“Why do you do so much research?” he asked. “It’s just fiction.”
It was a strange question from my perspective, but still worthy of consideration. Why do I go to such lengths to ensure that the historical references in my books are as accurate as possible, the language as appropriate as it can be, and the actions feasible given the timeframe in which they are set? After all, my novels aren’t about the history – they are love stories, cradled in history.
Novels carry readers to different lands and times and cultures. This is true whether that land is real or make believe; the time is past, present, or future; the culture is familiar or foreign. Novels can transport us – and we are willing to suspend disbelief in the reality of the tale as long as the foundation from which we travel is believable. If the transport vehicle is flawed, however, our journey is in jeopardy.
I once read a work, allegedly set in 1853, where the characters spontaneously broke into song with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Now the tune for The Battle Hymn is quite old, but the words that earned it that title and made it into an iconic Civil War ballad weren’t written until the 1860s. Once the singing started, I lost interest in the novel. The illusion of being in 1853 was shattered – and I ended the journey disappointed.
The movie “Somewhere in Time” with Christopher Reeve provides a visual and visceral example of what I believe. In this tale (a movie-of-the-week caliber film released in 1980), a contemporary young playwright travels back in time to about 1912 – and meets the woman he suspects he loves. (SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen the movie and think you want to, then don’t keep reading as I’m likely to be giving away too much.)
Reeve’s playwright has taken great care to “get it right” in his travels: he’s gone so far as to amass coins of the era so that he will have money to spend when he’s there. He carries a watch that was once possessed by the actress he pursues. And he wears an early-20th-century vintage suit from a second-hand store.
Successful in his journey, the protagonists do meet and fall in love. However, the second-hand suit hides a reminder of present day – a coin from 1980. The moment he encounters this token, Reeve’s character is immediately and physically thrown back into his present life.
That’s what bad historical fiction can do – throw the reader back into the present-day real world. When the author doesn’t take care to get the details right, the illusion is shattered.
I want to live the illusion, so I go for the accuracy.