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Old 02-13-2012, 09:34 PM   #1
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Historical Acccuracy vs Weak Plot

After wading my way through virtually every writer out there, who writes in the Roman period now, a thought has occured to me . . .

I have come across several authors of historical fiction now, that seem to be so hell-bent on historical accuracy, that plot fails victim to it. I've read two supposed spy thrillers now that are neither spy novels or thrillers, if I see another book charting Roman battle tactics I will gouge my eyes out [lets be honest, Roman tactics where so successful, it's boring to read] and when reading a different 'political' thriller I endured a treatise on the Roman agricultural year.

So, has anyone else noticed this? I do confess I have moments when I'm so engrossed in the research, that I can't tell if the plot is 'good' anymore, but that soon passes, and much of the research is never used. Is it a case of an author thinking: 'look at how much research I've done', and sacrifice story?
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Old 02-13-2012, 09:45 PM   #2
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I think a lot of the discussion here points to the answer. Historical accuracy is great, but writing a novel should be about telling a good story first and getting the details right second. Once you begin to obsess over accuracy, you should write non-fiction.

This doesn't mean that accuracy doesn't matter, but it should always be subordinate to plot and readability. I've blogged on this at http://thewhiterajah.blogspot.com/20...rue-story.html

(Runs and hides where he hopes the History Police won't find him. 'Cos I know what's coming next and it ain't pretty.)
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Old 02-13-2012, 10:09 PM   #3
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Tom from UK View Post
I think a lot of the discussion here points to the answer. Historical accuracy is great, but writing a novel should be about telling a good story first and getting the details right second. Once you begin to obsess over accuracy, you should write non-fiction.
Getting the details right is as important as telling a good story. If the details are wrong it breaks the spell and destroys the ambiance of the story.

I think there should be a balance of good story and historical accuracy.
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Old 02-14-2012, 12:55 AM   #4
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An infodump of research notes? That does not sound good. I've seen that in a few low-rent, niche-type novels. I suppose it might appeal to a certain reader, but I believe the research is there to support the story, not the other way around.

I actually get more bothered by little details that are anachronistic, than matters that are employed for narrative. The little details are the props, the stuff used to set the stage. The Roman legions should have the right sword, a 19th century backwoods preacher should not sound like a teenager from Orange County, CA. If they aren't right, the stage is just a stage, not an immersive dream-world.

But if you mix up elements from the Battle of Pydna with some from Cynoscephalae, because it works better for the drama, why kick about it? Not to mention, you've only got so many people who know what those were, let alone can tell 'em apart. I'd probably keep 'em straight, just b/c it's easier to use history's script (I'm kind of lazy, frankly) than racking your brain to invent something clever.

My last novel fictionalized events in Florida from 1816 to 1819. I fictionalized people, I streamlined events, I cobbled together characters from historical personages, I omitted a few things & people, made some others up from whole cloth, etc. It's a story of the First Seminole War, but not the history of it.

My goals were two-fold:
1) Create a fast-paced political thriller, that is entertaining to read.
2) Capture the emotional truth of war on the Florida frontier.

Now, I'm not so arrogant as to say that I wrote a masterpiece & y'all can applaud now, but I'm confident enough in my work that I believe I met my goals.
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Old 02-14-2012, 01:54 AM   #5
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One shouldn't infodump no matter what the genre. So having two farmers standing the field saying, "You know Livius, we don't plant in Spring but Summer." would be bad.
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Old 02-14-2012, 06:06 AM   #6
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If you can't blend correct history and story in a way that keeps the reader entertained, do us a favour and stay away from history.
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Old 02-14-2012, 10:00 AM   #7
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If...

gothicangel, you are referring to an info dump instead of a plot, then you're quite right. It shouldn't happen in any novel!

BUT

if you're complaining because of a weak plot per se, then that's the author's lack of writing skills!

The trouble with historical novels is that you aren't just dealing with the past, you're dealing with someone's culture as well. That means writers must have a bit of respect. If a writer can't combine the known history within a good story then they need to have a rethink and do some rewriting.

I am, no surprises of course, with Shakebear and Calmy. Why write a historical novel if you have to tinker and patch the known history to tell your tale? Historical fiction requires a writer to write honestly as well as creatively.
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Old 02-14-2012, 10:09 AM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Shakesbear View Post
Getting the details right is as important as telling a good story. If the details are wrong it breaks the spell and destroys the ambiance of the story.

I think there should be a balance of good story and historical accuracy.
I agree 100%. Nothing ticks me off more than revisionist history. So when I see a story set in a certain era, if the facts in the story don't match up to the actual historical fact, I am done with that story no matter how good the plot.
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Old 02-14-2012, 12:18 PM   #9
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Sorry Guys

Quote:
Originally Posted by pdr View Post
BUT

if you're complaining because of a weak plot per se, then that's the author's lack of writing skills!

The trouble with historical novels is that you aren't just dealing with the past, you're dealing with someone's culture as well. That means writers must have a bit of respect. If a writer can't combine the known history within a good story then they need to have a rethink and do some rewriting.

I am, no surprises of course, with Shakebear and Calmy. Why write a historical novel if you have to tinker and patch the known history to tell your tale? Historical fiction requires a writer to write honestly as well as creatively.
Yes, this is what I meant.

One writer [who I won't name] boasts on her book jackets and blog about how much research she does, but when I checked through her Amazon reviews people where echoing my criticisms: weak plot, flat characters, lack of tension etc.
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Old 02-14-2012, 06:46 PM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Mark W. View Post
One shouldn't infodump no matter what the genre. So having two farmers standing the field saying, "You know Livius, we don't plant in Spring but Summer." would be bad.
From now on I'm calling it "As you know Livius" dialog. Bob can go to Hell.
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Old 02-14-2012, 07:57 PM   #11
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Boasting about how much research you do on a blog is bad enough, but on the book jackets too? Oh my... And if it's glaring errors, even if they appear once in awhile throughout a story, are still terrible. The story can be totally ruined even with a minor, yet glaring error that they author may know is wrong, but boasts about all of the other research done, only to give themselves idiotic liberties that really don't add anything to their story in the first place. Boasting is not a good thing at all.

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Old 02-14-2012, 08:00 PM   #12
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I'm so abominably moderate.

Of course, there's no excuse for bad or lazy research. But we as writers can and should strike a balance between sticking to the letter of (known) historical facts (which are, of course, not always truthful or complete) and writing a good story.

When you're writing about specific people and events, you may have to slightly alter the timeline to make the story easier to follow, or have a character be somewhere they weren't so that they can be present for a certain event. Personally, I think these should be avoided if possible but aren't enough to make me throw a book across the room.

If you're just using the time period as a backdrop to fictional characters, then the details, I think, become all the more important to make that world come alive.
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Old 02-14-2012, 08:00 PM   #13
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I don't read much (if any) Roman fiction, but there are many authors out there who seem to want to info-dump everything they've researched, as if to stop their work going to waste. So yes, it happens. And it's tiresome. The author is intruding on their story.
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Old 02-14-2012, 08:14 PM   #14
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I am, no surprises of course, with Shakebear and Calmy. Why write a historical novel if you have to tinker and patch the known history to tell your tale? Historical fiction requires a writer to write honestly as well as creatively.
But if you don't tinker with history, at least a little, aren't you writing a non-fiction history book, rather than a novel?
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Old 02-14-2012, 08:16 PM   #15
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I think it was Philippa Gregory who says she tinkers with things that cannot be proven. When it comes to known facts, she sticks to what history can prove.

(Complete bullshit, if you've read any of her novels, but the sentiment is a good one.)
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Old 02-14-2012, 08:32 PM   #16
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Bernard Cornwell cheerfully makes stuff up all the time. I've only read his Sharpe books, but he puts a 'historical note' at the end of each of them explaining what was real and what was not. I like that approach.
Even better is the way George MacDonald Fraser handles it. His Flashman books are written as memoirs of the late, great (and fictional) Sir Harry Flashman and they're littered with footnotes which often say things like "Flashman must be misremembering here because this actually happened three years later". I like to imagine overly pedantic history nerds reading these books and going "AHA! Caught you out GMF! That didn't happen until three years later!" and then flipping to the footnote and going "Damn."
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Old 02-14-2012, 08:38 PM   #17
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Old 02-15-2012, 04:53 AM   #18
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Boasting about research on a book jacket? What cr*p! I would expect a reader of historical novels to have done lengthy research. Readers soon find out how much research is done.

How about this? "A well-researched preface to .................promises a realistic tale of Rome's retreat from the British Isles."

I've had first-class reviews, but this one takes the cake -- "I commend the author's scholarship as well as his storytelling abilities."

Could it get any better? I'm thrilled with those reviews.
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Old 02-16-2012, 06:35 PM   #19
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I got into trouble the other day for trying to be a historian rather than a history teacher when teaching a lesson about Mary Queen of Scots. I think the more I'm training to be a teacher, the more I am fudging evidence and manipulating facts to whatever will match the objectives of the lesson. It's tempting for me to give the kids lots of primary evidence about my specialist subjects - but I can't expect them to a) understand it or b) want to understand it.

I do think as a historical novelist, you have to do the same to some degree. We can't all write in Old English, or keep true to our hero's life, minute by minute. Even a novel about some of the most exciting historic figures would fall flat if we did so. I think being selective is important and making the most of the 'missing gaps' in evidence. I like finding ways of putting my character in the centre of a big event, or taking the most exciting or scandalous of two conflicting accounts, so to keep true to history and add a little spice. But there's also means of bringing the most out of small events too - and helping to build a picture up about how something was an issue back then that isn't now. This can help to keep historical integrity.

But at the end of the day, it is all smoke and mirrors - no matter how hard we try to remain 'true'.
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