Historical accuracy in romance

The age old question that many of us historical romance authors face is this: how much accuracy is needed?

It’s a difficult one to answer because there are two main groups of thought, both of which have their own positives and negatives.

Group 1: The Purists

“Write a historical romance without all the details 100% accurate? Nonsese!” They cry. “The whole point of a historical romance is to lose yourself in the time period, to feel as though you could actually be there!”

And in some ways, this is true. Nothing is more jarring when reading a historical book than for a character to use modern day slang, or for a historical character that definitely wasn’t alive then to appear on the page.

But the downside to absolute purist books are that authors can spend hours, days even, hunting down the exact time of cotton thread used in the sewing of a particular type of boot, which is actually only described in passing on one page. It’s a very exhausting way to work for the author, and readers don’t often realise how many hours of work have gone into describing the type of candle wax in a dinner scene.

Group 2: The Narratives

“It’s the narrative story that actually matters!” This group cries. “What does it matter if a character is wearing a gown that was popular five years earlier? It’s the emotions that the character, and the reader feels that matters!”

And in many ways, they are right. Our readers typically assume that we know what we’re doing when writing historical romance, and that means that small slips in accuracy go unnoticed if the story is strong enough.

The downside of this, however, is that for those lovers of the time period, they will quickly notice when something isn’t quite right, and that can mean they put down your book in disgust – and not only never pick one up again, but advise others that they don’t even bother.

So what’s the answer?

Honestly, I’m not entirely sure. I saw in an author Facebook group this week that someone got themselves tangled up in knots about whether a certain word could be used in her book based in 17th century England if it had not been invented until the 1800s – and the heated debate showed that there are strong feelings on both sides!

On the other hand, have you ever tried to read a 17th century novel – one written during that time, I mean? Sure, there are plenty of words that you recognise, but could you tell your addle-plot from your borachio, your gapeseed from your mulligrubs? Some of my favourites are nipperkin or pickthank.

You see, if historical accuracy is taken too far, then the story actually gets completely lost. So I’m all about balance: I sit between the two camps.

What do you think?

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