American readers and writers, but I hope readers from other nations will
enjoy this book, find it useful, and not take offense.
May we never again read about Dark Ages peasants eating tomatoes;
unbelievably plucky/feisty, liberated medieval heroines with names like
Dominique; 18th-century travelers crossing Europe or the Atlantic in a
week and a half; slang that’s sixty years ahead of its time; and many,
many other such common anachronisms of fact and attitude . . .
There’s an old wisecrack that goes: "Never assume something, because when you assume, you make an ass out of u and me."
This is especially true of writing and researching historical fiction. Never assume anything about the details of historical events or daily life in the past! (Which is another way of saying “Do your %*#¿$!%¥%& research!”)
Most of the factual errors in our historical fiction don’t come from what we don’t
know: they come from assuming that what we already do “know” to be
correct (for example, that tobacco and tomatoes are found everywhere on
the planet) was also correct a hundred or a thousand years ago.
Check your facts. Check them again. Never assume something was true “then” because it’s true now!
Never assume that something was true in 1100 or 1500 because it was true in 1800!
Look it up!
"Anachronism: (from the Greek ana [up, against, back, re-] and chronos
[time]) A chronological inconsistency in some arrangement, especially a
juxtaposition of person(s), events, objects, or customs from different
periods of time.
"A prochronism occurs when an item appears in a temporal context in
which it could not yet be present (the object had not yet been invented,
the verbal expression had not been coined, the philosophy had not been
formulated, the technology had not been created, etc.)."
--adapted from Wikipedia
Anachronisms, or, to be exact, prochronisms, make up most of the howlers
in HF. They can be, in their mildest form, minor errors in
scene-setting, the unimportant bloopers we can snicker at but, depending
on how tolerant we are, disregard up to a point—for instance, a scene
in which Martha Washington puts up a Christmas tree at Mount Vernon in
the 1770s, although the Christmas tree was almost entirely unknown in
Britain and America, except in German immigrant households, until the
1840s (see Chapter 11).
But then there are the downright appalling, inexcusable,
grand historical catastrophes: In the same published novel that gave us
the Christmas tree error above, we're told that the young George
Washington (born 1732) studied the life and military exploits of
Napoleon (born 1769).
You just can’t make this stuff up.
I’ve already given a few examples of things that often show up in
historical novels that could not possibly have appeared as the authors
state they did, simply because they are decades or centuries ahead of
their time. I’ll continue to discuss the most common anachronisms that
are forever turning up in HF because inexperienced authors don’t do
nearly enough basic research, and because experienced authors don’t
always take the time to ask themselves, “Wait a minute—do I know this,
or do I think I know this? Am I quite sure that this
person, item, building, technology, street, expression, attitude, food,
artwork, or custom actually existed in the exact period and place I’m
In other words, they mistakenly assume . . .
Let’s Start With the Underpants
(This section mentions slightly indelicate subjects. You’ve been warned.)
Ordinary men in the Middle Ages wore underpants, of a sort. They were called braies or breeks
and they were of plain linen gathered together at the waist, rather
like a cross between a loose loincloth and baggy breeches, all held in
place by a belt.
But the simplest thing to remember about women’s underwear in past eras is this: They probably weren’t wearing any.
This is not to say that wealthy, aristocratic European women didn’t wear
anything beneath their elaborate court gowns. Of course they did. But
the "body linen" that they wore would have looked much more like the
knee-length T-shirts that many of us sleep in than anything ever dreamed
up in the Victoria’s Secret catalogue.
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