Susan/Sarah here with a few thoughts for Thursday (and a little trip back to Art History 101) …
I’ll pick up on the discussion of historical accuracy, though it’s not easy to add much to the fantastic insights made by T’Other Susan and Pat, and all the interesting comments that followed. And Jo sparked a great discussion about reading, which I hope will continue though Mercury in retrograde glitched us into sharing Thursday. We don’t mind. 🙂
As a historical writer, I’m a very careful researcher (okay, sometimes obsessive, I love chasing down some obscure bit of historical information)–what else could I be, after years of graduate school in art history and medieval studies. We drilled at dawn on methodology; I could write proper footnotes half-asleep (and did), I knew the essential references by heart, knew my way around every university library, mine and other campuses, and I had a reserve shelf and stack pass at the Library of Congress (yo, how cool is that!). I could read and research in German, French, and old English, and stand on my head while doing so. And in the week before my PhD oral exams (which I passed after a long night of No Sleep, due to a little guy with an ear infection), I dreamed about flipping through stacks of index cards at lightning speed, each one containing paintings, facts, sources, and some sort of weird hologram. <g>
All this to say, I can research the heck out of anything historical, so I’m in my element when it comes to the research phase writing historical fiction. It’s a feast of info and details… most of which never finds its way into the stories. Because accuracy of detail isn’t nearly enough. What you leave out is as important as what you include.
Accuracy is an essential lynch pin in historical fiction, absolutely–and imagination, a sense of perspective, and just plain common sense are just as essential. Total accuracy is best suited to non-fiction, where there’s room for dumping a plethora of facts. Even then, it’s dry and incomplete without interpretation and insight.
When writing historical fiction, sometimes we can find there’s too much of one element and not enough of the other; accurate period detail and the needs of the story have to be in balance. When that point of harmony is found, it all comes together for writer, reader, and that most important of entities, The Story.
Historical fiction writers are, in a sense, teaching what life was like in the past, whether it’s the medieval era, or the Roman, or closer to our own time in Georgian, Regency, and so on. So there’s a certain obligation to represent a historical period accurately…but it’s not always necessary.
The writer creates an illusion through words and word pictures, and the reader uses that info and imagery to create an inner world while reading the book. It’s an interactive medium. And for that interaction to succeed, there have to be common areas where the historical characters and the modern reader can intersect. For fiction, this is often in the realm of emotional content, especially in romance…and it’s easy to block that connection with overabundance of detail and, well, just a tad too much accuracy.
There has to be some wiggle room for the modern person to connect with the artwork — or with the story. Authors have an obligation, to "make that connection to humanity" (as the writer Avi once said) — to make the past accessible to the people of the present.
Sometimes that means finding unique ways to show, rather than tell. Sometimes it means knowing when to take a light hand with the details, and let the story–-the artsy part of your creation–-take precedence.
We aren’t historians, we’re writers, and creativity is a big factor. Connecting with readers is another big factor. Historical writers have to know their subjects inside and out–-readers sense it if the writer doesn’t have firm control of the material. But hitting the readers over the head with a ton of period detail, as interesting as it is, can slow down or obscure the story.
How many medieval romances will portray the hero in bed as unwashed and smelly, hair greasy, breath smelling of garlic for his health, and jauntily attired in nothing but a little red cap that’s probably nipping with fleas? That’s the accurate version. So authors make judicious choices, retaining the flavor of the time period without the absolute facts. That’s where authenticity trumps accuracy.
After all, the story’s the thing. Accessibility is the other thing, seems to me.
Here’s a fun example of accuracy vs. authenticity:
Here, Jan van Eyck paints himself (or so it’s thought) with unerring, unforgiving detail and photographic precision. He would have used a polished convex mirror and, at times, a brush with but one or two hairs to create such extraordinarily fine manipulation of the paint. This is undoubtedly an accurate portrayal of the man’s appearance. Yet beyond the keen gaze, we learn almost nothing of the man beyond his minutely defined physical shell. He shows us what he looks like, but keeps us at a distance for the rest, fascinating us with a dazzle of detail. This is unfailing accuracy, detached, factual, precise. To some extent that detail obscures the emotional layers of the subject, which are not wholly apparent to the viewer.
For a detail of the face, go to http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/cgi-bin/WebObjects.dll/CollectionPublisher.woa/wa/work?workNumber=NG222
Now for another example:
Here’s Rembrandt in his later years–-still successful but now on the downside of his success. In his earlier self-portraits, he is fascinated with detail, with costume variety, textures of steel armor, fur, feathers, velvet, lace, and the precise map of his face. Now he lets go of all that accuracy and looks beyond it, truly looks at himself, and shows his flaws to us. He even sacrifices facial detail, yet gives us far more of the subject. The portrait is deeply expressive in its brushwork, it’s imprecise, fast and fluid, resulting in a portrayal that’s introspective, raw in its honesty, and in its way as unerringly honest as the Van Eyck portrait. But it’s not accurate in its artistic detail.
I’m not saying one is better than the other — not at all — what I think this comparison demonstrates (and visual info can be faster to take in that written info, so I chose artwork for the example) is the different impact that a greater proportion of accurate detail, vs. a greater proportion of emotional content, can have — and I think this applies, as well, to writing.
Happy Thursday, wherever ye be!