Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Perils of Writing Historical Novels Accurately

I'm one of those readers who likes authors to get the facts straight in their novels. I was not happy when one of my favorite mystery authors had his hero fill the tank of an old Sentra with 20 gallons of gas, because I had driven a couple of Sentras and knew that their tanks only held about 11 gallons. The author's error undermined my trust that other details he described were right. By the same token, I hate it when writers of historical romances write dialogue where characters use recent slang that would never been spoken by someone in 1985, to say nothing of 1805.

So this motivates me to do a lot of research about the things I put into my own books. I check the words I use in an etymological dictionary to make sure they were in use at the time of my story or not long after--since it takes a while for new words to appear in print. I research material details. If something appears in a room my characters walk through, it is often because I found it pictured in a contemporaneous print.

But I'm learning that using historically accurate facts in a novel can backfire, because the actual historical fact can conflict with what readers think they "know" based on their much more recent experience.

My hero's uniform is a case in point. Since I assigned him to an actual regiment that took part in the the Indian war I describe him as having fought in, I made a point of researching his uniform very carefully. I started out looking for images online and found a picture of a toy soldier from the same regiment. However, that toy soldier was dated a few years after my story took place, and further research into the history of that regiment taught me that my hero's regiment had been converted from a dragoon regiment to a hussar regiment the year after my story concludes, and that their uniform had been changed significantly after this conversion.

So that sent me back to do more research. Fortunately, through the magic of Google Books, I was able to find a book published only a few years before my time when my story was set that listed the specifics of the uniforms of each British Army regiment, including my hero's. It gave the color of the body of the uniform, the color of the facings, and of the lace, distinguishing between that found on officer's uniforms and that of the common soldier. Feeling on safe ground at last, I used it.

Only to have a reviewer insist I had gotten it wrong because her father-in-law--who one assumes was not in active service in 1820--had worn a uniform of a different color when he was in an Irish cavalry regiment. This, discrepancy, apparently, convinced the reviewer that my book was riddled with inaccuracies, an opinion she passed on to countless readers who when they pick up my book--if they bother--will approach it with the "knowledge" that it's all wrong.

Another reviewer who writes that she is of Indian descent, took issue with the name Trev uses to refer to the language he speaks with another Englishman who has spent many years in India. I had called it Hindustani, but the reviewer insisted that the language spoken in India is called Hindi. Well, yes, that is true today, but two hundred years ago, Englishmen in India spoke a different language when conversing with the locals--a lingua franca called Hindustani--which was a mixture of Hindi and Urdu (the language of the Mughals who still ruled large tracts of India.) This, too, was something I'd checked out before employing the phrase--but once again, what the reader knew about the present day made her assume what I'd done was wrong.

Of course it is possible, even with detailed research, that I will get some things wrong. I'm not writing for the Journal of Regency Studies, but for a reader who wants a deeply moving, passionate love story. At a certain point I have to let go of the research and follow my characters where they may lead me.

But I do want to assure those of you who do care about getting things right--and since my publisher has made a point of promoting my books as books that do get the historical details right I know you're out there--that I have done my research, quite a lot of it. So if something looks wrong, give me the benefit of the doubt, or if it really bothers you, shoot me an email and I'll be happy to explain my reasoning and listen to what you've found that might contradict it.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for an excellent article. As a HF author, I have experienced some of the same frustrations you describe. After Celia Hayes (at PODBRAM) kindly reviewed my novel, a gentleman posted a comment claiming that I had made a significant error in chronology. I knew that HE was in error, and wrote a reply to correct his misconception (google PODBRAM and the title of my book, below, if you are interested in the details).

One of the maddening things about the internet is that ANYONE can write ANYTHING on ANY subject, and claim to be right. I suppose that is something we all must live with, if we truly believe in freedom of speech!

Keep up the great work! I look forward to checking out your writing. My novel is entitled THE FUHRER VIRUS. It is a World War II spy/conspiracy/thriller for adult readers and can be found at,, or on GOOGLE review.

Best regards,

Paul Schultz

Michele said...

I also write historical romances and try very hard to get things right. But it is impossible!
I put down a book once that had a heroine looking at a photograph of her sweetheart--in 1783!

Anonymous said...

I have made almost a career of being exasperated by careless errors in historical romances,such as the one in which a fellow was claiming to be a "maven" of women's fashions--circa 1810 in London! and the one in which a happy couple strolls up the street eating buns out of a "coronet" and the one in which the heroine runs for the plaster of paris when the hero cuts his finger, and the one in which a young lady comes into a deserted kitchen in the morning (no servants in the house) and half an hour later cinnamon buns are baking....etc etc I am fond of the one in which a young man explains to a governess that at Eton you would get swatted for "declining a verb" incorrectly. I should imagine so, more than a swatting...although such a feat takes imagination.

Wes Brummer said...

I am in the middle of writing a historical novel set in Kansas 1935. Yes, it is tough to research small details about history. Part of my story concerned radio technology. I sent a query to the Radio Club of America. And I get great detailed responses. Sometime a club that is passionate about the subject you are writing may be the way to go to research.

Anonymous said...

Hindustani is another term for the common language spoken in North India, usually called Hindi, today. The term Hindustani is still used in my family to describe the language we speak.

From Tehelka

"After independence [1947], the Sub-Committee on Fundamental Rights recommended that the official language of India be made Hindustani, as it was already the national language: “Hindustani, written either in Devanagari or the Perso-Arabic script at the option of the citizen, shall, as the national language, be the first official language of the Union.”

It was not done however. Formal Hindi, has been Sanskritised. That's is not the language of the street however (or of Hindi films - which could be called Hindustani films).

Jenny Brown said...

Thanks for the explanation.

I'm thinking this may be a case where there are differences in how a term is used now and how it was used in the early 1800s. The books I found that definition in were written in that early period, and reflect the usage of English people who had visited England at the time. Apparently the term has changed its meaning in the intervening 200 years.