Hearts Through History Romance Writers

What Is Historical Accuracy?

by | June 2, 2013 | 30 comments

I had this idea in my head that in my blog post this month I would pick a fight about how historically accurate we really need to be in our novels.  After all, a few weeks ago I attended Angela James, Executive Director of Carina Press’s workshop “Before You Hit Send”, and she made the passing statement that absolute accuracy is not that important and a lot of things can slide if the story is good.  I tend to agree with her.  I think a lot of people tend to go straight off the deep-end mental about historical accuracy, thereby destroying a good story for themselves. 

So as I thought about how best to tweak some noses, a new, odd thought hit me.  What are we even talking about when we get wrapped up about this historical accuracy stuff?  What does that term even mean? 

The Afternoon Visitor, by Frederic Soulacroix Settle down, ladies!  There are social rules here!

The Afternoon Visitor, by Frederic Soulacroix
Settle down, ladies! There are social rules here!

To my mind, we’re talking about two entirely different things when we use the term “historical accuracy”.  One I agree is essential to any historically-set novel.  The other is subjective, fuzzy, and more often than not, people who think they know what they’re talking about haven’t a clue.

The first is, of course, accuracy of material detail.  Thank you, 1940 Greer Garson version of Pride and Prejudice, but ladies in the Regency did NOT wear hoopskirts!  I can’t even watch that version.  Yes, it does matter whether men’s shirts buttoned all the way down in the 1890s or only halfway, as a beta-reader pointed out to me (although “coat shirts” did exist at the time but didn’t become popular until the 1920s).  Carriages were indeed a status symbol all throughout the 19th century, and yes, it mattered whether a duke outranked an earl and what you were supposed to call them.

Incidentally, one of the best books I’ve come across for all the quick, nitty-gritty of historical accuracy in the 19th century is, of course, What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, by Daniel Pool.  Very cool.

Material details are important because they are solid, objective facts.  You do need to be careful about including elements in your books that actually existed at the time.  I feel like this is especially true of popular eras in Romance – Regency, Georgian, Victorian, and Western – because readers are more on the savvy side.  Of course, a lot of people think they know things that aren’t even remotely accurate, but that leads into the second kind of historical accuracy.

But before I move on to that, I have to talk about an exception to the rule.  I’ve gotten into heated arguments about this with people.  Like, you have no idea.  I am a champion of the deliberate anachronism.  Yes, I loved the movie A Knight’s Tale, and I thought that Marie Antoinette movie with Kirsten Dunst was pretty cool too.  Are they accurate?  Nope.  Are they using anachronism to tell a certain story in a certain way?  Yep.  And I love it.  I wish there were more books out there attempting to tell stories this way (like my Noble Hearts medieval series, *cough, cough, plug, plug*).

Ah, but then we come to the other kind of “historical accuracy”.  And frankly, the quickest way to make me roar in futile anger is to get wrapped up in this one.  We’re talking about what people thought, how they acted, and what they believed.

Yes, society had rules, spoken and unspoken.  True, there were trends of thought that were ostensibly the norm.  I hear a lot of mixed feelings about the “rules of propriety for Regency women”, for example.  Some authors complain that it restricts their characters to a narrow spectrum of action and behavior.  Others launch off on tirades when any character does something “they would never have done in that time period”. 

Gaaah!!!!!  See the fury that idea provokes?

Who was really in the cage, the bird or the lady?

Who was really in the cage, the bird or the lady?

Here’s the problem with narrowing what characters would do or be able to do or think or believe in any given time period.  It’s subjective.  It changed and varied.  It depended on internal, psychological and environmental factors.  It depended on location and income.  Behavior is in no way standardized and there are exceptions to every rule.

Going back to reference books, Pool may be a great source for the facts of the minutia of 19th century life (though he does a much, much better job with the first half of the century than the last), but he errs on the side of detailing information of the great works of literature of the 19th century.  The problem with using literature as your guide to society in any era is that literature often contains an extreme of thought of caricature of behavior.  Is Mrs. Bennett the definitive example of a country squire’s wife?  Is Lady Dedlock’s fate that of any young woman who marries an older, wealthy man?  Is Jane Eyre the model for all governesses?

There’s also an inherent problem in looking to historical record for answers about what people believed and how they acted on an individual basis.  The law only punishes those who are caught.  Scientists and sociologists only focus on those who are unusual.  History is written by the victor.  Only the loudest voices have their thoughts and speeches recorded for posterity.  Who knows that the silent majority thought?

That brings me to another book that I love to bits and pour over for information, a little gem from Penguin’s Social History of Britain series called Private Lives, Public Spirit: Britain 1870 – 1914, by Jose Harris.  Harris does a really great job of presenting the larger trends and evidence of history while seeking out the smaller studies and findings of contemporary researchers. 

My favorite is his discussion of what sexual mores were really like in the late 19th century.  He starts with the “common knowledge” that sexuality in the late 19th century was repressed and women were generally viewed to have no sexual interest at all.  He talks about how this was based on the writings of a few prominent voices of the time … who were writing from their own uncomfortable or bizarre personal experiences.  He compares popular treatises of the day, often written by men who were alarmed at the change in gender roles that was slowly evolving with the women’s rights movements, with literature of the time, with civil records of the number of prostitutes in business, the numbers of marriages and births, and a few super interesting studies done by contemporary sociologists.  His conclusion is that while a few loud voices insisted that Victorian sexuality was as stifled as people have commonly thought, the truth about what people did behind closed doors was very different.  Sex before marriage wasn’t unheard of and the proponents of sexual happiness within marriage were more popular than the moralists proclaiming that sex was only for procreation, even if they weren’t louder.

Oscar Wilde and his very special friend.  This photograph is, of course, not historically accurate because they would have been shot on sight if anyone so much as had a hint of what they were up to, right?

Oscar Wilde and his very special friend. This photograph is, of course, not historically accurate because they would have been shot on sight if anyone so much as had a hint of what they were up to, right?

See where I’m heading?  For every social rule and dictate of how people should behave, there could have been any number of people waving it off as bunk and behaving as they saw fit.  We hear a lot about the cases where someone was punished for disobeying the dictates of society, but how many more cases of thinking outside of the box went unreported because people simply didn’t care?  A lot of evidence suggests that a good number of people looked the other way where sodomy laws were concerned, which is why it was such a big deal when Oscar Wilde was brought up on charges in 1895.  And the women who led the suffragette movement didn’t just suddenly wake up one day and think, “Hey!  We should be treated more fairly!”  Decades worth of women who thought and lived outside the box – and the men who supported them – went into that revolution.

Okay, so how do we carry this kind of squishy, subjective historical accuracy over into our writing?  If you write a heroine who flaunts the dictates of society but is still socially accepted, is that going to draw the ire of the people who say “a lady would never do that and therefore you have no credibility”?  Yes, someone somewhere is going to say that.  They’d be wrong, but they’re going to say it.  Because these are the people, if they were suddenly transported back to the era in which your story is set, who would be shaking their head and tutting over the scandalous behavior in front of them.  They’d be in the minority, as critical people often are.

The trick, I think, is to craft your characters in such a way that their behavior makes sense.  You have to justify your individual take on historical accuracy of thought and behavior.  Does your character have enough money or social standing for people to forgive their bold behavior?  Because the rich and titled were forgiven for their indiscretions all the time.  Does she fall so far below the hawk eyes of society that no one would care what rules she breaks?  That happened too.  Does she care?  If not, then why bother?  Has your hero been educated with more liberal ideas?  There’s no telling what he might do.  And most important of all, do the circumstances of your character’s past dictate that they would make an unusual decision out of unique psychological factors?

I recently had a reviewer criticize my heroine, Amelia, in Fool for Love for sleeping with the hero early on in the book, thus saying that the credibility of the entire book was compromised.  I think she missed the chapters and chapters worth of family history, sexual longing, despair, gratitude towards the hero, and, oh, the fact that she was already pregnant with a lover’s child and therefore felt she had nothing to lose.  Context is everything.

And so, because this post is way too long already, the point I am making is that while historical accuracy of material detail is fact and shouldn’t be breached, historical accuracy of thought and action is almost completely up to interpretation, as long as you can justify it.  Attitudes and standards fluctuated drastically through time, location, and individual experience “back then” just as they do now.  Look around at all of the different beliefs and ways of life that people in 2013 have.  The same goes for 1895 or 1800 or 1192.  If you can make a solid case for your characters bucking the so-called social norms of the situations in which they live, then no one has the right to say you’re not being historically accurate.


[All pictures are public domain, courtesy of Wikicommons]


  1. Nancy

    I think legal details and historical dates have to be followed scrupulously. The plot rather than the date of the battle of Waterloo should be changed. The laws of marriage were not something some one could choose to observe or not in most eras.
    We do overlook hygiene, bad breath, rotting teeth, and smelly feet.
    Social mores are trickier. I allow for more leeway for such. However, it does bother me to have young virgins going about having sex with no thoughts of consequences whether from nature or society. I deal mainly with regency era, but think this true for most period.
    While I find it more acceptable ( not by much) to have older heroines breaking the sexual rules, I am more appalled at their not thinking about consequences.
    AS to whether a woman should study astrology, manage an estate, ride like the wind, have a business, shoot or even fence– ( shrug) why not?

    • Merry Farmer

      You’ve hit on a great example of one of my favorite misunderstandings about history, Nancy. Archeological evidence (digging up graves) has shown that people’s teeth really weren’t all that bad back in the days before sugar became a major part of our diet. But that’s a great example of something people think they know but are partially wrong about.

      And as far as young virgins having sex, I don’t know. Look at the way teenage girls act today, all boy crazy and full of hormones. If an unscrupulous man came along and took advantage of that (I’m thinking Valmont and Cecile here – and Les Liaison Dangereuses was written in 1782) an innocent young girl might just fall for it. Because let’s face it, teenagers don’t have the best judgment. It all comes down to making the case within a particular story of why a given virginal heroine would make that choice. Hormones are powerful things!

      • Grace Burrowes

        I’ve come across references to one Victorian study that confirmed HALF of the children born to newly married couples in a “nice” parish arrived less than six months after the wedding. A regency sociologist found that one in ten women in London was engaged in prostitution ca 1800, and that was at the time of the study. Prostitution was NOT illegal at the time (living off the proceeds was, owning a brothel was), and consider that many other women had turned a trick or two to make ends meet after or previous to the study. The Georgian figure for prostitution was one in five women, and Jane Austen was well aware of the practice of abbesses recruiting farm girls to the trade.
        The idea that a woman’s virtue was her greatest treasure might have been a philosophical luxury upheld mostly by the small percentage of the population enjoying great wealth.

        • Merry Farmer

          That’s a really good point. I was just reading something recently that talked about how the whole virtue of chastity thing was so much more important later in the 19th century, after the Reform Acts of the 1820s, but especially when Darwinism became popular and suddenly there was an emphasis on women as mothers (and less evolved creatures). We tend to fall into that trap of thinking that virginity was always praised, but in the middle ages it was just as common to make sure that the girl was capable of bearing children before marrying her.


  2. Margaret Locke

    Loved this! Excellent post. I’m wrestling with these very ideas as I embark on writing Regency novels. Just as movies depicting eras and ideals of the past usually reveal as much about the time in which they were made as they do about any actual historical events, so I think it is often true for books, no matter how hard one tries to immerse themselves in the historical period about which they write. Yes, I agree, aiming for historical accuracy in material things is essential, but I also feel that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for us to truly understand what it was like to live in a different period other than our own simply because societies and cultures and realities are so complex. Even in my modern life I know my experiences as a woman in 2013 differ from those of men, from women living in other countries, even from women living in my same town. Reality is subjective! And most of us as readers want something that speaks to us where we are today. As a lover of romance novels, I know I want to read more about a heroine with whom I feel I can identify – especially if she’s someone I want to be like but am not. So it’s O.K. to throw in some more modern ideals. It’s O.K. to tinker around with it. There is a huge variety of people with a huge variety of accepted ways of thinking and behaving (not to mention the unaccepted!) – seems to me this is true of any time period, not just our own. Sorry this is so long – I love this topic. I was a doctoral student in medieval history for some time and struggled with this, wondering how much of what we had spoke historical truth, how much were we missing, and how much were our interpretations colored by our own time period and beliefs, even if we thought we were being completely objective. Love the post!

    • Merry Farmer

      Thanks, Margaret! That’s my point exactly. Reality is subjective and standards of behavior varied from family to family. And sometimes attempting to be historically accurate can completely alienate the reader, which is the last thing we want to do (and the reason I wrote my medieval series a la A Knight’s Tale).

      And you’re after my own heart with your doctoral studies in medieval history and trying to decipher the evidence we have! It’s almost impossible to determine what people really thought a thousand years ago. I tend to be in the school of thought that says people are people and our basic wants and needs don’t change, so how they thought about things probably wasn’t as different as how we think about things now as some might want to assume. 😉

  3. Keena Kincaid

    A great touchstone to what was happening in society are the sermons of the day. They can be hard to find, but if you can find out what priests/preachers/evangelists are talking about from the lectern/pulpit, you can learn what was on people’s minds.

    • Merry Farmer

      Those sound like great resources! But then again, they only give you an idea of what one segment of society was thinking. Not everyone went to church, and of those that did, there were probably a fair number who didn’t feel as strongly about things as the preacher did. Definitely important for getting the big picture though.

  4. Chris Campbell

    This is a wonderful post on a subject that is important to all of us. Thank you!

  5. Nancy S Goodman

    Oh Merry, what a fantastic post! When I first started writing Regency, I was scrupulous abou peerage and titles, etc. I belonged to a critique group and when I posted my work was cyber-screamed at for having my butler call his master, as Duke, Your Grace. I was told it is perfectly fine to have him be called my lord. Nope. Not true. Things like rank and title, as you said, are very important to get accurate, like military titles.
    When it comes to mores and rules of society, we as writers have to bend the rules. I’m sorry, but there were many, many unwed mothers in every point of history, so obviously young unmarried women did more tha just kiss the man! Like yo said, it’s the set up and the context. A Regency young lady won’t go running around london in short skirts, holding hands with a man, unchaperoned. But she might sneak out wearing breeches. she might arrange an assignation in the dark, when no one else could see her. Or slip away during a ball to meet a man, To me, it’s perfectly fine to do that. In my opinion, of course. 🙂

    • Merry Farmer

      Thanks Nancy. I have to confess that that’s one of those things that bothers me. Sure, we make errors in our writing, but cyber-yelling about it and carrying on is just rude, no matter who you are or how bad the mistake was. Isn’t it so much nicer just to politely point out errors to people than to beat everyone over the head? At least then a conversation can get started about the truth of history. But that’s a post for another day! 😉

    • Grace Burrowes

      Nancy, here again, the ground is not quite as solid as some of our readers want to believe it is. Read early editions of Heyer–people DID call the duke “my lord,” and Heyer’s research was said to be faultless. I’ve seen documentation to the effect that the present punctilio regarding titles arose when Elizabeth took the throne in the 1950s, and the monarchy wanted to spruce up its protocol after the exigencies and informality of WWII. Sorry you were screamed at, and as is often the case, it wasn’t deserved.

  6. Beth St. Simon

    Awesome post, Merry. This post mirrors my same thoughts on the matter. Bravo! I always enjoy your posts.;)

  7. Terry Irene Blain

    Always a great talking point. I like as much accuracy as possible, but the main thing I try for is authenticity of the time and place. Things totally out of place really drive me crazy. I always put Author’s Notes at the end to explain anything I changed or things that were true that readers might think I made up. I’ll have to see if I can find my Seduced by History blog A History Teacher Goes to the Movies. My main concern is that we use the knowledge of the past to decide what to do in the future.

    • Merry Farmer

      Ooo! I like that word, Terry: authenticity. As long as the details are or at least sound authentic, then we can get away with a wider spectrum of thought and action. Thanks!

  8. Ella Quinn

    I have to say that there are many books I don’t read and movies I don’t see because of the issue with historical accuracy. I try to make mine as accurate as possible, otherwise why bother writing an historical novel? Tweeted.

  9. Barbara Bettis

    Such a good and discussion-provoking topic, Merry. I’m a bit torn, too, about historical accuracy. On the factual, known, issues and dates–they should be right. I agree with Nancy about changing the plot to accommodate the historical event, not vice versa.

    On the other hand, we have the points you raised about what we think we know about behavior, opinions, etc. Some, of course, are certain, such as the church’s stand on particular issues, or the law of the time.

    But the argument some make about whether young women would do the things we romance authors have them do–well, that’s where we have literary license. That’s what makes the stories appealing to our readers. Who’s not to say one young woman in the —th Century didn’t think this or behave this way? In fact, new evidence is frequently uncovered (or re-discovered) that counters the generally accepted view of “things.”

    Certainly if we go by movie and TV depiction of history, we have to be careful 🙂

    And there’s the generally accepted view of things, or what people think they know based on what they’ve read or seen. I definitely agree, Merry, that this can be difficult for writers to overcome.

    Good post!

    • Merry Farmer

      Yep, Barbara, that’s exactly why when it comes down to it, for me I’d rather have a good story with a few inaccuracies than a technically accurate story that feels dry or hollow. But then, I may be more willing to let those sorts of things slide than other readers would be.

  10. Gerri Bowen

    I enjoyed your post, Merry! Good one.

  11. Jody

    As a researcher I tend to agree with most of what you say however, I do think the second historical accuaracy can be found in actually researching the private lives of people thru diaries, journals, newspapers ect. I have yet to suggest to an author I work with that her character isn’t acting the norm of the period, the stepping away from the norm always equates to conflict and you can’t have good fiction without conflict.

    As to the first accuaracy part I would venture to say that even here you are going to have those historians and researchers, especially now with the growing trend of public historians and cultural historians, that you will find they won’t even agree on what things were called, what they actually wore or even ate as per stattus, location, period.

    I do disagree with you that the history we have available to us is written by the victor, there are many sources that are being researched and found that tell many sides of the story but we think it is only the victor’s truth because that is what we learned in High School and for a large part college. The whole movement in historical study, of which both the public and the write is a gifted with, has changed in the last 60 years from being one of Great Men/Great events to one that was a Marxist approach where the only true history is found in the daily lives of the working class and change was the key, then you had the French who moved away from the great men/great events, to look at Culture as it pertained to laws, economics and social change, then the feminist movement – where are the women not only in studying history but where are their contributions which lead to concerns with reseaching the lives of immigrants and their contribution to the social/cultural histoy of group of people. And the now we have postmodernism in history which is all about historical meaning, not only what people did across periods and locations but the meaning of why they did and for about 10 years historic academia has been at war wit itself and in the intrem Public history has taken over and has brought people back to history as not only a means of explain their own existance through understanding how their ancestors lived but it has both economic and enterainment value.

    The problem especially in Romance ficiton is that there are expected norms and whether they are true or not historically it doesn’t matter the reader has that expectation. For me who loves Scottish history there are some norms in romance fiction that drive me bonkers as a reader. The year and a day aspect of Handfasting, yes there was handfasting it was a betrothal not a trial marriage this type of Celtic/Saxon trial marriage was abolished by the Church at the Synod of Whitby in about 665AD. The year and a day aspect was a hold over from a Saxon marriage contract that defined who got her dowry if she died before a year and a day. So for me any book that uses that year and a day aspect after the 1100’s is a wall banger for me and I have seen this used in the 19th century which would be so wrong because if they declared them selves married by Scottish law until 1939 they were legally married so. Things like this are mainstays of Scottish romances and for me the reader I think they are stale and trite and authors should move on to find some thing new. The other one that bothers me is there are very few incidents in Scottish history where the Highlanders and the English battled each other in the Highlands (maybe the first war of independence in early 1300’s) so all this we need to solve the issue between Scotland by having a highlander marry an English lass makes no historical sense. Most battles with a few exception happened in the Borders, the central belt, and the North east areas that were not for the most part where Highlanders lived. Highlanders fought more with each other as well as the crown of Scotland as they did with the English. Yet this is a mainstay of many a Scottish romance, and do sometihing different and you will get readers upset because they think that is the hsitory.

    i guess for me if you want your main protagonists to act out side of a norm for a given period knowing full well that there really is no “norm’ perse then you have to at least ackknowledge that as part of the conflict. I do have to wonder though if you want to write women especially who appear more modern in their actions and their thoughts why are you writing a historical… as a reader, researcher and writer to me the history of the periods ( actions, events, language and artifacts) should be as much a character as your own characters are or then just write contemporaries.

    Movies are far more abusive of actual history because their main mission is not to maybe tell a good story but to tell a story that will appeal to the current trend in what people want in entertainment. I watch movies and series like the Borgias and Braveheart not to escape but to be entertained where I read historicals both straight and historicals to escape to a place in the past and lives different than my own.

    BTW I was a conference this weekend and talked to a number of agents and editors and as to dialect… they want way less, it should be used sparinly to help define the charcter and not the location and that one needs to remember that your audience is a modern reader.

    • Merry Farmer

      That’s a good point, Jody. One of my favorite classes that I took while pursuing my History degrees was Historiography. I loved studying the history of how we have viewed history throughout the ages. And yes, there is huge variation in which sources people have seen as more important and what biases people had during different times based on their personal beliefs.

      At the same time, I sort of wonder if we, as writers, have to drive ourselves to distraction by researching every little thing as though we’re writing a doctoral dissertation, then can we really make light and entertaining novels? But then, my personal tastes in reading material run towards not caring overmuch how precise the details of historical accuracy are.


  12. Sharon Lathan

    This is a brilliant post and I applaud you for speaking out. I am sure others have as well, from time to time, but it seems to me as if even hinting at not being 300% accurate on every last teeny-tiny detail within what is, after all, fiction, is paramount to confessing to committing a heinous crime worse than Hitler, Manson, Stalin, and Genghis Khan all rolled into one!

    I hate to say it, but one reason I rarely comment or even ask a question on the loops is the fear of being flayed alive for suggesting there might have been a gray area about the topic, or being made to feel horrible and never wishing to write another word when a “mistake” I am guilty of is pointed out.

    After all, we are only human. Everyone makes mistakes, no matter how extensive our research. To hear ultra-critical phrases, and that everything an author wrote was dismissed due to a single fact is terrifying.

    As for the second aspect of “historical accuracy” you discussed, again I would say: We are only human. Since the dawn of time, human beings have been flawed and bucking the rules. I can’t recall where I read this, but someone on a blog once said (paraphrasing here) that the best evidence to people in the Regency (and by extension other Eras) misbehaving is that no one would have bothered dictating and writing down all the proper rules of etiquette and conduct unless it was a problem! That has always stuck with me whenever I get the old, “NO ONE would EVER have done/said THAT!”

    I could say more, but you did so quite eloquently. Thanks again. Sharon Lathan

    • Merry Farmer

      Thanks, Sharon! That’s what really bothers me in this whole discussion. No one – and I mean no one – should ever scream at another writer for not having 300% historical accuracy. There are a lot of grey areas and discussion can open the understanding, but all too often that’s not what people are after when they start screaming. As writers, we’re here to help each other, not tear each other down over small things, right? Thankfully, there are very few writers who I have actually seen behaving badly over this.

  13. Mary Jo Burke

    Hi Merry,

    I submitted an historical to a contest and was told my heroine would never engage in such behavior. She was a wealthy widow who pursued the hero. Didn’t know that was considered behavior.

    • Merry Farmer

      Really? A lot of the time that’s what “more experienced” women did. It was super common. That’s it! We just have to get out there and educate the historical romance readers of the world! 😉

  14. Angelyn

    Terry’s point about authenticity is key. Jody’s overview of historical study is spot on, as well as reader expectations.

    I knew this post would generate a lot of comments and discussion. Well done, Merry!

  15. Maria

    This is a very interesting post. I have read lots of historical fiction where the heroes and heroines made unconventional decisions but the storyline supported these diverse choices. And didn’t Jane Austen herself take a stand when she refused to marry; even after she was asked and accepted the proposal, she changed her mind within 12 hours whereupon she & her sister abruptly fled the guest’s house the following morning. Mortifying? Yes. Unconventional? Yes.

    • Merry Farmer

      That’s why I love the 1999 version of Mansfield Park that attempted to include elements of Jane Austen’s life. The characters didn’t behave like Regency tropes dictated they should, but I actually found it more realistic and believable than a lot of other Jane Austen adaptations. Loved it!



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