Wednesday, December 10, 2008

When historical fiction goes wrong...

I was reading a work of historical fiction yesterday evening and came very close to flinging it against the wall. But a) it is a library book b) it has a plastic cover that would make a mess if it lands on the woodstove and c) I don't want to dent the wall.

It was very disappointing and what's worse is that the author started off drawing me right into her world with a great story and historical detail. The first sign of trouble came with a few info dumps, but I was willing to let those go and just skim. Then it happened - a HUGE historical error - the death of a real person four+ years too soon. It just yanked me right out of the story and I couldn't go back. I tried, I did, but I just couldn't let it go.

Now, under other circumstances I might have kept going. Had the book been more of a wallpaper historical, I might have brushed aside the mistake, but in this case I couldn't, because until I ran into this error, I'd been immersed in another era, courtesy of the author. Even the info dumps, though awkward, convinced me she knew her stuff. So when this mistake reared its ugly head, I just couldn't ignore it and began to question all the other historical details.

To make matters worse, there was no Author's Note. I checked, hoping to find an explanation there (it would have had to have been a pretty good one, mind), but nada. So I was left questioning whether or not the author KNEW this particular person died later and just moved it up for convenience sake OR if she just didn't know and threw the reference in regardless. And that was my sticking point. Up till that point, I'd trusted her, and now that trust was broken, I couldn't lose myself in her world any more as I no longer believed in its veracity.

On various listservs, forums and groups I've discussed the question of historical accuracy and have conceded that there are times an author can fudge. My opinion hasn't changed, BUT I like to know why and that's why the Author's Note is so important. If you can't convince your publisher to give you room for that note, I caution you against making changes (historical or otherwise) your readers will catch (and some of them ALWAYS will), or risk losing them for good.

Have you ever put a book down for the reasons I've discussed? And do you find it worse if the author has created a world you believe in, then ruins it with an inaccuracy?


Currently Reading: I'm between books - have several to choose from
Link of the Day: The Worshipful Company of Glovers of London (link courtesy of Claire Delacroix / Deborah Cooke)


Rene said...

I hate when that happens. I agree with you, if it is a costume drama romance, I'm far more forgiving. And if an author prefaces a book by saying they took a liberty here and there, I'm okay. But I can see why you were annoyed.

Melissa Marsh said...

That is a HUGE mistake and one I'd have a hard time dealing with, too. And really, I don't know that there would be a plausible explanation for it. I'd say that it was just an error on the author's part, albeit a great big one.

I actually read a contemporary book (from a very famous author) who set her story near my hometown. She wrote something about driving from one town to another and in that whole stretch of road, they didn't drive through any other towns. I was aghast because I had driven that stretch of road I don't know how many times and there were definitely towns! I lost interest in the book after that.

Sam said...

oh no!!! I don't often recognise when historical fiction goes wrong unless it is very very obvious. I don't think that I'd mind as long as the author put in a note at the end to explain why they did it.

Tess said...

Rene - this was definitely NOT a costume drama romance - it was serious HF with NO indication license was taken.

Melissa - Yikes! Talk about not doing research! It's even HARDER for contemporaries as there's ALWAYS going to be someone to pick up mistakes.

Sam - had there been an author's note, I might have continued reading. If it's a period I don't know so well, I might just gloss over, but with something I knew SO well, I just couldn't ignore it.

Katy Cooper said...

"but with something I knew SO well, I just couldn't ignore it."

I think it's almost worse when you know the period well. The periods I know (relateively) well are the ones I'm most passionate about, so I can be a first-class pill about things that seem wrong to me.

Cindy Procter-King said...

I don't read historicals often enough to know when a mistake like this has been made, but if I did read historicals often, it would totally drive me bongo. I think the author's note is a great idea.