History is Not Boring discussion

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Top Ten Peeves in Historical Fiction

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message 1: by Kate (new)

Kate Quinn What are your pet peeves in historical fiction? This is the question I've tackled in the first post of my new blog. Here's the link to the post: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/297...

I'd love to hear your thoughts - what are the cliches that piss YOU off in bad historical fiction novels?


message 2: by Erin (new)

Erin (erinlf) | 2 comments I really, really hate the "plucky female heroine" in historical fiction. You know, the one who just stepped out of the 21st century, with completely modern ideas about a woman's place in society, plopped down in the 1700s or 1800s. While it may be difficult for some contemporary female readers to relate to characters who are living in previous time periods, where women did not have the freedoms and expectations we do now, it is SO annoying to pick up a book and find the characters completely out of step with their time period. I guess I'm thinking in particular of One Thousand White Women, which I recently read and hated for this very reason. But there are many other books that are guilty of this same crime.


message 3: by Old-Barbarossa (new)

Old-Barbarossa I can cope fine with anachronistic language if constant through the book. But not when the author strives for accuracy and then throws it all out the window when the hairy viking says "gee whizz" or similar....
But lazy use of anachronisms as plot devices in general (Erin I agree with you whole heartedly).


message 4: by James (new)

James Nevius | 157 comments I've been working on some historical fiction and found that I've had to trim the insults of white owners toward their slaves. If the character is more of a "bad guy," readers don't seem to mind, but if the character is supposed to be sympathetic, readers lose faith in him when he admonishes his slaves. So, bottom line, even though we know people in the past owned slaves, readers today don't want to deal with the fact that they treated those slaves poorly.


message 5: by Al (new)

Al They have to get the religion right. Maybe it's because this is my preferred interest when studying history, but if an author gives his/her characters for the wrong religion for the time and place, or the religion is just something completely made up when the author is supposed striving for historical accuracy, it drives me insane. Religion is a huge part of the life of believers. I think it's important to portray it accurately if you want your characters to seem real. (Of course, if the author does not claim any historical accuracy beyond one point or event then I don't mind it so much.)


message 6: by Al (last edited Jul 03, 2009 06:13PM) (new)

Al James wrote: "I've been working on some historical fiction and found that I've had to trim the insults of white owners toward their slaves. If the character is more of a "bad guy," readers don't seem to mind, bu..."

I always wondered why authors seemed to back off from including mistreatment of slaves unless the abuser was a villain. I assumed it was for pc purposes, but we all know it happened. I don' see why it's a problem to read.


message 7: by Jenny T (new)

Jenny T | 2 comments Excessive use of thees and thous, and if any character says "Forsooth," I'm out of there. I appreciate an attempt at historical accuracy in dialogue and am not fond of blatant anachronisms, but too many archaic terms just for the sake of atmosphere can really ruin the reading experience for me. And it makes it hard for me to take a character seriously when he's all "Avast ye, knavish varlet!"


message 8: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Lopez | 31 comments Something I noticed while watching the John Adams miniseries (which I very much enjoyed) was that many of Abigail's lines seem to have come directly from her letters. On one hand, it makes the words authentic. On the other hand, I suspect that people in the 18th century -- just like people today -- did not speak the same way that they wrote. I found myself wondering if she really was, in life, as formal as she sounded in the series, or if that was the result of letters being spoken.


message 9: by Old-Barbarossa (last edited Jul 04, 2009 10:45PM) (new)

Old-Barbarossa Jonathan wrote: "Something I noticed while watching the John Adams miniseries (which I very much enjoyed) was that many of Abigail's lines seem to have come directly from her letters. On one hand, it makes the word..."

Interesting point.
I read somewhere that when they were writing Deadwood, the tv series, they had to change the way they swore.
By all accounts the most violent swearing at the time tended to be round religion, whereas now it tends to be sexual. Therefore to get the level right they used the more modern words as they thought that the holy swearing would seem tame to modern ears. I thought it worked, OK it may not be to everyones taste but spend some time round angry tired hungry folk and you will find that even today they tend not to always use Queen's English with a BBC stylee RP accent.
Poor grasp of geography in Hx fiction...well, any fiction. That also irritates. Now if you're Dumas and want a guy to ride from Paris to Amsterdam in a couple of days, leaving spent horses by the wayside, I can let you off. But if you can see Paris from there then you have gone too far.


message 10: by Kate (new)

Kate Quinn Some writers use deliberately anachronistic language in order to make an era more accessible - i.e. Marge Piercy's "City of Darkness, City of Light" where she had a forward explaining that all her French Revolution characters would be using modern swear words and so forth in an attempt to make the 18th century accessible to modern ears. I was dubious, but she made it work.


message 11: by Jim (new)

Jim (jimmaclachlan) I've heard that when you can swear convincingly in another language, you've really learned it. I don't know if that's true, but it makes sense to me.


message 12: by Old-Barbarossa (last edited Jul 04, 2009 10:45PM) (new)

Old-Barbarossa Jim wrote: "I've heard that when you can swear convincingly in another language, you've really learned it. I don't know if that's true, but it makes sense to me."

I can swear, ask for beer, and the location of a toilet, but little else, in a few languages...whether I can do it convincingly though...hmmm, point taken.


message 13: by [deleted user] (new)

The historical novel that fails to add anything novel to the history. Yes, it still takes work to write such a book, but not all efforts are worth making.


message 14: by James (new)

James Nevius | 157 comments Calling it Pearl HarboUr. ;-)

One of my interests has always been how films/plays/historical novels teach people history who wouldn't otherwise encounter it. On the one hand, you want a film like Pearl Harbor to stick to the basic "facts on the ground," so to speak -- and not, for example, have the Germans doing the bombing. But once those facts have been established, it is the compelling story that will make those facts resonate with viewers. And that's where I thought that movie fell flat. I was interested in the war, not in the wooden characters who'd been drawn to populate it.


message 15: by Old-Barbarossa (new)

Old-Barbarossa When it's done well it is art though.
Old Bill Shakespeare threw Hx to the 4 winds when it got in the way of a good tale.
So there's a thought...any more recent works that are historically rubbish but dramatically great?


message 16: by Kate (new)

Kate Quinn Braveheart - took lots of liberties with history, but it still works.


message 17: by Susanna - Censored by GoodReads, Crazy Cat Lady (new)

Susanna - Censored by GoodReads (susannag) | 1011 comments Mod
One of the things that can most easily make me throw a work of historical fiction at the wall is when really specific terms not coined at the time are used in dialog. In description, fine, I can be forgiving there; but not in dialog.

I threw one at the wall last month for aperiod use of (within about two pages of each other) "suffragette" and "post-partum depression." In supposed dialog between two characters. And the word suffragette, at least, would not have been coined for at least another decade. I growled and threw!

James - Come on, all of us who've seen Animal House know that the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor!


message 18: by James (new)

James Nevius | 157 comments Glad you got the reference, Susanna!


message 19: by Old-Barbarossa (new)

Old-Barbarossa Aye, don't start with Braveheart...I suppose that may be one of the problems, if you know the Hx you get annoyed, if you don't you just enjoy the film.
I know a guy walked out of "The Rock" due to being irritated by the liberties being taken with chemical weapons...he didn't elaborate much.
I'm sure those who watched Shakespeare and had been to Venice may have been less likely to walk from Othello though...but maybe not.


message 20: by Manuel (new)

Manuel | 1439 comments I had a hard time watching "THE 300"

as an example of "pulp" I had a great time watching that movie....
But as someone who loves history, I was offended at the cartoon like depiction of the Persians.

I saw the movie on a Friday evening with a bunch of high shool boys in the audience.

They all loved the movie. But I kept wondering about how they would interpret what they just saw?
I suppose they walked out of the theatre knowing a little more about ancient history, but would they really go out and read more on the subject?

Its like whey you hear from people who say they know all about pre-civil war slavery, because the once saw "Gone with the Wind"


message 21: by Susanna - Censored by GoodReads, Crazy Cat Lady (new)

Susanna - Censored by GoodReads (susannag) | 1011 comments Mod
I enjoyed the book The Other Boleyn Girl - as fiction. Historical? Historical Lite, maybe.

And why anyone would have to make up something when they are telling a story about the Tudors, where the truth is bizarre enough as it is, is beyond me.

On the movie side, I had real problems with "The Patriot." This is a South Carolina story, and a famous one hereabouts, and Hollywood "got it wrong."

Manuel - what's worse, and I've encountered a few of them, is the people who say they know all about Reconstruction because they've seen Birth of a Nation.


message 22: by James (new)

James Nevius | 157 comments I've found from my own experience and from what I've read/studied about writing Hx fiction that often the "making something up" comes from the need not to add more layers to historical truth, but rather to condense and remove things that actually happened.

While we like to read history as a "narrative," it doesn't actually conform to the framework of a fictional narrative. Characters in history do things for reasons often bizarre or unknowable. Drop that same person into historical fiction and have him/her do the same action and readers might say, "I don't believe it," or "There goes the author's credibility."

So, I think those who write historical fiction often need to alter events not for their own sake, but in order that readers don't mistrust the characters and their motivations.

(Also, there are too many people in history. I quite enjoy the "Tudors" series on cable, but they had to amalgamate a lot of minor nobles or else no one would have ever been able to keep track!)



message 23: by Manuel (new)

Manuel | 1439 comments Susanna,
Your comment on "The Patriot" reminded me of another pet peeve of mine. Accents.

In that movie, the Brits all have crip BBC accents and the patriots have modern sounding Southern accents and vernaculars.

Perhaps its being overly picky on my part, but it annoys me no end to hear a modern American accent on historical films.

I read somewhere that the movie "Sleepy Hollow" of a few years back, starring Johnny Depp, did a really good job trying to get the "sound" of post colonial American accents and dialogue.


message 24: by Kate (new)

Kate Quinn James wrote: "I've found from my own experience and from what I've read/studied about writing Hx fiction that often the "making something up" comes from the need not to add more layers to historical truth, but r..."

James, I agree about historical liberties being taken more to condense than flesh out. A movie that has a good example of this is "Tombstone," about Wyatt Earp. Two of the Earp brothers were attacked by enemies, one losing an arm and another being killed - both true facts, both in the movie. But in real life the two attacks happened separately, some time apart. In the movie, both attacks happened the same night. This is the kind of detail I don't mind people correcting in either fiction or film; they get the basic facts right, but tighten the time frame to make a better story.


message 25: by [deleted user] (last edited Jul 06, 2009 04:06PM) (new)

'"I don't believe it," or "There goes the author's credibility."'

The author of a novel about the French Revolution addressed this issue in a foreword by saying that she had made up everything normal and copied from textbooks everything that seemed ridiculous.


message 26: by Count (new)

Count Jared | 39 comments The author of a novel about the French Revolution addressed this issue in a foreword by saying that she had made up everything normal...

I can believe, that the hardest part about making a historically-set novel "believable" is getting rid of the historical aspects that (though entirely accurate) seem bizarre or implausible from a modern perspective, while keeping enough historicality (if that's even a word) that it seems like an anachronistic tale now. Some of the stranger, while completely common, beliefs about sexuality, the seasons, gravity and mathematics, orbital mechanics and so forth that you and I take completely for granted, even without a deep education in science, would make even a superbly well-read individual from the eighteenth century seem half-mad, and certainly not believable as an intellectual to today's readers.

Hard choices: they have to be made, and stuck with, even if they make actual historians gag when they read what is, after all, untrue.


message 27: by Old-Barbarossa (new)

Old-Barbarossa Count wrote: "The author of a novel about the French Revolution addressed this issue in a foreword by saying that she had made up everything normal...

I can believe, that the hardest part about making a histori..."


"Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't"

Mark Twain


Rachel (aka. Kaiserin Sisi) (looney-lovegood) What really bothers me is when modern phrases are randomly added and completely out of place. For example, "Hey Eponine, what's up today?" from Les Mis (the musical, not the book).

Also, I'm very new to being interested in history, so if I can spot a historical inaccuracy, that is very bad.


message 29: by Ed (new)

Ed (ejhahn) | 72 comments Poorly researched information.


message 30: by Kate (new)

Kate Quinn I remember a howler where a gentleman, trying to impress a lady, tells here he's learned French from the opera La Boheme. Another gentleman points out that La Boheme is in Italian. So far so good - except that it's a Regency setting, and the opera La Boheme had not been written yet.


message 31: by Susanna - Censored by GoodReads, Crazy Cat Lady (last edited Aug 11, 2009 10:43AM) (new)

Susanna - Censored by GoodReads (susannag) | 1011 comments Mod
Ow. Ow. Ow.

I had that reaction to one where the term "suffragette" was used repeatedly, in dialogue!, in a setting at least a decade before the term was coined.


message 32: by Kate (new)

Kate Quinn You'd think there would be fact-checkers for that sort of thing. No excuse.


message 33: by Susanna - Censored by GoodReads, Crazy Cat Lady (new)

Susanna - Censored by GoodReads (susannag) | 1011 comments Mod
My mother threw the same book at the wall, but in her case it was for ahistorical use of the term (again, in dialogue!) of "post partum depression."


message 34: by James (new)

James Nevius | 157 comments There was a fascinating article in the New Yorkers about fact checking awhile back that confirmed something I'd long suspected: write for a magazine and they check every single sentence; write a book, and you're on your own.


message 35: by Ed (last edited Aug 11, 2009 07:15PM) (new)

Ed (ejhahn) | 72 comments James wrote: "There was a fascinating article in the New Yorkers about fact checking awhile back that confirmed something I'd long suspected: write for a magazine and they check every single sentence; write a bo..."

Theoretically, the editor on the book should catch at least some of the more egregious errors. I said "theoretically".


message 36: by Kate (new)

Kate Quinn Depends on how good your editor - and more specifically copy-editor - is. I was lucky enough to have a very good one. And sometimes it is possible for an egregious error to slip by; if you're used to seeing something in your ms, after a while your eye skips by it. I howled at myself in embarrassment when my copy-editor gently pointed out to me that a senator in first-century Rome would not, perhaps, use the phrase "two o'clock" to delineate time.


message 37: by Gabriele (new)

Gabriele Wills (muskoka) | 5 comments I'm just new to this group, and, as a writer of historical fiction, have found this discussion most interesting. I now add notes at the end of my novels to substantiate those facts that made me, and probably many readers, say, "Wow!" or "Is that true?". I've even created a website of "Odd, Intriguing, and Surprising Facts about WW1" based on my 4 years of research, and am delighted that teachers are using it in classrooms. (http://4yearsofww1.info/)


message 38: by Gabriele (new)

Gabriele Wills (muskoka) | 5 comments Speaking of language, I'd appreciate your feedback on my recent blog about historical slang.


message 39: by Kate (new)

Kate Quinn Interesting and informative - thanks for the link! And I picked up some good terminology.


message 40: by Kev (new)

Kev | 5 comments I really agree with Manuel about accents. In addition, how come so many films about ancient Rome have the Romans talking with British accents? Shouldn't they sound more like the guys in Goodfellas? I've seen the same for portrayals of "nazis". Although, not historical (I think), the leaders in the Empire in Star Wars also speak with British accents.
Brilliant comment about "BBC crip". I mean, why are British accents always that way in Hollywood movies? Why not a Cockney or East London accent?


message 41: by Kate (new)

Kate Quinn I think at some point, though, you have to draw the line on accents - would we be any more content if the ancient Romans spoke with American accents? I remember getting annoyed with old WWII movies where the Nazis didn't speak subtitled German; they just spoke English with German accents. That didn't seem any more authentic to me. What accents WOULD people in the past have spoken with? Often we have no way of knowing, so I think at some point the producer has to go with a neutral British or neutral American. They use a more refined accent for upper-class characters and a more relaxed colloquial accent for lower class characters, and it's a compromise I'm fine with, over all. You have to draw the line somewhere. If you did a movie in the Middle Ages, say, with real Middle Ages English, you'd have to subtitle the whole thing, since the language has changed so much - if you don't believe me, read Chaucer. Film-making is in the end about story-telling. I'd rather tone down the verisimilitude a bit for comprehension.

Of course, sometimes you have a case of an actor who just can't DO an accent, but that's a whole different story. Kevin Costner in Robin Hood, anyone?


message 42: by Susanna - Censored by GoodReads, Crazy Cat Lady (new)

Susanna - Censored by GoodReads (susannag) | 1011 comments Mod
Because British actors always seem to be available to play bad guys?

Oy, Kevin Costner in Robin Hood. My ears hurt at the memory!


message 43: by Old-Barbarossa (new)

Old-Barbarossa Kev wrote: "I really agree with Manuel about accents. In addition, how come so many films about ancient Rome have the Romans talking with British accents? Shouldn't they sound more like the guys in Goodfellas?..."

I would love to see I, Claudius performed by the cast of the Sopranos...
Now, you could go down the Mel Gibson stylee route and try and get everyone speaking dead languages etc. but I'm reminded of the scene in the Life Of Brian when the centurion gives a Latin vocab. lesson to Brian when he's caught with brush in hand.


message 44: by Old-Barbarossa (new)

Old-Barbarossa Gabriele wrote: "I'm just new to this group, and, as a writer of historical fiction, have found this discussion most interesting. I now add notes at the end of my novels to substantiate those facts that made me, an..."

I enjoy these types of endnotes, especially if well sourced. Robert Graves gives some very good ones at the end of The Golden Fleece. And George MacDonald Fraser is spot on in his Flashman novels in this regard.


message 45: by Gabriele (new)

Gabriele Wills (muskoka) | 5 comments I also created a website where people can see and link to more info about various aspects of the novel - location photos, relevant museums, historical pics and film footage, primary documents, and so forth. You can see this at http://elusivedawn.info/



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