Before we discuss how accurate your historical novel should be, we should look at why we decide to write a historical novel in the first place (we know most of us aren’t doing it for the money). So why did you decide to write historical romance?
From my perspective as a history teacher, I want a historical novel to allow the reader to exist in another time and another place. But you’re not a history teacher you say. Well, if you’re writing a historical novel – you ARE a history teacher. Remember the old Chinese saying “every time you open a book you learn something”. Your readers are learning something from your books. It up to you to determine what they learn.
The past is important because it teaches us who we are and where we come from. And how can we know where we want to go unless we know where we’ve come from? The best demonstration of this is Koko the gorilla who learned sign language. When she signs ‘the past’ she motions in front of her, because you can ‘see’ the past. When she signs ‘the future’ she motions behind her as you can’t ‘see’ the future. And what we want in our future depends on how we interpret our past.
Our books reach more people than history texts. And because our stories are about people, the reader who lives through the civil war by reading Gone with the Wind will probably understand what the war did to the South (their total way of life — GWTW) better than if the reader read only a history text.
The romance element is the universality of any historical novel. Regardless of the time and setting, the social customs, economic conditions, politics, wars, crusades or whatever, there is always the relationship between men and women to be explored.
So, now how accurate do you have to be? We want to show what life was like in another time and another place, how it was different and how it was the same. You have to know the time and place you’re writing about so that you take into account the social, political and economics of the time. You don’t want the plot of your historical novel to turn on an inaccuracy. I recently read a review of a western historical where the single hero and heroine spend a night together in the small town hotel and no one, including the heroine’s father, says anything about it. This is not the reality of the western frontier.
If you remember the film BRAVEHEART came out the same time a the James Bond film GOLDEN EYE. Did movie viewer think the Bond film was an accuract protray of the British Secret Service? Probably not. But did they think they saw the accuract history of Scotland? I hope not. A good example of not understanding the reality of the time and place is at the end of the movie BRAVEHEART where the princess goes down to the dungeon to see Wallace (which of course, didn’t happen). She says to the guard at the gate, ‘the king is dead, my husband is now the king’ and the guard falls all over himself to do her bidding because she the queen. All during this scene I’m shouting (to myself) ‘no, no’, because she’s just told the guard that she is a nobody. Her only influence as queen is through her husband the king, who is, as we know a homosexual, so she has absolutely no sway with the king because she’s not the one he’s sleeping with.
A queen’s influence only extended as far as her husband’s affection for her. Edward I (the villain in Braveheart) was extremely fond of his wife who proved a moderating influence on him during her lifetime. His contemporaries noted how he became a much harsher man after her death. And for Edward II’s wife, as her husband was a homosexual, she had no influence over him.
The ‘evil’ of a homosexual king was since the object of his affection was a man, the king could give his lover political and economic power and positions that were unavailable to a woman/queen. A king and his male lover are a threat to the power and stability of the aristocracy, where a king who loves/respect his wife is not. (In case you’re wondering the queen and her lover eventually overthrow Edward II).
History reflects where the writer/novelist is standing as well as the time period that is being written about. When the Victorian era looked back on the Elizabethan Age, they were somewhat dismissive as the Victorians saw the English Renaissance as being a time of rampant/open sexuality, too bawdy. As Victoria supposedly said of Elizabeth, ‘so unkind to our ancestress, the Queen of Scots’ (who Elizabeth allowed to be executed for treason).
But then with the coming of WWI and WWII, the interest in Elizabethan England picked up, as England under Elizabeth had successfully withstood the Spanish Armada. And with 20th Century England looking across the channel to the possibility of a Nazi invasion, Elizabethbecame a historical heroine.
Writing a novel is not easy. Writing a romance novel is twice as hard because you have to balance two equally important protagonists. Writing a historical romance novel adds another layer of difficulty. We should try, not for accuracy, but rather for authenticity.
Just remember what Tom Hank’s character (Jimmy Dugan) says in A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN – ‘it’s supposed to be hard. If it were easy everyone could do it. It’s the hard that makes it great’. So make your historicals great.