Thursday, July 10, 2014

Accuracy in Historical Fiction: Is 100% Possible?

Hey all,

Sorry for the delays in posts over the passed couple weeks. Things got crazy with filming and trying to finally release Descent. Since it's getting close to when Descent (The Birthrite Series, #1) will be ready for release, I wanted to do a post on the historical fiction genre. While The Birthrite Series isn't exactly Historical Fiction as the genre is defined, there is much of it that does take place throughout some major events in history, like Roma Slavery the Great Depression.

Before I begin, here are some cool and informative links on the subject from the points of view of other writers/authors. Both of which stress authenticity over accuracy.

Stretching the Facts to Historical Fiction

How to Write Historical Fiction: 7 Tips on Accuracy and Authenticity 

So, as I stated in posts before, The Birthrite Series took me nearly four years to compile. After a lot of research and experimenting with different characters and scenarios, the story went from only being one book to five with a couple spin off novellettes/shorts. And it was about three years before I was happy with something I could even call a first draft. Part of this was due to the amount of research I did as I compiled that first draft. Once I had a direction (when I came up with the beginning concept of the four bloodline patriarchs: Nicolae, Jonathan, James, and Hector), a lot of historical research went into their four stories and I made myself crazy striving for accuracy. Not that this is a bad thing, but I also read reviews on various books in historical fiction and books of other genres that took place at certain times in history as my series does. And let me tell you...damn some people can be brutal at the slightest factual error! And sometimes not even that.

I will use one of my favorite movies as an example. Here is the trailer for the movie "Ever After" starring Drew Barrymore (and both songs featured in the trailer are also on the playlist for The Birthrite Series: "The Mummers Dance" by Loreena McKennitt and "Fable" by Robert Miles).

A couple weeks ago, I was looking at some comments regarding the film, and one person commented on how the values shown in the film were "too modern for its' time."  Now granted, this person did not elaborate beyond that, so I can't really say what parts of the film the person actually meant. However, my rebuttal for that is "Ever After" is a take on the Cinderella story. The "Cinderella" character, Danielle (Drew Barrymore) is a forward thinking woman living in Renaissance-era France. In fact, one of the main points of the story is that Danielle IS a forward thinking young woman, thanks to her father who encouraged her to read and grow intellectually before he passed away. This is what sets her apart. Also, wasn't the Renaissance era also the start of the so-called  "Enlightening"? Meaning many were embracing new ideals not considered acceptable during the Medieval era and altering their ways of thinking a little. So why should some of the values presented be THAT far-fetched? Is it because the characters didn't adhere to the rules still being pushed by the powers that be of that time?
It seems to be a trend in stories set in historical times that if the characters don't "follow all the rules" and express some form of rebellion, than you get the "WHAT??? They NEVER would have done that! This author/writer needs to do their research!" comments.
I've come to accept that there will always be purists, and no matter how much research is done, they will always find something to nitpick about. While I've come to accept it as being 'the nature of the beast,' some of this did cause me a lot of self doubt as I wrote Descent.

Here's the thing I've come to find about history (as well as the writers in the articles I linked to at the beginning of this post). Much of it is bias. Yes, there is truth in bias, but the recounting of that truth depends on who you are talking to or reading about. Not all the facts are there, and sometimes you do need to "fill in the blanks" with your own educated guesses (which will be different from the educated guesses of others). This is where the 'authenticity over accuracy' comes into play. Tone is important while writing about other eras as is language. And yes, language can be a BEAST and I found this out quickly while writing Descent.
In Descent, we begin in the mid 1800s with Nicolae Ganoush, Jonathan Blake, James Livingston, and Hector de Fuentes. Nicolae is a Roma (or "gypsy") slave in Romania. Therefore, he does not even speak English. Based on my research, the Roma have their own language based in ancient Sanskrit but are also likely to be able to communicate with those outside the Roma community out of necessity.
Then there is Jonathan, who does speak English, but with an Irish brogue.
James Livingston is from the aristocracy, so he would speak the VERY proper English of that time.
Then there is Hector, who lives in Mexico. While he may have learned some English, Spanish is his first language.
Then, the second half of the book takes place in the 1930s, which means a more modern tone than the 1800s, but still different from the 2010s.
So I had my work cut out for me.
Tone, atmosphere, and language ARE important in a historical setting, most definitely. And this is not as easy as it may seem. Obviously, I can't write in the exact words and languages of Nicolae and Hector, and even with Jonathan's accent, striving for 100% accuracy would have been impossible, not to mention make the book VERY unreadable to readers. Even with the slang in the half of the book taking place in the 1930s, I still had to pick and choose just enough to set the right tone while at the same time, not alienating readers who may not be familiar with such terms used at the time.
You want to create an authentic atmosphere, yes. But you also don't want your readers having to reach for a thesaurus every other sentence or throwing your book across the room in frustration because they don't know what the hell your characters are saying. But on the same note, the wrong tone can do that too. What helped me was reading books and watching films from the said eras and getting a feel for how they spoke and acted. From there, try to come to a happy medium.
With my non-English speaking characters and even for Jonathan with his brogue, I simply tried to maintain tone and mannerisms appropriate for the era they live in.

Now, many may look at this and say "well, that's why you should only write what you know." Really? While I will agree that this might be good advice for a new writer just starting out, I thought one of the main points of creating any kind of art was to challenge yourself and step outside the box. Plus, all the fun is in the research and seeing your characters come to life through it all.

As for the "they NEVER would have done that" comments, I propose this: Who the hell wants to read about people that do nothing but follow the rules? Maybe someone out there might disagree, but I like my stories to have tension and keep me on the edge of my seat. Oftentimes, this occurs because someone is doing something they ideally should not be doing. And isn't history full of rebels and people who made waves against what the powers that be pushed? If not, we would not have had any of the historical revolutions that took place. We would not have had suffrage movement or the Roaring 20s. We would not have had things like Woodstock. We would not have had the Renaissance (hence, "Ever After").
While I do agree that it is essential to take society's rules into consideration and be as accurate as you can there, what ABOUT those rules would drive the character to rebel? What events are taking place that affects that character's decision making. To a degree, everyone is a product of his or her environment whether that person is a rule follower or a rule bender/breaker.

The authenticity over accuracy rule does not mean you should just willy nilly write "whatever." You should always research and strive for as much accuracy as possible, but also accept that 100% accuracy is next to impossible and that there will always be "that guy" with something to say how 'wrong' you are. 

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