Monday, December 03, 2007

Dark and Stormy Night

The Howl of the Weather,
Frederick Remington,
Remington Art Memorial,
Ogdensburg, New York.

Certainly was.

I can hear the snow plows grumbling along the street.

After I post I will have to gird myself in woollies and thinsulate and break out the snow shovel to clear our walk and drive.

In a storm of comments on historical novels over the weekend at Dear Author, one comment stuck up from the snow drifts like the handle of a snow shovel ( see above.)

The poster wondered how writers could best deal with the expectation of common ignorance.

I've often wondered about that, but have never been able to sum up the syndrome in such a succinct phrase.

Let me assert that "ignorance" was clearly meant in the context of the simple lack of information -- the urban legend sort that results in a common and erroneous acceptance of, and assumptions about, historical material -- and did not suggest stupidity.
The weight of swords and other hackers and stabbers was cited as one example.

Some wondered if it is better to play to the the air of authenticity in a historical romance as separate from strict (and possibly footnoted) accuracy demanded of a straight historical novel; and where does that division become a question of semantics.

If one writes to an audience who desire an escapist fantasy rather than a history lesson, does it matter how you split the hares on the lord's table?

I prefer accuracy myself, but that's a personal taste. I can still enjoy a well-told story even if some details may make me wince.

Writers cannot hope to persuade those readers who snort and throw books about when their understanding/perception of facts and events collides with yours. Especially if they do not publically reproach you for your errors, real or otherwise.

Should they challenge you, your research notes are your defence, but I don't think it's a good idea to imply that readers are stupid because their information does not coincide with yours. Or dismiss their objection(s) as unimportant.

Someone mentioned that this problem arises in contemporary stories as often as it does in historical romances.

I can understand reader irritation regarding an incorrect building situated on the NW corner of Holywood and Vine -- even though a reader who has never been there won't give a hoot.

But I wonder if there are more general and current misconceptions floating about to trip up a writer -- a kind of informational prejudice.

Since my WIP features ghosts and apparations as substantial shapes, perhaps I am wise to describe it as an urban fantasy, rather than romantic suspense, based on the simple assumption that many readers may automatically picture ghosts as whispy, drifty, foggy thingies that go woooo.


StarvingWriteNow said...

I think what throws me in historicals is word choices rather than details (unless a detail is glaringly wrong). For example, the hero tells the heroine "Calm down!" To me, that has a modern twist that makes me stop and say "huh? shouldn't he be saying 'calm yourself' or 'thyself' or whatever?"

And thanks for the chuckle on the ghosts! Woooo indeed...

Bernita said...

Yes, Strarving, that makes me go "heywaidaminute" too.
Just "Calm yourself" or "Be calm" would satisfy me.

Anonymous said...

I'm not so sure about that. I read "Mother Tongue" and according to Bryson, writers and movies have put their own spin on the way people spoke back then and would be reasonably surprised to hear the truth of it.

Angie said...

History major here, so yeah, I have less tolerance in certain historical settings than your average reader might. But like you, I can do a quick eyeroll and keep going if the story is interesting enough and the writing is really good.

Writing fantasy won't always help you, BTW. Misty Lackey got some flaming letters from people ranting about how she got her witches and such wrong in the Diana Tregarde books. (Which I highly recommend if you're into urban fantasy.) She rather wryly observed that when she started that series, she was expecting to be flamed by the conservative fundamentalists, not the pagans. The fundies left her alone, at least, so the amount of flaming was, I suppose, about what she'd expected. :/

There are so many flavors of witches and wiccans, though, that it's like making your main character a Baptist and getting nastygrams from the Lutherans, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Mormons about how you got your Christians wrong. [sigh]

And I've seen people grouching at writers for getting their vampires "wrong," as though there are any actual vampires around to ask.

When dealing with urban or other modern-setting fantasy, I think all a writer can do is put together a well-thought and internally consistent setting, including any magical or religions systems and various non-existent creatures, and then just camp out in one's bunker for a while. [wry smile]


Bernita said...

What are you not sure about, Wayne?
I base my reaction to certain expressions, depending on the period,naturally, on my readings of writers contemporary to the times in question - usually considered an adequate authority.
I suspect a certain number of modern writers and film makers deliberately play to the popular myths.

And I have a minor in history and a masters in the lit that depends on it, Angie.
I've read several of the Lackey series. I thought she handled the ceremonial magic elements satisfactorily.
I am always amazed that some will claim there is only one Wiccan/pagan tradition, canon and orthodoxy,
~pardon me while I laugh!~
any more than there is a single variety of Baptist, or indeed Christian as you point out.
Actually, I expect to be flamed by physicists and electricians.

Shesawriter said...

I agree with Starving. I'm no history buff, but blatant anachronisms in speech will toss me out of a book every time.

Jaye Wells said...

I've got some schooling in these areas, as well. And when I read a historical romance or general novel it's not just for story, it's also to learn something to immerse myself int he time period. However, I can forgive a lot. Some people can not and it has nothing to do with historical integrity and everything to do with being hateful.

Bernita said...

If they are blatant, Tanya, they certainly jar.

I can forgive a lot too, Jaye. The errors have to be persistent and compounded, otherwise I'll just raise my eyebrows.
If something really rubs me wrong, I might research it.
One may find the writer was right after all.

Robyn said... has nothing to do with historical integrity and everything to do with being hateful.

Think you've got it in one, Jaye. I've enjoyed CSI Miami in spite of the fact that in the Florida weather the main character is always in a black suit and never sweats.

Bernita, you might remember my irritation with a Scot protag who ran up a narrow staircase while drawing a claymore- readers who wouldn't know a sword from a hole in the ground didn't catch it. I can usually ignore things if the story's good, but that one sucked me out of the book.

Charles Gramlich said...

People seem confused at times as to the difference between fiction and nonfiction. If it's fiction, who cares if the building isn't exaactly where it is in real life. I don't read fiction to be educated about geography and manners and so on. That's what nonfiction is for.

Ello said...

Good post! I am definitely an eye roller when things are blatantly not accurate in a book. It bugs me pretty badly. I would rather have accuracy. And there have been plenty of times when I read something and I went "Huh? that can't be right!" then I go and google it find out the author is right and that usually impresses me. If they are wrong, it usually bugs me.

Bernita said...

Robyn, I prefer CSI Miami!

Yes, I do remember that one. No room to swish and slash.

Some people consider fiction a form of painless learning, Charles. I do expect novels to follow common sense.

Thank you, Ello.
I don't suppose anyone likes to read about potatoes at dinner in the 12th century, but if the story is well-written enough that might not occur to me until after.

raine said...

Ah, of the many reasons lazy Raine has yet to do a historical, lol.
And I guess I'm puzzled as to how people can complain about accuracy in a paranormal or urban fantasy.
It is FANTASY, yes? As long as the piece is coherent in itself, why nitpick about preconceived 'rules'?

Billy said...

I tend to like accuracy, Bernita. Like two above said, anachronisms tend to throw me rather quickly, not that I haven't been guilty of a few, mea culpa. There is an anlogy here with motion pics. I have never seen a realistic movie about New Orleans (where people have a Brooklyn accent, believe it or not). Hollywood never comes close to accuracy, whether it is about the French Quarter, Mardi Gras, jazz, fat businessmen wiping their bald heads in the hot sun, etc. Most people don;t know the reality of the city, so the stereotypes/inaccuracies don't bother them. The same goes for writing. I'll cut authors slack up to a point, but if it's glaring, I'll put the book down.

Bernita said...

I've been wondering about that too, Raine.
I can see them argung about internal logic, or about suspension of disbelief, but who is to say if REAL werewolves do or don't have hair balls?

Bernita said...

Since I've never been there, Billy, It would all go over my head.
Do you think everyone from Canada says "eh," and "aboot?" Yet those regionialisms might be used to identify a "Canadian" in a film.

The problem with historicals is that while you can have one set of sources claiming the truth of one fact, you may find an equal number of historians disclaiming it - one reason why I am not that bothered by the smaller details.

Stephen Parrish said...

We want accuracy in fiction for the same reason we want it in nonfiction.

If a nonfiction author asserted that people drive on the right side of the road in England, we'd devalue the book, to say the least. Assuming the story takes place in the Real World, a novelist had better follow the rules of the road as well.

If standards are lowered for fiction then standards are lower IN fiction. And I for one disagree.

Bernita said...

I prefer reasonably accuracy.
However,in the historical context, Stephen, it can be difficult to ascertain just what is accurate and what is not.
Historians have hissy fits over "facts" too.
Moreover, historical novelists do not have the advantage of citing sources/maps/portraits and diaries within the text to support every detail, they merely assert and describe - and hope that their inclusion of some detail will not set off a storm of outrage by readers who are absolutely convinced that a certain shape of crystal is out of period or whether ladies did /did not ride astride/side saddle in a certain century.
For some readers the accuracy of the characters, their emotions, relationships, and motives (which, of course, can be another source for argument) are valued higher than accuracy of facts.

Gabriele C. said...

The more I know about a time, the pickier I get about facts. While Scarrow's use of the f-word does jar me a bit, I still like his stories better than any of the historical romances with a Roman setting that have come out lately - I never got beyond the first chapter on Amazon or the author's website. It's either modern characters in period dress, or clumsy attemtps to be not modern without being Roman, either.

I want to do some nasty things to the drirector of Gladiator, btw. Too many people see that one as Roman history. *shudders*

Julie said...

Very interesting.

Because of escalating costs in maintaining baronial piles in Britain, there have been major strides in the last decade to get Jo public face to face with history and make it more accessible, which must have a knock on effect on how many ordinary readers are slightly more clued up than previously. Granted they may be receiving a cut down version, but never the less...

The bit about the claymore is correct. I had a job opening my handbag...

Gabriele C. said...

Julie, try pushing a big backpack through some of those staircases. :)

spyscribbler said...

It endlessly irritates me that if I present a culture or something truthfully, readers will tell me I didn't do my research because I didn't know about Incorrect Stereotype X, or Incorrect Fact Y.

You really can't win. Whether you're right or wrong, some people will think you're wrong. And the fact that the reader thought you were wrong is all that matters.

I don't know the answer. Except write a good enough story that they'll forgive you.

Bernita said...

"It's either modern characters in period dress, or clumsy attemtps to be not modern without being Roman, either."

There, you've just summed up the impression some historicals give, Gabriele.

I may be wrong, but I have the impression that readers do demand more historical accuracy than previously, Julie.
Access to information on the internet from such sites may be partly the cause.

Scott from Oregon said...

I had people tell me they couldn't believe a story, because I had the main character confine a frail girl's limbs in one hand.

I had to pull the "ignorance" card, knowing full well that disparity in size and strenth exists, and then asked the question- "should a writer write to the ignorance of a readership, or to what he/she knows is true and factual?"

I never got a response that.

Bernita said...

And that's the rub, Natasha.
Some myths are so set that correct information is not only ignored, it's criticized.
Unfortunately,the internet helps promotes the inaccurate conventions along with the accurate.

Bernita said...

Some men have big hands. Some women have very fine bones.
It's a gamble, Scott. And you have to pick your battles.

Bailey Stewart said...

I'm a history major, so I can be a little picky, but as long as they don't use the words "bling" and "punk'd" I'm okay with most things. I tried to write a historical once, but found myself so obsessed with the research that I got tired of it.

Surprisingly, inaccuracies in contemporaries bother me more. I read a book that took place in Texas and had the characters driving to a city "outside of Dallas" within a few minutes when I knew it was at least a 6 hour drive. There are maps to figure that out.

The Anti-Wife said...

I agree with Bailey. It really irritates me to read novels set in places the author has obviously never been to or researched. It's like Grey's Anatomy on tv where Dr. McDreamy lives on his little island and walks his dog on Tiger Mountain. The fact that it's either a 3 1/2 hour drive or 45 minutes by ferry then another 30 minute drive between the 2 spots seems to be lost on the writers.

Inaccuracy will stop me cold unless the book is absolutely brilliant.

Bernita said...

So, in contemporaries, Bailey and AW, it's the geographic errors that annoy you the most.
A good reason for a writer to be fuzzy about time lines.

writtenwyrdd said...

I throw books when really blatant dumbness intrudes, especially when the plot depends upon it in some fashion. If the error is window dressing, then an eye roll will do.

I think that anachronisms like Thanksgiving dinners (and turkeys surved during them) are the sorts of things that are bad, but not necessarily insurmountable.

Then again, if I were actually knowledgeable in a real sense about any historical period, like Angie I'd be irritated by inaccuracies in that milieu.

Someone speaking as the folk of the times would scan badly much of th etime to our modern ears, so that particular language problem is solved as simply as we solve Germans speaking English in our movies: Give them a British Accent! LOL, it's true, though. Unless, of course, you are American and playing Robin Hood... (tongue in cheek)