PDA

View Full Version : Accuracy - or "Poetic" License?



Puma
01-13-2007, 06:48 AM
This is a spin-off from a thread in the Historical forum in which there has been a debate going on about the importance of accuracy in the presentation of historical material. One side maintains that it is imperative for any author to do the research and present facts, people, and backdrop accurately - the other side maintains that some liberty can be taken even as far as deliberately moving recorded historic events and people timewise to fit the story. (The thread in historic is Favorite historical movies).

I think this is a critical issue and one that also spills over into the issue of whether reading material should be purely for entertainment or whether any reading is also a form of education. I think we've been in a period of accepting "close enough" for a while. The question is should we continue down that road and even discard the set standards of grammar or is it time to try to steer the course of the future of literature back to older principles that required proper grammar and knowledge of the subject. I'd like to hear some opinions (and logic) for either direction - accuracy and correctness or literary license. Puma

Silver King
01-13-2007, 07:21 AM
Creative license usually occurs for a number of reasons, some of which are lack of knowledge, shoddy research, laziness and above all, the need to spoon feed events to an audience who willing partakes in historical accounts with little or no regard for facts.

It's frightening to consider how many people truly believe what they see in cinema and read in books. The best example I can think of is the belief, by some factions, that the Holocaust never took place. And this is recent history, so you can imagine what's taken place over time with the shaping and mangling of records to suit the tellers' needs.

kdnxdr
01-13-2007, 10:26 AM
I vote for historical accuracy when writing historical record.

I voite for creative licence, regardless of what that really entails, for everything else, as long as it makes a good read.

Truth is only truth when it is the truth. Any degree of lie and the mixture becomes something other than the truth.

sunandshadow
01-13-2007, 12:32 PM
I think it depends what the focus of the story is. Like if the story is about vampires in regency England, it really doesn't matter if you want your regency England to be a few years shorter or longer duration than the real one. And of course if you want to do an alternate history story ther's no way to do that without changing the facts, like which side won a key battle.

ColoradoGuy
01-13-2007, 09:01 PM
I think no one does historial fiction better than Gore Vidal. His attention to accurate detail is meticulous. But his books span a spectrum from recreating history as he thought it actually happened (Lincoln) to using a historical backdrop to tell a completely made-up story (Washington, D.C.). It is all the details, acurately rendered, that make the story seem real. Not getting those details right, using obvious anachronisms, tells the reader you're a sloppy writer.

robeiae
01-14-2007, 02:11 AM
Okay, here goes:

1) The first issue that must be addressed is the meaning of the term "historical fiction." Why is it "historical"? Simply because the story takes place in the past? I don't think that's sufficient.
A. Because the story encompasses or depends upon historical events? Because the characters are either actual historical personages or encounter such in the story. Maybe, but are these enough?
B. Because the world of the story, as portrayed, is as near to historical reality as the author can make it? That seems to be what is being suggested.
C. Because the characters in the story are created specifically as characters of a given period. I think this is critical. In fact, I think it overshadows the rest. A Roman patrician didn't act like a Fortune 500 executive. His world view was different. His knowledge base was different. His culture was different. Trying to capture the essence of what it meant to be such a person would be my goal.

And when fashioning the world of the story, what is more important? Having 17th century Vienna townspeople act and respond like 17th century townspeople, or making sure a description of the material used to stuff a mattress in that period is historically accurate? And make no mistake, the latter issue has been the subject of intense research for some social historians.

No doubt, anyone who aspires to write good historical fiction must do research. And no doubt, good research applied to a story can make it more believable, so please don't think I'm eschewing the importance of such. Still, there is a finite limit to research, and the possibility of an error exists. Always.

2) When it comes to changing/manipulating events and the like for the purposes of the story, I think it obvious that changing critical events in terms of specific elements, placement, time frame, and outcome can lead to a change in genre. Introducing AK-47's into the Civil War for the purposes of a story would suggest a genre other than historical fiction. Once "what-if" becomes a meaningful question, history is no longer the dominant concern.

However, there is a deeper issue here. The fact is that historical fiction is fiction, by definition. Creating a character and having that character actively interact in historic events, like a Greek playwright who is a friend and competitor of Aristophanes, is not real. Facts are being manipulated. So too, having a character that fights in the such-and-such infantry division at the Battle of the Muse-Argonne, whose actions impact the event, even thought the outcome is unchanged, is creative license. Making sure the correct PX watch is being worn by the character does not undo this fiction that is his very existence.

3) In the fields of historical inquiry, the ascension of social history suggests, to me, a desire by many to never be just "close enough." And that's all well and good. At least, until the effort for mundane accuracy leads to a failure to appreciate/understand history in a larger context. I'll give a specific example: The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis. It's a wonderful story, though it is presented as mostly history when it really is fiction, with much to be admired. However, I would humbly suggest that the author stumbles badly, by introducing modern concerns into the patterns of the past. Getting your mundane facts right is not a sufficient condition for getting your history right. Not by a long shot.

4) From a personal perspective, I want a book of fiction to entertain me or at least interest me. And I love history. And I know history. Educating me as well can be a great benefit, but I don't see it as primary. Attention to detail is great and, as I said, it can make a story more believable. But there is a limit, I think. There must be.

Okay, let me have it.

ColoradoGuy
01-14-2007, 02:35 AM
Rob, I agree with what you say. "Historical fiction" is foremost a work of fiction, one which uses the past (or at least what we presently know about the past -- that changes regularly) to tell a story. (I'm deliberately ignoring the standard post-modernist trope that all history is a variety of fiction.)

Accuracy in the details is only one trick the historical fiction author uses to give the work a sense of verisimilitude. Another is characterization, and I agree with you that is a minefield. Sensibilities have changed over the centuries. Big emotional things are probably the same, otherwise Sophocles and Shakespeare would be meaningless to us, but all sorts of little things -- how we treat each other, what we think is funny, scandalous, or noble -- have changed. So it is fundamentally impossible for a writer today truly to get inside the skin of an historical character.

The operative phrase here may be the old chestnut that "the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."

The goal of most fiction writers is to sell books. People who buy historical fiction have certain expectations, two of which are to get the details of daily life correct as we know them and not change the "known facts" too much. Romance readers have other expectations for the books they buy. If the author violates these, the books don't sell, either.

Marlys
01-14-2007, 03:31 AM
I think it depends what the focus of the story is. Like if the story is about vampires in regency England, it really doesn't matter if you want your regency England to be a few years shorter or longer duration than the real one. And of course if you want to do an alternate history story ther's no way to do that without changing the facts, like which side won a key battle.
Totally disagree. I think when you introduce a fantasy element into a traditional setting, you'd want the other details to be as accurate as possible. I know you'd lose me instantly if you didn't.

Alternate history is another case entirely, but you still start from a particular point in history and take your new direction from there. Everything up to that point has to be well-researched, and the alternate turn of events plausible.

benbradley
01-14-2007, 07:26 AM
I think this is a critical issue and one that also spills over into the issue of whether reading material should be purely for entertainment or whether any reading is also a form of education. Reading (fiction) IS purely for entertainment, but IMHO the entertainment value goes down drastically with the rise in number of mistakes in the background, or in any part of the story that's supposed to be the same as reality.


I think we've been in a period of accepting "close enough" for a while. The question is should we continue down that road and even discard the set standards of grammar or is it time to try to steer the course of the future of literature back to older principles that required proper grammar and knowledge of the subject. Whoa! I must have missed something. I always thought that to be published by any reputable organization, it was ALWAYS REQUIRED to have both proper grammar (which is a separate topic but also important) as well as knowledge of the subject (news reporters too often lack knowledge, but that concerns non-fiction and is also a separate rant topic). When did I miss this? What are some examples of novels that don't follow this convention?

Science fiction (at least written) has always had high standards in this regard. I've read in SF circles about something called "The Game" in which readers look for technical mistakes by authors. Larry Niven wrote that the first printing of Ringworld might be valuable because his description of Earth had it turning the wrong way, but was corrected for subsequent printings (the first printing is rather valuable for another reason - not a lot were printed, and the book became more popular than the publisher thought it would).


I'd like to hear some opinions (and logic) for either direction - accuracy and correctness or literary license. Puma
I think the Literary Licensing Board should have higher standards, and publishers should clamp down on WUI (Writing Under Ignorance).

I don't see this as accuracy and correctness versus literary license. I see writing fiction as analogous to doing a science experiment. You take reality or current knowledge, and you vary only one thing, or at worst case only a few things, and you keep everything else the same. Then you see what happens.

If you make up a fiction but you're not familiar with reality, how do you know your fiction is different from reality?

LaceWing
01-25-2007, 08:52 AM
An historian can legititmately argue that historical fiction deserves the name when it portrays its era with an acceptable degree of accuracy. If questionable, you get critics on your case, as for The Da Vinci Code.

Of course, that helps sales.

The sociologist or politician might have a lot to say about using skewed portrayals of an era for the sake of entertaining with propaganda. If questionable, you get critics on your case, as for Mel Gibson's movie.

Of course, that helps sales.

If I were to write historical fiction, I would want it to be fairly accurate before I'd stick my neck out and give it that label. And I would hope to be clear in my agenda and bias, at least to myself, before the critics got hold of it.

Now that I think about it, this is how it would go for me: I'd read something historical, get very interested and read more and more. There would come a time when i had absorbed enough that I felt a certain way and had a particular tale to tell in order to share my impression of the time. So I'm guessing hist. fic. writers in general might be motivated this way. If not, they could just as well write comtemporary or genre. There's got to be a good reason in the author's mind, doesn't there, for choosing hist. fic. in the first place.

Sorry to be so preachy sounding. I've been reading the following website, and am not in a good mood about history in general:

http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2006/12/eliminationism-in-america-i.html

Puma
01-25-2007, 03:07 PM
Hi Lacewing - For me the motive for writing my one historical novel (which is not too far off non-fiction) was that I had found a recorded story (stories) which was really too good to not have more publicity. Even though I knew the story, I spent a tremendous amount of time doing research to make the novel as accurate as possible (there's no way to know for sure what people said). I've also written other non-historical novels. Puma

Cath
01-25-2007, 04:13 PM
I don't believe that changing details in historic fiction is an excuse not to do research - as with anything, you need to understand the subject (in this case era) well enough to know where and how you can take liberties with the details.

Nothing turns me off a novel quicker than an author trying to suggest as fact something I know to be wrong (unless it's justified clearly in the text).

veinglory
02-18-2007, 11:44 PM
I think that there are historically based (history lite) genres that are alternative universes with their own rules. That is why you don't see many highwayman just robbing killing, raping and disserving the gallows when they get there, and cowboys gallop accross the desert all day. These innaccuracies are part of the fantasy element and are accepted or even expected by the readership, on the whole.

ColoradoGuy
02-19-2007, 12:41 AM
I think that's exactly correct. Pirates, cowpokes, and medieval maidens bring with them genre rules of their own based largely on reader expectations. These expectations change -- look at how the detective novel and the western have changed over the past century.

Parkinsonsd
03-10-2007, 11:35 PM
I go back to Aristotle's poetics for this:

It is, moreover, evident from what has been said, that it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen- what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages.

SC Harrison
03-15-2007, 07:23 PM
Getting your mundane facts right is not a sufficient condition for getting your history right. Not by a long shot.



Right.

History is more than just a linear sequence of events or making sure your sword is metallurgically proper for the period. Education levels and religious/superstitious beliefs dictate how individuals perceive the world around them, and ascribing 21st Century ideals in the personality of someone from an earlier period is a lot easier to detect than many writers think, and no amount of historic detail can repair that rift.

Elodie-Caroline
03-15-2007, 07:55 PM
For non-fiction, then accuracy is of the most importance. Whereas, for fiction, I think that anything goes.
But there again, how much 'accurate' history is out there anyway? We only get the point of view/s from the person/s who wrote the historical notes at that time, or more likely from friends and relatives who relayed the stories; which means he/she could have written anything they wanted, and being as we weren't actually there, we can't dispute it.

I should imagine that most historical writing is just like Chinese whispers.


Elodie

ColoradoGuy
03-15-2007, 08:04 PM
Right.

History is more than just a linear sequence of events or making sure your sword is metallurgically proper for the period. Education levels and religious/superstitious beliefs dictate how individuals perceive the world around them, and ascribing 21st Century ideals in the personality of someone from an earlier period is a lot easier to detect than many writers think, and no amount of historic detail can repair that rift.
Absolutely. The memorable books are those that appear to have an authentic voice from the past. I think Gore Vidal does a particularly good job on this in Julian, for example.

SC Harrison
03-15-2007, 08:46 PM
Absolutely. The memorable books are those that appear to have an authentic voice from the past. I think Gore Vidal does a particularly good job on this in Julian, for example.

Good book, as were his Washington, DC series. The Catch-22 (not the book, the conflict) with properly building a character to match the period is: many readers end up disliking (not identifying with) characters due to their lack of enlightenment on issues such as civil rights and gender inequalities. Projecting current morals backwards, I guess you could say.

SC Harrison
03-15-2007, 08:56 PM
But there again, how much 'accurate' history is out there anyway?

There's quite a bit, but it's not always easy to find, even when you're standing two feet away. :)

Primary sources are a great way to get a feel for popular perceptions and the vernacular of the period, but you're still reading one person's viewpoint. Multiple, non-related primary sources can get you a lot closer to the truth, but you can never achieve 100% accuracy.