How Historical?

I read a lot of historical romance. Much more than I read contemporary.

In part, I think this is a hold-over from my childhood, when I rarely read anything written (or set) after 1920. In part, it’s the fantasy: the dances, the beautiful clothes, and the exoticism of the past. In part, I found a group of really wonderful writers who I like to read and that’s what they write. But I struggle as a reader, and now as a writer, with trying to understand whether historical novels are merely set in the past or whether they take something else — narrative structure, style, tone, etc. — from their setting.

Nineteenth-century novels differ from twentieth-century ones in many ways, including their use of description, dialogue, and exposition. If you’re writing a novel that you want to feel as if it could have been written in 1820, the plotting is likely to be slow, it’s going to be long, and there will be a lot less dialogue and a lot more description, all by contemporary standards, of course. I’m also not sure that anyone will like it.

I recently read the opening 75 pages of the historical novella I started writing in June. It’s my inaugural historical project. The first chapter consists of two long scenes: a picnic in which the reader is introduced to four characters (including the heroine) and a scene in which the hero sits in his office, thinks about his past, and sees the heroine (who is his former fiancee). In other words, pretty much nothing happens over the course of eight pages.

I’m happy with the characters. I’m happy with the (historicity) of the language. But it’s all description and exposition.

If it had been written in the nineteenth century, I feel like it the opening chapter would have been set sixty years prior to the bulk of the novella, perhaps with the founding of the town. Perhaps with a description of a Revolutionary War battle that occurred near there. Maybe with a meditation on the difference in worldview between revolutionary and antebellum Americans. It would go on for thirty pages. Then we would get to this chapter, which would be twice as long.

Look, I don’t mean to blame the frustrations that I’m having with my own writing in the opening of this project on historicity or to suggest that historically novels were slow. In some ways, I’m compounding two very different sets of questions, one related to accuracy and the other related to form (pacing, in this case). But as I try to resolve my formal difficulties, they seem connected to content. And right now, they all seem to lead back to the question: how accurate do readers want historical novels to be?

In a recent piece for Word Wenches, Anne Gracie speculates (I think correctly) that most readers don’t really want historically accurate novels. The issue is verisimilitude, which crucially means the appearance of truth (not truth itself). Truthiness if you will. Historicalness, in this case. But if historicalness means that historical romance novels are by and large costume drama, why set them in the past at all?

Do you read historical novels? What kinds of inaccuracies bother you? Is historical writing about form or content or both?

One thought on “How Historical?

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