Historical Fiction Would Be Better If … 2012 Historical Fiction Survey

588 readers responded with enthusiasm to the question “what detracts from your enjoyment of historical fiction”.

44% Inaccuracies – includes seeing modern sensibilities in a historic setting, anachronisms, dialogue that does not fit the period, poor research, moving major dates to suit a story line and so on.

2% Dialogue – several people complained that using too much dialogue from a long ago period takes away from the ease of reading.

9%  Sex & Violence – this refers to stories with too much sex and violence rather than too little 🙂 In addition, some readers specifically mentioned gory battle scenes.

15%  Too much detail – refers to stories weighted down with reams of historical detail, almost as though the author wanted to include every bit of research found on a particular aspect of history.

15% Pace, Plot & Character – in the main, these comments referred to problems that can cause any story to fail. Poor writing, unrealistic characters, slow pace, stories that are too sensational. A few comments spoke of ‘wallpaper historicals’ and ‘romance disguised as historical fiction’. Another reader referred to the problem of ‘history being a substitute for story.

And 24% offered a range of other reasons from ‘I just don’t like historical fiction’ to ‘I haven’t got enough time to read’.

Let’s hear from a few readers directly:

I don’t like authors who just put in “Wikipedia” paragraphs instead of building historical atmosphere. The dialogue and setting should be natural, and appropriate to the characters, not contrived to check the boxes of historicity. The atmospheric details shouldn’t be over-explained like a dictionary, either.

Inaccuracies (minor changes to historical events) are OK if needed by the story and justified/explained in an afterword. I generally judge on the quality of the writing – even a good yarn can be spoiled by sloppy writing.

When an author tries to force an accent in writing. Over the top Scots, ridculous medieval talk, cockney that’s hard to understand…

When the history of the period and the story aren’t seamlessly drawn. If one is sacrificed for the other, it makes the overall pace of the story drag.

When they author deviates heavily from the historical record, such as making up battles or encounters that did not happen. Very irritating.

Oversexualization, wild inaccuracies, grotesquely detailed scenes of violence (Game of Thrones, for example), marginalization and objectification of women.

Characters that don’t interest me, poor pacing and shoddy research.

Too much grit – gore & violence Too much bodice ripping – I prefer to stay outside the bedroom if possible; and if not, I don’t need a catalogue of body positions.

Dry writing style with too much information fired at the reader like a textbook or recited by rote instead of incorporating details by making them part of the story. I like to learn stuff without being aware that I’m learning.

What do you think? I’d love to hear more from both readers and writers on this topic.

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50 Responses

  1. This is all fascinating, Mary. The comment about dialogue in particular, for me as my novel is set in rural Newfoundland- am wondering how far I go with it…

    1. A book or article I read suggested using one or two key phrases to suggest your character’s background. Then blend that in with ‘regular’ dialogue. Dialogue should not slow the reading pace. What do you think?

  2. Historical fiction is first and foremost, a story. The history provides the milieu and only as much historical fact as helps establish the milieu is all that is required. Any fact that gets in the way of the story should be omitted. If you want to tell facts first and foremost, write history.

  3. But of course do your research in depth behind the scenes so that the history you do put in the novel feels right. If you don’t do the research, you end up with a novel in the 44% bracket even if the story is fantastic.
    Interesting to see the responses and some very valid points – thank you.

    1. Hello Elizabeth – and thanks so much for stopping by. I was so pleased to see your popularity in the survey – which speaks to your mastery of historical detail. There are times when I research for hours in order to craft only one or two sentences. Having written so many novels, you must have a treasure trove of research. Does that make it easier or is the challenge the same each time?

  4. Modern words like yeah and ok irritate me no end. Conversely, too many sirrahs, certes, thee and thou (which I refer to as Shakespeare Talk) have the same effect. Many authors of historical fiction seem to have trouble conveying a sense of time and place without going overboard with period dialogue.

    1. I feel the same way, Jessie. I read somewhere that authors can suggest a given period of time with only a few occasional phrases sprinkled in the dialogue. I’m writing about WWI and find that differences in language are more subtle. Perhaps I need a dictionary from the early 20th century to help me out?

  5. Inaccuracies – without a doubt, and dialogue which sounds like boyz in the hood having a conversation, not regency men talking about things.

  6. I’m heartened to know that all my research for my historical novels is worthwhile after all. 🙂 Every small detail or fact in my novels can be verified from a book and page number. But of course it is always and foremost about the story and these snippets can be slipped in, hopefully, unobtrusively.

      1. I can’t speak for Noelene or anyone else, but I go back to my roots as an academic writer. For each novel I have a folder. I paste all research into a file, with source at the top. For long sources, I use a separate file. For written work (what I got from books, etc.), I put the topic and then the source. Although I don’t intend to have a “works cited” section in my novel, I have a tendency to use MLA format so I can find them easily. It usually doesn’t take much time if you can copy and paste from the internet (including finding book information on Amazon so you don’t have to type it in!).

  7. Very interesting to see actual numbers and specific comments. Quite often we write by what feels good to us, in spite of all those lessons about “slowing down the story” we learn in classes/workshops. Fortunately, I’m in a couple of great critique groups–specifically geared to HF–who help me see the weaknesses in my own work. One point of interest in this survey, to me, was the non-mention of POV. This is another bone of contention, and I’d be very curious to know the general feelings on that. Any numbers/comments related to POV?

    1. Hi Don … I don’t recall any mention of POV in the comments about things that detract from HF. What sort of issue have you been dealing with? An instructor I had talked about limiting POV within a scene and about how close and personal the POV is. Not sure what else to suggest. Thanks for your interest.

      1. My critique group members all seem to feel the modern style–writing from the POV of one character–is the only way to go. Penundrum’s guidelines say they don’t care if you use 1st person, third or omniscient, but stick to that style. I think a lot of readers really want to know interior motivation, and I’ve written a couple of scenes that switch back and forth between two “sparring” characters, using a device (exchange of an object, giving a glare into the eyes of the other, etc.). I realize the old “head-hopping from omniscient POV” is dead, but I wonder if it’s readers who are bothered by getting into the heads of characters, or editors.

        1. Interesting question .. I’m no expert but I have written two novels which have alternating points of view and of these one includes a diary which allows for a mingling of first person and third person. My agent likes them. I have seen so many different combinations I think the real question should centre on how good the story is. General advice is not to mingle more than one POV per scene.

  8. Reblogged this on Donmaker's Blog and commented:
    As a writer in general, and specifically related to HF, I found this article very interesting in that numbers and comments give great insights into what interests readers or turns them off. I made a comment on this blog about POV, another area that, in my experience, is very important to many readers. Any reactions to this blog, or thoughts on POV?

  9. Dialogue bothers me hugely. If I’m reading about an historical period, then I jolly well expect the dialogue to feel a little archaic – obviously not over the top Shakespearean style, but I need to feel that distance to get properly involved and accept what I’m reading.

    I also dislike historical novels being populated with modern sensibilities which feel jarringly anachronistic. When I read historical novels, I want as far as possible to feel that these are not modern people – they have signifcantly different viewpoints and reactions to events, and anything else feels…disappointing, as though the writer hasn’t sufficiently got under the skin of the characters.

    1. Hi Margaret – interesting balance in writing historical fiction between authenticity and over the top dialogue. The survey pointed out both issues in terms of what detracts from readers’ enjoyment. Definitely a balancing act.

    2. Hi Margaret,

      As a reader I despise specific modern phrases in historical romances, and can’t abide it when a novel comes over as more history lesson than escapism. I love history, know my history, and if reading a novel I want fully-rounded imagined characters revolving around real/imagined events set against real-time historical backdrop. So too, lack of formal dialogue bugs me. As a writer I strive for page-turning pace, dialogue and character mindset vaguely in keeping with era but not too OTT. Because of the latter I have been slammed for bad grammar by one or two people, yet I’ve had Americans who have said the language was unusual but didn’t detract from enjoyment of reading. Can’t please every one… 😉

  10. What annoys me most? Emotional anachronism. Writers who are going to set their novel in 1450 (or whenever) with a ‘kick-ass heroine’. Spare me. The whole concept of kick-ass was alien to the 1450s. It was alien to just about everywhere until the feminist revolution of the latter 20th century. Same with female characters who are self-realising as if they were Virginia Woolf, etc.

    1. I agree that we need to be careful with language, dialogue and so on but I think we can stretch the character sensibilities a bit to include some females who rail against their circumstances. Don’t you? In another part of the survey readers say they like strong female characters, for example. Don’t want to disappoint 🙂

      1. I don’t believe that just because an author cleaves to the sensibility of the period, the females will be weak. They may define or exemplify their strengths in ways that are different to our modern ideas, but that doesn’t make them weak. Nor do I believe that females throughout history have railed against their circumstances–I think they had far more gumption than that. They found ways of managing within their situations which worked for them–history is jam-packed with capable women.

        1. Thanks for that perspective. Finding ways to illustrate their strength without making them seem like modern feminists requires delicate balance. No doubt something you have done many times 🙂

  11. Yep I reblogged this too. Excellent info. and Every soooooo true. That’s why writing is a craft and a journey. That’s why I love writing it too. Thank youuuu

  12. As a writer of historical fiction, part of my research involves reading novels, plays, songs, and newspapers available in the time period. This gives me a feel for how people of the time handled language and how they thought about various topics. If they go to the theater, going to see ‘Hamlet’ is different from ‘The Beggars Opera.’ Likewise, if a character is a reader, it says something different if he reads ‘The Aventures of Roderick Random,’ the Bible, or a newspaper.

    1. One aspect I like about writing in a WWI timeframe is that the language and sensibilities are not too far off what I remember of people like my grandparents. I like your example that we can understand a character in subtle ways such as reading choices. Of course, your reader needs to know the authors and subjects they represent to appreciate such subtleties.

  13. I’m writing about Eleanor of Aquitaine at the moment and so much utter rot has been written about her as this great feminist icon who did as she pleased. Rubbish. She was a woman of her time who had to function within the mores of her time, and any attempt she made to kick over the traces was rewarded with punishment and isolation. Uppity women existed. Uppity women were (mostly) smacked down if it came to a serious challenge for power. As M.M. says, they had to work within the realms of what was possible within their areas of society.
    I guess what I’m saying is that strong women existed, but one should write them as strong women in the mould of their period and niche in society, and not as transplanted 21stc wishlist kickasses – unless one is writing alternative history or for an audience who wants a modern day setting with historical props.

    1. Excellent point. So often I see or read dramas on historic figures who are either lionized or demonized based on modern perceptions and sensibilities. It takes a lot of work to understand how they might have been viewed in their own era and society.

    2. Just finished CW Gortner’s The Last Queen. Talk about someone who was kicked around. And yet she found strength to take a stand and prevail on many occasions. Perhaps a good example of the kind of woman you and MM Bennett’s are talking about. Many thanks for your comment.

      1. absolutely. As we do our research and get into the skin of our character, we see that what is written just doesn’t fit this character. And I feel it is up to us as writers to point that out. For example, the numbers Julius Casear reported to the Senate is well known to be exaggeration. Let’s say he ’rounded up’. Or another I personally challenge is that Boudica (and I have spelled her name right) did not commit suicide via poison. This just does not fit her character…but it does the man who reported to Nero…a Roman. But our job is to make those believeable in a court of readers.

        1. Judy – if you write about such long ago times, you must have even more of a challenge to stay true to the cultural norms. I like your notion of ‘a court of readers’. The HF survey has given all of us who write historical fiction some thoughts to ponder. Hmmm, I sense another blog post.

  14. Am in serious awe of the person who said every single detail in their books can be backed up if necessary by citing the publication and page number from which it came.
    I’m not nearly as organised. I work with history and read copious amounts of reference books and primary sources. Over the years the details have blurred but they are there somewhere. I get very antsy if I’m reading something that purports to be historical but clearly isn’t, but that’s just a matter of incorrect labelling.
    My own fiction has had plenty of research but tends to be more of a romp than ‘serious history’. I’d love to have a genre like “Historical Fantasy” – I’d be all over that like a rash.

        1. Many thanks, Don. I missed that response as I was in Europe last week – and trying to stay in touch mainly via smartphone. Perhaps not such a ‘smart’ idea after all.

          1. Hope the info was useful. And I’ll be in Europe for six weeks at the end of the month; with no “smart phone”, I won’t even bother trying to keep in touch.

    1. From “One Thousand and One Nights” to “The Once and Future King” to the recent “War Horse”, there is definitely an historical fantasy sub-genre, as well as alternative history. Go for it! Cheers, Don

  15. Re: dialog
    As the author of a trilogy set in the Bronze Age, I realized that what I was doing was translating whatever language the folks back then would have been speaking, and as a translator, my job was to convey what those folks were saying in contemporary language that would be understandable to my audience. I mostly stayed away from “modern” slang and stuck to standard English. Standard English does allow for a degree of informality, which can be achieved without poking readers in the eye with words or phrases that are glaringly 20th or 21st century.

    Re: how much research should appear in the book itself
    I think of research as the whole iceberg. What actually appears in the book is that little bit floating above the surface, but it rests on the huge block of ice that lies unseen below the waterline.

    1. I’ve just read Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn (set in the late 19th century). Her descriptions and dialogue are easy to read and yet keep us in the time period with words and phrases like bedchamber, a trespass on his privacy, meddlesome, funeral cards, gentleman, chest plasters and so on. Love the iceberg analogy.

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