I was never that interested in history. Literature, sure. Theater, movies, baseball, geography. I adored geography, because I wanted to go to all those places on the map. But I didn’t particularly care about who’d gone there before me, because, frankly, history was a bore. I mean, come on. 1066 The Battle of Hastings. 1215 The Magna Carta. Joan of Arc was somewhere after that, and later was the French Revolution, and a king and queen lost their heads. Interesting, I’m sure to them and the French, but I was in St. Louis (yeah, okay, named after a French king. But by the time I lived there, the only thing that was still French was Mardi Gras, and that was just an excuse to drink). As far as I was concerned, none of that made any difference in my life.
Two things radically changed my outlook. When I was a senior in high school, we took a class trip to New York, where I saw a musical that turned my disdain for history on its head. 1776. Suddenly the Revolution wasn’t just dates and catch phrases (Really? The most important thing about the first successful revolution against a king was “Give me liberty or give me death?” Yawn). But suddenly in the course of two hours, it was like Wizard of Oz. I went from black-and-white Kansas to…well, Oz. Suddenly history wasn’t dry numbers and factoids, it was people. People who had lives, wishes, dreams, demons. They had a lot at stake, and staked it all for an ideal. They didn’t simply hand out the Declaration of Independence like a class test. The squabbled and fought and negotiated and compromised. They dreamed and they despaired. And sitting in that darkened theater as John Adams sang “Is anybody there? Does anybody care? Does anybody see what I see?” I wanted to shout, “Yes!” Because he wasn’t just a marble head anymore. He was a loving, brilliant, irascible, irritating, pedant of a man who helped chivvy independence along like a child learning to ride a bike. He went from a mostly forgotten ex-president to one of my real heroes.
The second thing that happened was Roberta Gellis. She was the first historical romance writer I read. She introduced me to the thrilling, compelling, delicious, myriad world of history. She colored in all the places 1776 hadn’t. She and all her compatriots who wrote that first generation of historical romance, when history was integral to the plot rather than the wallpaper on the room, helped incite my obsession with the real drama and delight of the people who came before me. I would read one of her books and then three others to fill in the bits and pieces she’d cast out like a trail of bread crumbs. I now know enough about Eleanor of Aquitaine to write my own book, and it wouldn’t have happened without romance. I know the Tudors and the Indian account of the Raj, and the spirituality of Native Americans
The problem is that I became so enamored of great historical romance, that I became impatient with badly researched history. Yes, I admit it. I am a member of the Anachronism Club. Nothing sets me off faster than seeing a heroine in 1815 whose father made his fortune in steamboats on the Mississippi, or a hero who speaks as if he’d been a cast member of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
I feel that as an author, I owe my best effort to my readers. I’m asking them to enter into my world, and that entails trust. If I then break out of that world, by word, deed, or design, I have just broken faith. I just showed a level of disdain for my readers that is unforgivable.
One of the reasons I enjoy historical settings is the challenge of working around the very different mores of the day to help my heroine triumph. Just blithely ignoring the very real social strictures of a time period is cheating. It’s lazy. And it’s annoying.
Now, I know that mistakes will inevitably be made. I know that not all research can be verified as well as we’d like. Sources argue on pertinent facts and the author has to take her best shot (some day sit in on a discussion on the Beau Monde loop. You’ll have a whole new respect for detail). But I don’t know any expert who would think that a 17th century heroine would say, “Get over it,” or an English hero spend his 1813 honeymoon in Paris going to see Michelangelo’s Mona Lisa at the Louvre (I actually read that very line). That is just an insult to me as a reader.
Do I go overboard at times? Probably. But it isn’t that hard to double check the facts. Cameras weren’t available in 1801, nor were scullery maids able to pass for princesses. And one of the most egregiously ignored facts, a man cannot marry his sister-n-law. Ever. Ever. Until the 1940s, it was considered incest under canon law.
And the historical rule that is broken most often, aristocrats did not speak like middle class Americans. I read a book where a duke and duchess keep saying, “Okay,” and it’s like a case of poison ivy. Just place that wording Maggie Smith’s mouth in Downton Abbey and you’ll realize how ridiculous it is. Especially in a formal situation.
I’m forever double-checking my dialogue. If nothing else, Merriam-Webster on line has a general date of usage. If the word comes from the 15th century, it’s a cinch it’s usable. But if the first recorded use of a word is the twentieth century, and in America, then chances are no starched up matron would be caught dead with it on her tongue (one I admit I’ve had to rigorously police myself is psychiatric terms. I have to keep reminding myself that until Freud, nobody was neurotic).
Yes, it’s nit picky. But nobody is going to do that job for us anymore. Especially with the advent of independent publishing, we authors must police our research. And even if we’re only using it as lovely wallpaper in a costume drama, the point is that the reader has picked up your book because it is set during another historical period. It actually has to read as if it were.
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Come July 20, 2012, Eileen will be releasing for the first time in ebook form, five of her suspense books, and first up will be ‘A Man To Die For’.
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