Literary Archaeology: The Devil is in the Details: Thoughts on Accuracy in HistFic

Jon Black

As someone who writes primarily historical fiction, I read a lot of articles and blog posts offering tips about writing HistFic. While the wording changes from piece to piece, one common bit of advice is, “Always make your story as accurate as possible.”

With respect for my colleagues, I disagree.

Great for 1920s Paris. Terrible for 16th century Florence.

As the following, admittedly, hyperbolic examples show, while it is certainly possible to pay too little attention to accuracy, it is also possible to pay too much attention:

PROBABLY TOO LITTLE DETAIL: “They got in a car and drove away.”

PROBABLY TOO MUCH DETAIL: “They entered the 1922 Duesenberg touring car, its chrome-steel frame hand-assembled in Auburn, Indiana, one of two manufacturing plants buoying that small Midwestern town, alongside Auburn Rubber Company. Sliding behind the wheel, after taking a moment to tie his Dawson Cap shoes, he listened to the smooth purr of its 224 cubic inch Continental L-head engine as it roared away over the bitulithic pavement, its surface a blending of bitumen and aggregate.”

The problem with the first is that it offers nothing of what brings readers to HistFic in the first place. The author might as well be writing contemporary fiction. The problem with the second is that it gets lost in own detail, becoming a simulation rather than a narrative.

I think the reason many people say “be as accurate as possible” is because most agree the second example goes too far. There is an implied caveat of “within reason.” But what does that mean? Obviously, there is an enormous range between the examples provided. As long as you’re between those markers, I believe there is no gold standard for what is right and wrong. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a best option for a given writer. Knowing four things can help you find what works best for you.

Too much research.

Know Your Audience

Not every reader enjoys the same level of historical detail or has the same level of demand/forgiveness regarding historical accuracy. Readership will naturally gravitate toward authors that match their preferences. And that’s okay.

Know Yourself

Not everyone is, or should be, Neil Stephenson and author books that are, arguably, functional history texts as well as narrative fiction. If you’re not enjoying the level of research you’re doing, there’s a very real risk that’s going to come through when you write about it. Of course, if you find that is often an issue … you might want to reexamine your choice of genre.

Not Enough Research

Know Your Genre

Readers will generally expect greater accuracy in areas related to the genre’s conventions and be more forgiving elsewhere. Additionally, some genres have default settings for accuracy greater or lesser than other genres. Some specific thoughts:

Historical Fantasy: As the name “fantasy” indicates, the genre already deviates significant from the real world, typically through the inclusion of magical, legendary, or mythic aspects. The permutations and consequences of such changes may be extensive and, as a result, the genre has comparatively relaxed expectations.

Horror: With its emphasis on visceral and emotional reaction from readers, authors of historical horror probably have more wiggle room on detail and accuracy than most. This is especially true of supernatural horror, which is arguably a subset of historical fantasy rather than historical fiction.

Military: This genre’s requirement differ depending on the scale of the narrative. If it is primarily tactical, authors will want to show they’ve done their research on weapons, tactics, terrain, etc. If the story is strategic in nature, showcasing politics and personalities is more important.

Mystery: Classic mystery often hinges on details. The type of fabric in a dress. The failing of a clock. The limitations of a specific poison. As such, avid mystery reader are often highly attuned to such things and likely to notice and resent obvious errors or omissions, especially those pertaining to the mystery itself or the chain of clues leading to its conclusion.

Pulp: With its emphasis on rapid pace and frequent action, detail and even accuracy are often secondary in pulp. Classic pulp often plays fast and loose with geography, politics, and history. In feats of daring-do, firearms, vehicles, and other machines often over-perform historical reality or a painted only in rough strokes. Or suffer implausible failures when a moment of cliffhanging tension is called for.

Romance: While not a genre I have a lot of affinity for, I have the enormous respect for those who write historical romance. Captivating modern readers with tales of desire, romance, and love set in eras of courting couches, chaperones, and scandalous bare ankles is no mean feat. Accuracy in social conventions (and the flouting of them) as well as fashion, both personal and couture, need to be front and center in this genre.

Thriller: While this genre has some similarities with pulp, expectations for technical, historical, and political accuracy and detail are generally higher.

Western: Hard to say. With a few exception, classic Westerns were more concerned with getting the feel right than the facts right. That trend began reversing in the 1980s. Today, brutally realistic and feverishly research works coexist alongside ‘Wide-Open-Space-Opera.’  

Know Your Time Period

While arguably less important that the proceeding three, still worthy of consideration. Different eras come with different benchmarks for accuracy and research. If you’re writing for “dark ages” Europe, sooner or later you’re probably going to have fill a gap or two from your own imagination, regardless of intent. On the other hand, if you’re writing 1960s Haight-Ashbury, almost every detail you might want is probably out there somewhere if you care enough to find it.

A Final Thought

Remember, there is a point of diminishing returns when it comes accuracy in historical fiction and historical fantasy. Beyond that mark, the research time and narrative constraints involved in greater accuracy simply don’t justify the returns. As an author, you have finite time.

Unless, somehow, absolutely crucial to the story, the time spent developing a functional knowledge of 16th century shoe production is likely better spent in writing an engrossing narrative with compelling characters.

Nothing New About Anachronisms: The building of Noah’s Arc, from the Nuremberg Chronicle.