Monday, May 16, 2011

Historical or ? by Margaret Frazer, Guest Blogger

It's my pleasure to introduce Margaret Frazer, author of seventeen novels in the Dame Frevisse series of history mysteries, six novels in the Joliffe the Player series, and fourteen short stories. Winter Heart, a Dame Frevisse story, was just released for e-sale on May 15, while A Play of Piety is the latest in the Joliffe series.

Margaret's work is noted for being “Finely plotted and subtly shaded . . . .” (Publishers Weekly), with “… elegant writing, fascinating psychology …” (Booked & Printed) and “… accurate period detail, adroit characterization and lively dialogue …” (Publishers Weekly).

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Historical or ? by Margaret Frazer, Guest Blogger


The year is 1470. There is rivalry for power between Warwick the Kingmaker and the man he has made king. Among the innocent people swept up in the royal quarrel is the inventor of a steam-powered engine, first of its kind, but the king’s evil brother Richard, duke of Gloucester, single-handedly sets back the Industrial Revolution hundreds of years by destroying inventor and invention.

I didn’t make that up. It’s part of the plot of a published historical novel. Not an alternative history novel. A historical novel because -- never mind the steam engine -- it’s set in an established past.

Which brings us to that ever-popular debate: Does it matter whether a novel, called historical, is historical or not?

For many people, historical accuracy is beside the point, so long as the story is good. That’s fair enough; I’m perfectly willing to enjoy a strong story on any terms its author wants to set. But (you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you?) I think it’s supremely unfair to those authors who strive mightily for accuracy about their story’s time period and the people in it, to casually lump their work with that of authors who choose not to.

Yes, we’re writing fiction and therefore can do whatever we want. But (you knew there was another “but” coming, right?) if authors play fast and loose with reality, ignoring facts when they choose to, then what they are writing is historical fantasy fiction. If a nun sets out on a dangerous secret mission armed with an oaken staff and no companions except two dogs, that’s historical fantasy fiction (and Girl’s Own Adventure Novel into the bargain). If a medieval palace has doors to private rooms opening off long hallways as if in a 19th century country house, allowing characters to have private confrontations with ease whenever the plot requires it, that’s historical fantasy. If Princess Elizabeth visits her dying brother when we know very certainly she did not, that’s historical fantasy. If an author has a queen take sanctuary in the crypt of a church when we know from the records she took refuge in the comfortable, rich lodgings of the abbot (but a crypt is so much more dramatic), that’s historical fantasy.

In short, it seems to me that if a story is set in a specific historical time and place, and the author changes or ignores the reality of that time -- switches the order of major events, telescopes into a shorter time span events that took place over many years, puts people somewhere when they are known to have been somewhere else, gives characters modern attitudes that would never have crossed their minds in their own time – then the story has become historical fantasy

The time and effort I have put into thoroughly learning about a time and place – and then remaining true to it through all my novels – have probably made me a tad over-sensitive about such tossing aside of facts by other authors, but in my own novels and short stories, I’ve found that adhering to history makes for enriching complexities and insights the stories would otherwise have lacked. In the most recent of my short stories, Winter Heart, by keeping within the realities of village life, medieval law, and religious rule, I ended with a story far more focused and intense than if I’d ignored a few things here and there for my convenience. In the novel A Play of Piety, shaping the story around the actual practices of a medieval hospital made for a far more layered plot than if I’d gone the easier route of clichés and cheap thrills.

I suppose I come down in the middle of the on-going debate. Of course authors can sport with historical facts if they want to, and readers can choose not to mind, but those books should be recognized for what they are – not historical novels but historical fantasy novels.

Of the faux-historical examples given above, all exist in recently published novels except for the first one. It’s from Last of the Barons by Edward Bulwer Lytton. You know – the “It was a dark and stormy night” man.

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Thanks so much for being my guest today, Margaret. Although I've read historical fantasy and enjoyed it, I agree that historical accuracy makes a big difference in how I view the novel and its author. Research takes a lot of time and effort, and as a reader, I respect the author who does the job well.

To find more information about Margaret and her Winter Heart Blog Tour, please visit her website and the Margaret Frazer Fan Page on Facebook.

22 comments:

Heidi Windmiller said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Margot Kinberg said...

Pat - Thanks for hosting Margaret.


Margaret - I'm so glad you made the points you made about accuracy. Maybe it's my background in academia, but when I read historical fiction, I like it to portray accurately what life was like at that time. Of course writers take some liberties, but I have to admit I don't like sloppy research.

Heidi Windmiller said...

Great, interesting point. I certainly see your point.

Although it seems odd to me that one changed detail can put a novel into the historical fantasy category according to this view. Really--there are so many "facts" that have such a level of uncertainty to them. Or historical details that, if kept true to, would detour the reader away from the central themes and plot of the novel.

For me, I don't think a few altered facts changes a novel to historical fantasy.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Either way, it involves a lot of research. If it's fiction, I don't mind inaccuracies.

Jan Morrison said...

Thank you Patricia for having Margaret come over. This is a topic that is discussed around our home all the time. It doesn't even need to be historical but if it isn't true to the facts of the time and we aren't told that up front - then it annoys both my husband and I. Now, obviously if we don't KNOW, because we don't know everything (!) then we might happily read a long and think that the factual bones of the story are true. But that is a deception that if found out makes readers very upset. Why not avoid it by putting in your disclaimers or saying that you've played fast and loose with history?
Thanks for discussing this...
Jan Morrison

irishoma said...

I appreciate accuracy in historical novels and all the research that goes into writing them; however, if the story is compelling and the characters are fascinating, I will be swept away with the story and probably not be aware of the inaccuracies unless they are blatant.

Kathleen said...

How can I possibly beat my husband at Jeopardy if the facts I'm getting in historicals aren't historically accurate? I'll opt for true genre every time. If it's fantasy, which I love, I'd like to know that up front. If they call it historical, I do want it to be accurate.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Good morning, everyone, and thanks for dropping by to meet Margaret.

Margaret Frazer said...

Inadvertent inaccuracies happen to all of us and shouldn’t spoil the story for readers, and of course there are aspects of events in history that are debatable, especially if accounts written at or near the time of an event disagree with each other. In that case, both historians AND novelists need to sort through the existing accounts to make sense of them and are free to make choices based on those facts. Note the italics. If one source says a series of events happened in the sequence A-B-E-C, and another source has those same events as A-B-C-E, and a third source (all of them almost contemporary) has A-B-C-E and throws in D for good measure, a novelist HAS to sort those around into a sensible sequence of events (as I had to do with Jack Cade’s invasion of London in THE SEMPSTER’S TALE). Then his/her plot can be built into that framework. Or a novelist may have a story set in a time when there are large gaps in what we know about the time, and that leaves lovely open spaces for the novelist to work in freely. But if a novelist takes a big, known fact and decides to distort it for the sake of the story she/he wants to tell, then the book is now historical fantasy or – if you will – costume fiction. And -- oh, yes -- HI, everyone!

Elspeth Antonelli said...

Margaret, I've read many of your books and enjoyed them all thoroughly. My love of English history and my personal history in the theatre made your Joliffe books delicious treats.

Talli Roland said...

I've read and enjoyed many historical romances, although not lately. But I've never been thrown by too much 'fictionalisation'. I know some people are, but I'm not a purist. I'm more about the story.

Dorte H said...

I appreciate the article though I would not necessarily talk about ´historical fantasy fiction´ quite as soon as Margaret does. But I do like proper research, and as a reader i also like being able to ´judge´ the writer on her research which is why I usually choose fiction from the last 200 years or so. But I must remember to tell my daughter about this series; she loves learning about history through well researched fiction.

Edna said...

I want my historical fiction to be as historically accurate as possible. I need to remember that I may have to do some checking to be sure. Thanks

J.L. Campbell said...

I never stop saying how much I respect those who write historical fiction and fantasy. The amount of research is staggering and as a writer, I'd want to know I got the facts right or as close to accurate as possible.

Susanne Alleyn said...

Thanks, Margaret, for your post. I agree that writers shouldn't deliberately distort or ignore established facts for the sake of fiction -- but I usually don't call the result historical fantasy, I call it "a sloppy researcher making dumb mistakes" because that's what it often looks like! When meticulous author/historians who spend 25 years absorbing everything about a particular historical period get lumped together with people who obviously just don't care, it can be infuriating.

I ranted about this subject a bit myself at my own blog, under the title "Rewriting History" (2 parts).

Susanne Alleyn
The Aristide Ravel Mysteries

Margaret Frazer said...

I've been enjoying everyone's comments, but Susanne's has made me laugh aloud. It's great hearing from all of you.

welcome to my world of poetry said...

As usual a wonderful informative post. Look forward to reading about Victorian England.

Have a good day.
Yvonne.

Greys Anatomy Episode Guide said...

I believed that some facts if not all should be true and verified, even if we're dealing with fiction and fantasy, this is one thing how a writer appears to be passionate on his works, though I'm kinda lazy sometimes and trusted it all to wikipedia..

Dean K Miller said...

I am wrestling with this very topic in my WIP. If I'm off an hour or two from the event that sets the story into action, is it that critical. Personally, I'm not sure which category I fall in, at least at this point. I'm sure that will change. But I've considered the possibility that those who know the tried and true fact could turn against the work as wholly fabricated or as a put down to those involved in the real event.

Margaret Frazer said...

Dean's worry is one that has handicapped a friend of mine so badly that she's been unable to start writing the potentially exciting novel she's fully researched and is very excited about. It's set early in WWII and she fears that making even the slightest deviation from facts, whether by purpose or accident, will bring down scorn from those who were there. So we're being deprived of what promised to be a fine novel. Dean, if the life of your story depends on that deviation, maybe you'll have to take the risk and go for it. Or maybe you can plot a little deeper and find a clever way around it. Best of excellent luck!

Margaret Frazer said...

I meant to make a graceful farewell with great thanks to Pat for the chance to be here. Then a weighty copy-edited manuscript arrived on my doorstep and my nice, coherent (relatively speaking) life got over-set with Distraction. So my thanks to Pat and all of you is belated but very deeply meant. This has been fun and rewarding.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Margaret, we loved having you here. This was an excellent post that spoke to a lot of writers.