the mistorical mystery

I recently lost a good couple of hours trawling through the Dear Author post in which they introduced the tag “mistorical”. It refers to historical novels that get historical facts wrong.

Fierce debate ensued.

Is historical accuracy necessary for the enjoyment of a novel? Is it even possible? Is “mistorical” derogatory in tone (mis = mishap, mistake, misogyny)? Does the onus for historical knowledge rest with the reader or the writer?

There is, of course, no right answer, so really the debate could go on forever. It makes for pretty interesting reading.

I wrote a post ages ago about my approach to language in my historical fiction. My main point was that the mood or intention invoked by the language is more important to me than its accuracy.

But reading the Dear Author post and the ensuing furore, I asked myself for possibly the first time: Why do I write historical fiction? Why not set my stories in the modern day?

I’m not in the camp of the history lovers. I find the details of other times interesting (like, did you know that men often cried in public in Regency England to express their sensitivity? They even did it in Parliament.) but the idea of “researching” fills me with dread. Every detail I uncover requires another couple of years of study. I mean, really, you need to explore the whole of history, and then the whole of history is just a bunch of people’s opinions on stuff that may or may not have happened, right?

On the other hand, I like to check things on Wikipedia at the very least, like who was actually the Prime Minister at that time, and what veges were in season at the time of year that my heroine’s gardening.

So the history in and of itself is not, I think, the reason I write historical fiction.

One attraction is the obvious social restrictions. I think we’re actually no less socially restricted now than people were “back then”, but because it’s just life to us the unspoken, early-learned rules are almost impossible to distinguish. (This also makes up a large part of my previous post about writing “historical” language. The rules wouldn’t have taken up a huge amount of brain space for people back then either. It would have just been life.) But back to the point: Obvious social restrictions create more obvious external obstacles to a man and woman being free – or even having the opportunity – to fall in love.

One commenter on the Dear Author post made the point that marrying for love – the central premise of a romance novel – is already an anachronistic concept in a historical period like the Regency, so why sweat the small stuff? This is another appealing characteristic of the historical setting: Love is more obviously a courageous and subversive act than it is in the modern day. (I think it still is today, but as most of us strive to marry for love it’s sometimes harder to see.)

It’s easier to put a hero or heroine in a difficult circumstance, because so many other people had power over their lives. There was no option for women to go and set themselves up in a different city – or hey, a different country – if they didn’t like the way they were being treated by someone else. And most of them relied 100% on someone else for food, shelter and clothing. Men had the cultural pressure of maintaining bloodlines, titles and estates, and providing for their women. I’ve been thinking a lot about my contemporary teen heroines and it’s tough to put the same kind of financial and emotional restrictions on them.

And lastly I think there’s the complete fairytale of it. There’s a duke to marry, and an unspoiled English countryside to enjoy, and carriages to ride in, and servants to bring you hot chocolate in bed, and buckets and buckets of money.

A suggestion that came out of the Dear Author post was that a sub-genre be created along the lines of Historical Fantasy (or, my favourite suggestion, Bodice Punk). The book’s world would be based upon the real historical world, but without adhering to precise details, dates or people.

If I had to choose, I’d say I write Bodice Punk. My books are definitely set in the dream of a world gone by, rather than in that world itself.

Comments 2 Responses

    1. anna cowan Post author

      thanks for popping by, Jane – that’s tres cool! I’m not sure what PNR is… (I tried googling it and got the Indian Railway Company’s bookings page. Probably not what you were getting at.) But yeah, for me it’s mostly about the fantasy. It’s the fairytale taken seriously(-ish).

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