Thursday, August 7, 2014

History versus Story

Or: Does it have to be right?



As the writer of period stories this is an issue I often struggle with. How accurate do I need to be? How much creative licence can I take in my stories.

Over time I have vacillated from the utter fear of getting it wrong, and embracing the concept of: story trumps all.  But as we all know, a pendulum, when it stops swinging, always ends up bang smack in the middle of its arc.  Oh, I do love a good metaphor.

Over time I have come to recognize that I am writing stories for entertainment. Stories set in an earlier time period whose history we know about. Some of that history was learned long after the events actually happened, some of it well known at the time.  Genre fiction has the expectation that it will transport the reader to another place and leave them with a feeling of having had an enjoyable experience.  It is not designed to teach or moralize or guide, any more than Two and Half Men was supposed to teach us how to behave or Big Bang Theory is intended to turn us into nuclear physicists.  Yes, these programs comment on aspects of life today and make us laugh not only at the characters on screen, but also at ourselves. In the first instance, they likely shock us, as we secretly wish we could be as bold as Charley, and in the latter, we might wonder at our own lost innocence as displayed by Sheldon. Or not.

It doesn't matter.  We are entertained.

A period novelist has to get major facts right about his or her era, as does a genre fiction period author. But the stories are character driven. The story is about the people on the page, not the political climate or the economic reality. Those are backstory. And like all backstory, needs to be fed in as and when required. In my opinion, a  fiction author needs to let the imagination fly free, while remaining within the bounds of her world. Somethings are easy to get right, the buildings, the clothing, even the flora and fauna which I have expounded on at length in this blog.

But are there hundreds of Dukes and earls running around in the Regency doing heroic or unheroic things? No. Certainly not.  We all know that. Readers and historians alike.

In my next book, Captured Countess, coming out in December 2014, there is a plot by Napoleon's agents to kill King George. Did it happen?  Well it might have. How do we know for certain it did not? Could some as yet undiscovered cache of documents reveal that it did? It is in the realm of the possible.

Did the characters who set out to foil the plot really exist? No, they did not. But the King was at Weymouth that summer.  Napoleon did plan to invade England. So the setting and the backstory is accurate, but the story is unashamedly all my own.

I often hear complaints that covers are not period accurate.  Here are two covers for books in the same series, "Rakes in Disgrace".

The cover for the Gamekeeper's Lady couldn't be more accurate for the Regency period, both in style and setting.  The second cover, for the second book, More Than a Mistress is way too early. The shoes, the gown, reek of a pre-Regency era, but the scene it represents.... is right out of the book. Both covers are evocative of the story.

Each book sold as well as the other, because in the end it was all about the story inside the cover.

So, to writers and readers I say, enjoy the story along with a soupcon of history. Use it to spice the broth so to speak.

I will address a few issues that I do think writers of period stories in my genre ought to get right and some others that I think might be borderline.

What do you think?

Until next time......