It’s in the details… or is it?

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:

Jan van Eyck, Self-Portrait, 1433, London, NGA Vaneyckng222

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:

Rembrandtsp Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait, 1659, Washington DC, NGA

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.

Rembrandtsp_det Here’s a close view of the face.

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!

Susan/Sarah

45 thoughts on “It’s in the details… or is it?”

  1. Wow, Susan, the paintings really bring into focus what you’re saying. That’s a wonderfully emotional picture of Rembrandt. I know nothing of the art strokes involved, but I find the emotional painting far more interesting than the accurate one. Of course, that just goes to show that I’m a lazy researcher who prefers drama to reality. you’ve hit a nail directly on the head—I’m all for the emotional authenticity with just enough historical accuracy to keep me grounded. thanks!
    Pat

    Reply
  2. Wow, Susan, the paintings really bring into focus what you’re saying. That’s a wonderfully emotional picture of Rembrandt. I know nothing of the art strokes involved, but I find the emotional painting far more interesting than the accurate one. Of course, that just goes to show that I’m a lazy researcher who prefers drama to reality. you’ve hit a nail directly on the head—I’m all for the emotional authenticity with just enough historical accuracy to keep me grounded. thanks!
    Pat

    Reply
  3. Wow, Susan, the paintings really bring into focus what you’re saying. That’s a wonderfully emotional picture of Rembrandt. I know nothing of the art strokes involved, but I find the emotional painting far more interesting than the accurate one. Of course, that just goes to show that I’m a lazy researcher who prefers drama to reality. you’ve hit a nail directly on the head—I’m all for the emotional authenticity with just enough historical accuracy to keep me grounded. thanks!
    Pat

    Reply
  4. The Rembrandt self-portrait is wonderful, Susan. Will you think I am blasphemous if I say that the close view you provided reminded me of Johnny Cash’s face in his video of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt”? There is the same evocation of painfully gained wisdom, including self-knowledge, in both faces.
    Regarding research and writing, do you ever find yourself so engaged by the research that you have a hard time calling a halt to that stage and getting to the writing? That battle is another one that I find myself constantly fighting.

    Reply
  5. The Rembrandt self-portrait is wonderful, Susan. Will you think I am blasphemous if I say that the close view you provided reminded me of Johnny Cash’s face in his video of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt”? There is the same evocation of painfully gained wisdom, including self-knowledge, in both faces.
    Regarding research and writing, do you ever find yourself so engaged by the research that you have a hard time calling a halt to that stage and getting to the writing? That battle is another one that I find myself constantly fighting.

    Reply
  6. The Rembrandt self-portrait is wonderful, Susan. Will you think I am blasphemous if I say that the close view you provided reminded me of Johnny Cash’s face in his video of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt”? There is the same evocation of painfully gained wisdom, including self-knowledge, in both faces.
    Regarding research and writing, do you ever find yourself so engaged by the research that you have a hard time calling a halt to that stage and getting to the writing? That battle is another one that I find myself constantly fighting.

    Reply
  7. Wow Susan, you should be a teacher! Or maybe I could argue you already are because I’ve just learned so much. Thank you!
    I am nearly finished THE SWORD MAIDEN. You paint the story with such fluidity of emotion and historical detail. I feel like I’m an iron in the forge, bending and morphing in the heat, purifying into hardened steel. The story’s imagery never stops. I absolutely love it!
    Nina
    — the littlest wenchling

    Reply
  8. Wow Susan, you should be a teacher! Or maybe I could argue you already are because I’ve just learned so much. Thank you!
    I am nearly finished THE SWORD MAIDEN. You paint the story with such fluidity of emotion and historical detail. I feel like I’m an iron in the forge, bending and morphing in the heat, purifying into hardened steel. The story’s imagery never stops. I absolutely love it!
    Nina
    — the littlest wenchling

    Reply
  9. Wow Susan, you should be a teacher! Or maybe I could argue you already are because I’ve just learned so much. Thank you!
    I am nearly finished THE SWORD MAIDEN. You paint the story with such fluidity of emotion and historical detail. I feel like I’m an iron in the forge, bending and morphing in the heat, purifying into hardened steel. The story’s imagery never stops. I absolutely love it!
    Nina
    — the littlest wenchling

    Reply
  10. What a beautiful, wonderful, thought-provoking post…and what perfect images to buttress your argument.
    I love coming here…

    Reply
  11. What a beautiful, wonderful, thought-provoking post…and what perfect images to buttress your argument.
    I love coming here…

    Reply
  12. What a beautiful, wonderful, thought-provoking post…and what perfect images to buttress your argument.
    I love coming here…

    Reply
  13. Susan/Sarah here…
    Pat sez: I’m all for the emotional authenticity with just enough historical accuracy to keep me grounded.
    Yeah, Pat, that’s what I was trying to say, and you managed it in one sentence!!! — Could have saved me some work today if I’d talked to you first! 😉
    Wylene, that’s a great observation about Cash & Rembrandt. They’re both so careworn…and faces like those can be fodder for writers who study character.
    Nina, I used to lecture in art history, so I just pulled out some rusty technique for today’s blog, haha! I’m so glad you’re enjoying SWORD MAIDEN, thank you!
    Susan, I just knew you couldn’t resist a good art history slide comparison.
    Loretta, thanks, I was hoping the paintings would help the point, and for me, images are a nice change from words-words-words all the time anyway.
    Katy, thanks, it’s so nice to hear from new voices on the blog!!
    Susan

    Reply
  14. Susan/Sarah here…
    Pat sez: I’m all for the emotional authenticity with just enough historical accuracy to keep me grounded.
    Yeah, Pat, that’s what I was trying to say, and you managed it in one sentence!!! — Could have saved me some work today if I’d talked to you first! 😉
    Wylene, that’s a great observation about Cash & Rembrandt. They’re both so careworn…and faces like those can be fodder for writers who study character.
    Nina, I used to lecture in art history, so I just pulled out some rusty technique for today’s blog, haha! I’m so glad you’re enjoying SWORD MAIDEN, thank you!
    Susan, I just knew you couldn’t resist a good art history slide comparison.
    Loretta, thanks, I was hoping the paintings would help the point, and for me, images are a nice change from words-words-words all the time anyway.
    Katy, thanks, it’s so nice to hear from new voices on the blog!!
    Susan

    Reply
  15. Susan/Sarah here…
    Pat sez: I’m all for the emotional authenticity with just enough historical accuracy to keep me grounded.
    Yeah, Pat, that’s what I was trying to say, and you managed it in one sentence!!! — Could have saved me some work today if I’d talked to you first! 😉
    Wylene, that’s a great observation about Cash & Rembrandt. They’re both so careworn…and faces like those can be fodder for writers who study character.
    Nina, I used to lecture in art history, so I just pulled out some rusty technique for today’s blog, haha! I’m so glad you’re enjoying SWORD MAIDEN, thank you!
    Susan, I just knew you couldn’t resist a good art history slide comparison.
    Loretta, thanks, I was hoping the paintings would help the point, and for me, images are a nice change from words-words-words all the time anyway.
    Katy, thanks, it’s so nice to hear from new voices on the blog!!
    Susan

    Reply
  16. Hi Susan.
    I meant to ask this in my previous post, but forgot. If you are agreeable, I would love to see you do a blog post on warrior poets.
    🙂
    Nina

    Reply
  17. Hi Susan.
    I meant to ask this in my previous post, but forgot. If you are agreeable, I would love to see you do a blog post on warrior poets.
    🙂
    Nina

    Reply
  18. Hi Susan.
    I meant to ask this in my previous post, but forgot. If you are agreeable, I would love to see you do a blog post on warrior poets.
    🙂
    Nina

    Reply
  19. Great post, Susan.
    I don’t know what it says about me, but I prefer the Van Eyck. I feel I can look and look and see more and more of the person, whereas the Rembrandt is in my face, what is, is. I suppose I should confess that Rembrandt isn’t one of my favorite painters. I don’t know what that says about me, either.
    As you said, neither is better or worse, but it’s interesting the difference.
    Jo

    Reply
  20. Great post, Susan.
    I don’t know what it says about me, but I prefer the Van Eyck. I feel I can look and look and see more and more of the person, whereas the Rembrandt is in my face, what is, is. I suppose I should confess that Rembrandt isn’t one of my favorite painters. I don’t know what that says about me, either.
    As you said, neither is better or worse, but it’s interesting the difference.
    Jo

    Reply
  21. Great post, Susan.
    I don’t know what it says about me, but I prefer the Van Eyck. I feel I can look and look and see more and more of the person, whereas the Rembrandt is in my face, what is, is. I suppose I should confess that Rembrandt isn’t one of my favorite painters. I don’t know what that says about me, either.
    As you said, neither is better or worse, but it’s interesting the difference.
    Jo

    Reply
  22. Jo, I know what you mean about the Van Eyck. There’s something serene, intellectual, and fascinating in all that smooth, precisely controlled detail. The Rembrandt is altogether different!
    In terms of writing, especially creating character, these portraits both do that — visual art is a great way to study the conveying of character.
    There’s human depth revealed in both images. The Van Eyck is accurately detailed, yet we have to work a little harder to discern his qualities–there’s a mystery guy there, obscured by the detail.
    It’s very intriguing, and elicits our curiosity about the man, an intellectual response.
    We have no immediate answers about him, though we know a lot about his outward appearance. If you look at the detail on the London NGA site, you can practically count the hairs in the stubble of his beard — so we know he’s precise, analytical, patient, thorough…possibly a very left-brained and controlled man… possibly emotionally controlled, though that red turban also makes its own comment. 😉
    THe Rembrandt uses a looser, very direct technique — all that paint applied with speed and depth exists in our plane, somehow, giving it an immediacy while the other image is more timeless and smooth — the Rembrandt self-portrait is honest, deeply revealing, and there’s a quality of impatience, too. We can read further into his face, and into his life, and with all that immediacy and turbulence of paint, this one elicits an emotional response — probably our sympathy, though it may be different from viewer to viewer.
    It’s interesting to think about how we could we apply those same techniques used in these two artworks to do a little character building with words….
    Nina, one day I’d like to post some thoughts on Warrior Poet heroes, though right now I gotta plead deadline crunch!
    Susan/sarah

    Reply
  23. Jo, I know what you mean about the Van Eyck. There’s something serene, intellectual, and fascinating in all that smooth, precisely controlled detail. The Rembrandt is altogether different!
    In terms of writing, especially creating character, these portraits both do that — visual art is a great way to study the conveying of character.
    There’s human depth revealed in both images. The Van Eyck is accurately detailed, yet we have to work a little harder to discern his qualities–there’s a mystery guy there, obscured by the detail.
    It’s very intriguing, and elicits our curiosity about the man, an intellectual response.
    We have no immediate answers about him, though we know a lot about his outward appearance. If you look at the detail on the London NGA site, you can practically count the hairs in the stubble of his beard — so we know he’s precise, analytical, patient, thorough…possibly a very left-brained and controlled man… possibly emotionally controlled, though that red turban also makes its own comment. 😉
    THe Rembrandt uses a looser, very direct technique — all that paint applied with speed and depth exists in our plane, somehow, giving it an immediacy while the other image is more timeless and smooth — the Rembrandt self-portrait is honest, deeply revealing, and there’s a quality of impatience, too. We can read further into his face, and into his life, and with all that immediacy and turbulence of paint, this one elicits an emotional response — probably our sympathy, though it may be different from viewer to viewer.
    It’s interesting to think about how we could we apply those same techniques used in these two artworks to do a little character building with words….
    Nina, one day I’d like to post some thoughts on Warrior Poet heroes, though right now I gotta plead deadline crunch!
    Susan/sarah

    Reply
  24. Jo, I know what you mean about the Van Eyck. There’s something serene, intellectual, and fascinating in all that smooth, precisely controlled detail. The Rembrandt is altogether different!
    In terms of writing, especially creating character, these portraits both do that — visual art is a great way to study the conveying of character.
    There’s human depth revealed in both images. The Van Eyck is accurately detailed, yet we have to work a little harder to discern his qualities–there’s a mystery guy there, obscured by the detail.
    It’s very intriguing, and elicits our curiosity about the man, an intellectual response.
    We have no immediate answers about him, though we know a lot about his outward appearance. If you look at the detail on the London NGA site, you can practically count the hairs in the stubble of his beard — so we know he’s precise, analytical, patient, thorough…possibly a very left-brained and controlled man… possibly emotionally controlled, though that red turban also makes its own comment. 😉
    THe Rembrandt uses a looser, very direct technique — all that paint applied with speed and depth exists in our plane, somehow, giving it an immediacy while the other image is more timeless and smooth — the Rembrandt self-portrait is honest, deeply revealing, and there’s a quality of impatience, too. We can read further into his face, and into his life, and with all that immediacy and turbulence of paint, this one elicits an emotional response — probably our sympathy, though it may be different from viewer to viewer.
    It’s interesting to think about how we could we apply those same techniques used in these two artworks to do a little character building with words….
    Nina, one day I’d like to post some thoughts on Warrior Poet heroes, though right now I gotta plead deadline crunch!
    Susan/sarah

    Reply
  25. From Sherrie:
    Awesome post, Susan/Sarah!!! I felt like I was back in school. I used to love lectures, and would regularly wear out dozens of pencils taking furious notes as the speaker lectured.
    Being an art bug myself, your post was especially interesting to me. Loved the insights into the Rembrandt and van Eyck self-portraits and how that morphed into a discussion regarding details in historical writing.
    This whole series of blogs about historical detail and accuracy has been invaluable to me as an editor, since this is an issue I deal with in my business. I have sent a number of my clients to this site because there is so much good information here on this subject.
    Brilliant post, Professor Susan/Sarah!
    P.S. Why do we always refer to Rembrandt by his first name, and van Eyck by his last?
    Sherrie

    Reply
  26. From Sherrie:
    Awesome post, Susan/Sarah!!! I felt like I was back in school. I used to love lectures, and would regularly wear out dozens of pencils taking furious notes as the speaker lectured.
    Being an art bug myself, your post was especially interesting to me. Loved the insights into the Rembrandt and van Eyck self-portraits and how that morphed into a discussion regarding details in historical writing.
    This whole series of blogs about historical detail and accuracy has been invaluable to me as an editor, since this is an issue I deal with in my business. I have sent a number of my clients to this site because there is so much good information here on this subject.
    Brilliant post, Professor Susan/Sarah!
    P.S. Why do we always refer to Rembrandt by his first name, and van Eyck by his last?
    Sherrie

    Reply
  27. From Sherrie:
    Awesome post, Susan/Sarah!!! I felt like I was back in school. I used to love lectures, and would regularly wear out dozens of pencils taking furious notes as the speaker lectured.
    Being an art bug myself, your post was especially interesting to me. Loved the insights into the Rembrandt and van Eyck self-portraits and how that morphed into a discussion regarding details in historical writing.
    This whole series of blogs about historical detail and accuracy has been invaluable to me as an editor, since this is an issue I deal with in my business. I have sent a number of my clients to this site because there is so much good information here on this subject.
    Brilliant post, Professor Susan/Sarah!
    P.S. Why do we always refer to Rembrandt by his first name, and van Eyck by his last?
    Sherrie

    Reply
  28. Fabulous post, Susan, and a very effective demonstration of the danger of too much detail (that whole not seeing the forest for the trees thing). I do have to say, though, that I am in Jo’s camp regarding Rembrandt vs Van Eyck. I adore that little jewel-like self-portrait. (For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s very small — only about 9″ high, as I recall.) It hangs right next to (or very nearby) his famous painting of Arnolfini’s Wedding, which often has such a crowd in front of it that I stray over to the little portrait and gaze in wonder for long minutes.
    Isn’t it curious how many art historians have become romance writers? I know I’ve met several at RWA conferences, though I can only name Madeline Hunter at the moment. I did my Master’s work in Asian Art History, but love just about every period of Western art … up until about Whistler. My sensibilities sort of turn off at that point, I’m afraid. You have to drag me kicking and screaming into a modern art museum. I sometimes think I was born in the wrong century. 🙂

    Reply
  29. Fabulous post, Susan, and a very effective demonstration of the danger of too much detail (that whole not seeing the forest for the trees thing). I do have to say, though, that I am in Jo’s camp regarding Rembrandt vs Van Eyck. I adore that little jewel-like self-portrait. (For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s very small — only about 9″ high, as I recall.) It hangs right next to (or very nearby) his famous painting of Arnolfini’s Wedding, which often has such a crowd in front of it that I stray over to the little portrait and gaze in wonder for long minutes.
    Isn’t it curious how many art historians have become romance writers? I know I’ve met several at RWA conferences, though I can only name Madeline Hunter at the moment. I did my Master’s work in Asian Art History, but love just about every period of Western art … up until about Whistler. My sensibilities sort of turn off at that point, I’m afraid. You have to drag me kicking and screaming into a modern art museum. I sometimes think I was born in the wrong century. 🙂

    Reply
  30. Fabulous post, Susan, and a very effective demonstration of the danger of too much detail (that whole not seeing the forest for the trees thing). I do have to say, though, that I am in Jo’s camp regarding Rembrandt vs Van Eyck. I adore that little jewel-like self-portrait. (For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s very small — only about 9″ high, as I recall.) It hangs right next to (or very nearby) his famous painting of Arnolfini’s Wedding, which often has such a crowd in front of it that I stray over to the little portrait and gaze in wonder for long minutes.
    Isn’t it curious how many art historians have become romance writers? I know I’ve met several at RWA conferences, though I can only name Madeline Hunter at the moment. I did my Master’s work in Asian Art History, but love just about every period of Western art … up until about Whistler. My sensibilities sort of turn off at that point, I’m afraid. You have to drag me kicking and screaming into a modern art museum. I sometimes think I was born in the wrong century. 🙂

    Reply
  31. Sherrie–Considering that his full name is Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, I think we call him by the only part we can pronounce!

    Reply
  32. Sherrie–Considering that his full name is Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, I think we call him by the only part we can pronounce!

    Reply
  33. Sherrie–Considering that his full name is Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, I think we call him by the only part we can pronounce!

    Reply

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