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Readers have certain expectations about locations and time periods, things they "know". For example, people "know" that everybody in the Persian Empire was brown-skinned, that houses in Ancient Rome were one or two floors high, and that up until the late renaissance people did not use forks for eating.

All the above "facts" are untrue.

Trouble is, people think they are true. If I write about white Iranians, five-floor Roman apartment buildings and Byzantines using forks, most readers would accuse me of jarring anachronisms.

Then again, if I forget the truth, and write what people expect, the experts would accuse me of not doing my research, and what's more, I would be dishonest and perpetuating misinformation.

Is there a way out of this conundrum? Can I somehow write what is real and true without being accused of it being unrealistic to the point of breaking the suspension of disbelief?

12 Answers 12

46

I feel for you. I write about the Anglo-Saxon period in England and I am careful to portray my characters living and working in huts and wooden halls and guarding their villages with wooden palisades. No matter. My readers conjure up castles out of thin air.

Of course, this is how fiction works -- how all of languages works, really. We can paint a very large and detailed picture with a few words by pulling images out of the reader's head. If the images are not there already, it is very hard to force them in. And if the reader has associations with a word, a time, a setting, an implement, or a title, it is very hard to break that association.

In my case I suspect that any scene or implement that suggest medieval times to my readers, a sword, a horse, etc, brings a whole cascade of medieval associations flooding in, with castles mixed in there willy nilly. The reader ends up convinced that they have already seen a castle in the story when there never was one.

I think to a certain extent you can combat this with description. But to the extent that this succeeds, the reader will be aware of the dissonance between their stock of images and the image you are presenting. The question then is, which is more authoritative to them, the images in their head, or the words in your text.

If you can make your writing authoritative enough -- if they believe the portrait you are painting -- perhaps they will adjust the images they have in their heads. If not, they are more likely to believe the the images in their head are correct and you are the one committing anachronism.

But I don't think you are ever going to win at this game entirely. A certain portion of your readers will still see huts in Rome. A certain portion of mine will still see castles in an 8th century Northumbrian village.

They key thing, I believe, is to make your writing as authoritative as possible, but not to go so far in trying to convince the inconvincible that you ruin the story for the readers who are ready for what you are writing.

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    I want to upvote a dozen times for the line "this is how fiction works -- how all of languages works, really. We can paint a very large and detailed picture with a few words by pulling images out of the reader's head." – rumtscho Jul 23 '18 at 10:49
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    There's a blog post on The Alexandrian on verbal descriptions in tabletop RPGs to utilize this very phenomenon to great effect. It's not directly applicable to writing, but the general idea is to capture the most significant details, and let the reader fill in the rest. – user32223 Jul 25 '18 at 15:04
  • Did you mean "how all of language works" by any chance? – sgf Mar 18 at 23:01
96

One of the joys in fiction is learning new things. For many readers of historical fiction, learning new details -- even contrary to their own expectation -- is a lot of the fun.

So you can definitely use these elements, and expect them to count in your favor. To make that work, you need to make it clear that your details are deliberate, not mistakes. Don't let them feel "Ha, what a moron"; instead, you need to couch it as "Hey, let me explain this to you."

A good way to do that is to supply not only the detail, but also some background:

  • Don't just mention that some of the Persians are white-skinned -- use their own words for those people; say where they're from; note how skin color is or isn't a factor for them.
  • When you bring in higher-reaching architecture, mention who built it, what it's for, who can allow themselves these impressive buildings.
  • Don't just name-drop forks -- mention what table-manners and customs and utensils are in use in that place and time; offer an opinion on what is or isn't polite.

If you're making a counter-claim against your reader's expectations, than adding the detail and context I'm describing makes your counter-claim stronger. It works on several levels.

  • Firstly, it signals to the reader: I have given this thought. This is not an absent-minded mistake. You avoid even the quick impression of having made an error.
  • Secondly, it helps tell the reader, "Listen, here's how this makes sense here; here's where it actually comes from." They can read that and go, hey, that actually does make sense. That can help them reorient themselves -- now that they realize this setting looks different than they expected, your description helps them understand better what how does look and operate.
  • And thirdly, it gives your counter-claim more substance that your readers can actually check -- they can look up the names and architecture and customs, even if it's just a quick Google to see if that's really a thing.

There are certainly other ways to weave these details in as well -- but this one seems to me the most straightforward, and an excellent place to start from.

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    I agree that this is the way to go. You can even additionally put your sources at the end — Susan Elia MacNeal, who writes WWII historical mysteries, usually has three to six pages listing all the source material she used when researching a given book. She doesn't footnote anything, but pretty much any question you have about something she wrote can be answered by something in that Sources section. If you're writing about forks in the Renaissance, which you read about in one of Leonardo's notebooks, list the notebook. – Lauren Ipsum Jul 22 '18 at 13:24
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    Alexandre Dumas used these methods to great extent. One could learn a lot about 17th century society and ways of thinking from the Three Musketeers, where the author often explicitly mentioned things like "today we would frown if someone behaved like this, but back then it was relatively common and regarded as normal". I encountered lots of places in his novels which indicated he was trying to intercept the reader's expectations. – vsz Jul 22 '18 at 13:29
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    I think it'd be worth adding a note that you'll never please everyone. No matter how well you write or how accurate you are, if you reach a wide enough audience, someone will get angry at you for implying that forks are older than they think. Ultimately, that type of person doesn't care about learning, they care that they think you're wrong, and you're never going to make them happy. – Nic Hartley Jul 25 '18 at 16:55
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It might depend on the genre and style you are writing in, but from your description it seems you are mostly interested in more realistic historical fiction. If that's the case, there is nothing wrong with trying to be historically accurate. Knowingly putting in anachronistic elements just because you assume the readers expect it might get counterproductive, especially as interest seems to be gaining for more historically accurate fiction.

If you write light-hearted comical fantasy, then you can get away with lots of anachronisms, but many historical misconceptions get more and more known, so over time such unrealistic elements might move from the norm into parodies.

So, what methods can you use to present historically accurate but generally misunderstood elements?


1 Addressing the reader

This will only work if done in very strict moderation, and is best suited for social norms and behaviors. Alexandre Dumas used it with great finesse, when one of his characters did something which was considered normal for that historical period, but the reader would find shocking if done today, the narrator mentioned in a few words that times and social norms were different back then. To make it even more subtle, you can describe the actions of a character, and then you can present the other characters around acting normal, not finding it strange at all.

2 The Watson

Have a character who is either clueless, or from a different culture, so you can explain things from within the setting. Of course, it has to be done in moderation, but it can work very well if it's not overdone. Make this clueless character have the same misconceptions about the setting as you would expect the average reader to have, so the misconceptions can be debunked by that character actually encountering "the real thing". Of course, you shouldn't make that character a strawman or too unsympathetic, because you might insult the readers by making them think you hold them stupid.

Using one of your examples about Roman apartment blocks. Have someone from a foreign culture visit Rome, while talking to his Roman friend, and as they walk around they encounter some insulae. The foreigner is surprised, and tells his friend that he thought Romans lived in one or two storied mansions with an atrium in the middle, with a fountain surrounded by pillars, just like he has seen it on paintings and heard it in stories. The local then mentions, that only the rich live in houses like that, the poor live in crammed five-floor apartment blocks.

3 Details.

If you mention a realistic (but not well known) fact only in passing, the reader might think you just slipped up.

If you instead make it an integral part of the story, describe it in more detail, make it fit into the setting, and show how it works, then the reader can get a feeling that it must be normal.

If you give enough importance and enough detail to it, you won't need the narrator or another character explaining it, it will look self-evident.

For example, there is the widespread myth that medieval swords were extremely heavy and completely dull bludgeoning tools, and you could cleave through plate armor by using the sword's weight to crush the armor. What to do in this case? Show, don't tell. If swords are drawn, it is an action scene. Don't stop the action for the narrator to start giving an academic lecture about HEMA, just show how the characters use the sword and the armor. Show how the fighter handles his well balanced blade with swift motions, how quickly he parries attacks aimed at his most vulnerable spots, show how someone slips up by hitting the armor with the edge of the sword which just bounces off without even inconveniencing his opponent while throwing himself off balance, and then finally show the elaborate techniques master swordsmen used to make a stab at the hard to reach vulnerable spots of an armor.

22

Add an afterword or appendix.

It's my favorite part of a book. Seriously.

Share your fascination with history. Explain which parts of the story are made up, and which are based on reality. Add sources for both, facts and ideas. It makes a good story more memorable, and might give the reader a treasure trove of references for further reading.

Examples:

Janet Kagan, Hellspark. Peter Watts, Blindsight. Science fiction, based on powerful ideas out of anthropology and neuroscience.

Pearl Luke, Madame Zee. Emma Donoghue, Frog Music. Historical fiction, based on real persons and events.

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    Bernard Cornwell (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_Cornwell) of the Saxon Stories (and the Last Kingdom show) fame does a great job of this as well as a historical fiction writer. I'm normally looking forward to his afterword to see what is real and what he had to make up. He also explains his decisions to favor one historical theory over another and is willing to admit when he does something for pure story purposes. – kuhl Jul 23 '18 at 19:36
12

Just be accurate and write a GOOD STORY.

If your story is dry and uninteresting, no amount of research will save you. People don't buy stories for their accuracy; they buy them for entertainment.

That's why badly researched stories can still be extremely popular. The story is what counts for readers. However, that's no reason why you have to be inaccurate to sell well!


Your question reminds me an awful lot of the author's comments on the "Helljob Series," 15 stories about the most dangerous professions written in the 1930s and originally published in Argosy magazine.

To quote his comments in part, originally published to readers of the magazine in the "Argonotes" section (bolding added):

All along I’ve realized the score on this and so I have checked and rechecked the data contained in the stories and I think I’ve got an airtight answer for every possible squawk.

Something else has amused me considerably. Writers, treating the same subject time after time in fiction, gradually evolve a terminology and a pattern for certain types of stories as you well know. This creates an erroneous belief in readers that they are familiar with a certain subject through reading so much fiction dealing with it. I’ve had to shed a lot of that for the sake of accuracy and I’m very, very anxious to have my hand called on some of it.

Oil well stories, for instance, always seem to have a villain who in the height of hate, drops a wrench or something down a well to ruin it. Dropping things into the hole is common. In cable tool drilling, so many hours or days are regularly estimated in with the rest of the work for fishing. The tools fall in, wrenches drop, bits stick, cables break, and wells are never, never abandoned because of it, or is it considered at all serious.

...

The process of digging up data is interesting when I can get these gentlemen to give me a hand. The navy diver here is responsible for the data and authenticity of this story. Going down off the end of a dock didn’t give me such a good idea of what it was all about after all. Never got so scared before in all my life. Something ghastly about it. And the helmet is enough to deafen you and the cuffs were so tight my hands got blue.

But it was lots of fun!

When these stories start to come out and when the letters start to come in calling me seven different kinds of a liar (which they will), sit easy and grin and shoot them this way. There isn’t anything reasonable in the way of criticism I can’t answer anent* this collected data.

It was either bow to popular fallacy and avoid all technical descriptions, or ride roughshod, make sure I was right and damn the torpedoes. Making the latter choice, I’ve laid myself wide open several times to crank letters. So be it.

—L. Ron Hubbard, 1936

The last paragraph is particularly telling. Get your facts straight, be very certain you know what you're writing about, and then write your story.

Or just stick with the inaccurate beliefs all your readers are used to. It's up to you. But that's not nearly as fun.

*anent: concerning; about

10

This is a good case for those little out-of-character sideline blurbs at the top of each new chapter (don't know the english word - often printed in italics and blatantly not from the perspective of the main story).

For example:

Chapter 5 - The Big Feast

The personal table fork was most likely invented in the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, where they were in common use by the 4th century (its origin may even go back to Ancient Greece, before the Roman period). Records show that by the 9th century a similar utensil known as a barjyn was in limited use in Persia within some elite circles. By the 10th century, the table fork was in common use throughout the Middle East.(*) ----- Alice Bobster, The Forks of Middle-East

On the next day, our hero was invited to a big feast and ...

(And, if you feel so inclined, provide a list of science-y references in a addendum - exact page numbers etc.).

This adds a bit of spice to the book. Also, while the fork is probably just a random example and not a main story plot, especially adding such inconsequential facts would just feel nice to set the stage a bit.

(*) The actual quote is from the page on Forks on Wikipedia.

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    Giving the source as Wikipedia is like giving the source as Science in that it provides very little of value. Yes, it's a pet peeve of mine; if you (for some value of "you") are quoting something, tell me where you're quoting it from. "Wikipedia" is bad; "the Wikipedia article 'fork'" works, and including a direct link to the specific oldid is even better. "Science" is bad; "Science 361 (6399), 227-228, DOI:10.1126/science.aau4385" is great. – a CVn Jul 23 '18 at 9:41
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    @MichaelKjörling, please note that I wrote exactly what you did right after that quote... – AnoE Jul 23 '18 at 14:44
  • The way I read what you wrote, you said to not quote Wikipedia, not anything about how to specify the source of the material (which was the point of my comment). Specifying the source as Science is, in my opinion, just as problematic as specifying the source as Wikipedia, because it doesn't give enough information to find the actual source of the, in this case, quoted text. – a CVn Jul 23 '18 at 17:45
  • @MichaelKjörling as much as I like DOIs, putting one at the start of a chapter of a work of fiction would be rather... off-putting. Better just name the author and put the details out-of-sight in the back matter. – leftaroundabout Jul 23 '18 at 17:59
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    @leftaroundabout Right, I'm not saying a DOI is always the best option. But just the name of the publication is quite far to the other extreme. – a CVn Jul 23 '18 at 18:00
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Have your narrator digress

Describe workers building a house in ancient Rome, tie it into the story later, to let it look like a Checkov's gun, then put in some historical facts integrating them into the narrative. Talk about forks, "which would later disappear until the late renaissance".

Annotate your book

When writing about something you know to be common misknowledge, write notes.
"¹Contrary to popular belief, forks were in use in Constantinoples" might be ugly, but it works.

Being ugly, you want to take this route only as a last resort.

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    The first one works quite well if you have the right type of narrator, but only with the right type of narrator. The Iron Druid Chronicles uses this type of digression, but it is a mostly first person story from a very long-lived narrator who is explicitly writing for a contemporary audience. It made sense for him to digress with historical explanations. – TimothyAWiseman Jul 22 '18 at 21:00
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    When I read historical fiction I actually do like an addendum of sort clarifying what is based on research/facts and which parts are made up by the author. I'd personally prefer an addendum over footnotes. – Jens Schauder Jul 23 '18 at 7:49
4

In Fiction, Write about them as unusual; or give people what they expect.

Everybody expects unusual characteristics in their prominent fictional characters (protagonist, antagonist, mentors, sidekicks, minions, love interest, etc).

My protagonist almost always has some unusual mental or physical ability; much of the story is coming to grips with that. Think "Good Will Hunting", Luke Skywalker, even Han Solo. So it would not suspend disbelief if, say, the love interest of your MC is a white Iranian; and the novelty of that is mentioned, perhaps as part of the attraction. And perhaps other Iranians are prejudiced against whites.

Nobody demands strict historical accuracy in historical fiction; they know the characters and personal parts of the setting are made up, and often the prominent characters are "fish out of water", thinking thoughts ahead of their time, even with morals ahead of their time, (intentionally on the author's part so readers can relate to them better).

That said, if the truth ruins your story, tie it up, gag it and stuff it in a mental closet. Fiction is not the place to push uncomfortable truths; leave that to professors in classrooms or non-fiction end-notes, if a publisher will allow them.

Fiction is for entertainment. If you think something actually factual will break suspension of disbelief for more than, say, 15% of your audience, don't include it. That is what is meant by the advice, "Kill Your Darlings." Don't include something you personally love even when you are pretty sure it will diminish or break the reading reverie. When they say readers like surprises, they mean plot surprises within the reading reverie about character pasts, motives, or actions. In Star Wars, the double surprise of Vader saying "I am your father," immediately followed by Luke intentionally letting go to (apparently) fall to his death (but to be rescued). A lot of "Holy crap!" moments, not "How ridiculous..." moments.

For the type of things you are talking about, the only context in which those become interesting and cool is one in which the reader believes they are reading (hearing, seeing) something absolutely true that will not lie to them, a non-fiction book. A professor in an anthropology class. A documentary film. A scientific paper, or report of a discovery in Science News or New Scientist.

Only in fiction does a reader suspend a certain amount of disbelief, so only in fiction must you be careful not to break it. Typically the way this "contract" works is that the author will quickly reveal (in the first 5% to 15% of the story, aka first half of Act I), in strong hints or in full, all the crazy things needed in the story. If there is magic, it must be shown there. Not every possible kind of magic, but impressive magic.

If you have Caucasians in fifth century Iran, show them. If you have Byzantine forks, show them being used, five story buildings, show them being used.

However, I'd guess there is a 90% chance you don't need to show any of these things at all: You shouldn't include a risk of suspension of disbelief unless it is crucial to the plot of your story or to character development. (In most stories what is unique or highly unusual about prominent characters is necessary, they need to stand out in the reader's mind).

It is your responsibility to leave out any widespread divergence from what readers believe is the true history, whether that divergence is factual or not. The point here is not to educate but to entertain, and asking people to believe something they feel certain is untrue is not entertaining them.

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    There are lots of genres between "pure fantasy" and "scientific journal". Historical fiction is expected to be as realistic as possible, and to diverge from real history only in the personal affairs of some characters, but not in the setting itself. If we have much better knowledge about a certain historical period than pulp fiction writers had a hundred years ago, we should use that information instead of staying obsolete. – vsz Jul 22 '18 at 14:23
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    @vsz Sounds like you should put that in an answer. I don't disagree, I wouldn't call them "genres", but styles of writing. To me "genres" have necessary elements in setting, plot and characters, but not in the period realism portrayed. A pure fantasy has magic, typically in a medieval setting, but can be light-hearted and unrealistic in the portrayal of lives, or can be grim and depressingly realistic about the slavery, subjugation of women, brutality of the church, disease and pollution and horrors of the time. Those are writing styles. Anyway, write an answer, don't debate it here. – Amadeus Jul 22 '18 at 14:36
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You're in luck. People tend to believe self-consistent and emotionally satisfying stories over facts! So you have nothing to worry about. Apart from writing a good story, which of course is the hard part... Ask any scientist about how hard it is to spread scientific findings in the presence of an alternative but objectively wrong narrative (e.g. vaccines, homeopathy etc).

On a personal note, after reading historical fiction I often notice how almost all my pre-story notions have been supplanted by the images of the book! To the extent that I really hope that the author has done their research properly...

2

Another option is to have characters in the story have a similar mistaken belief such that you can explain in the story itself the misconception.

For example, with respect to the ethnicity of Persians... you can have a character who has the belief that all Persians are brown skinned. When arriving, that can be a "surprise" to them and something they choose to dialog about in story (obviously you need to tie this into your existing characters/story more meaningfully than cherry picking something random).

However:

  • This works best if there are relatively few "facts" you need to clarify
  • It works better in a context where characters already have active dialog about their universe
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    But then aren't you introducing the myths that people from that time had the same misconceptions we have nowadays? I'm sure most Romans knew they could build higher houses, for example. – DonFusili Jul 26 '18 at 12:34
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First of all, I wonder if you're over-thinking this. A lot of the phenomenon you're talking about seems to be bad-faith readers who don't "mistakenly" believe the historical realities are unrealistic, but who are pushing a view that they're unrealistic as part of sociopolitical agenda. The value of cutting them off in the text of your work seems questionable, but it is plausible that supporting the historical reality at the textual level will prevent them from convincing others to believe their version of history (and thereby treat your work as flawed and you as the one who's pushing a counterfactual agenda), so I think it's still worth considering what you can do.

I'm going to take your forks example to work with because it's not loaded in any way I'm aware of. I also don't know anything about the history of fork prevalence, so I'm going to make up some details with the idea that it's the principle that matters here.

So, if you're concerned readers will find forks unrealistic in your setting, don't just write that your characters are using forks. Describe them in terms of how they fit into your setting. For example if most fine forks in your setting came in via trade with another country or city, describe how the fork a character is picking up fits or differs from that in-world expectation. Is it an heirloom that differs from what's in widespread use at the time of the story? Is it something that shows great wealth beyond what most people would have? Or is it a simple piece of metal (or whatever material?) produced by local craftspeople? By doing any of this, you signal that you have awareness of how you intend that it fit into your world, rather than just haphazardly throwing it in. Then if someone comes to question it, they can check the historical facts and see that your intent matches them, rather than being able to assume "maybe you just got lucky that there were really forks in your setting".

1

A dinner in a historical novel has little to do with forks. What the characters say and do, the intrigue and conflict and emotions are the story. But also, I'd say that 99.9 percent of readers (if this is popular fiction, not an academic paper on utensils) have given no thought whatsoever to whether people used forks in a certain year. Now, if it's important, a character noticing that there are forks, and being impressed because back in his village or castle or whatever, they can't afford or haven't ever seen forks, then that detail is part of the story and the character's development. Otherwise, there is absolutely no reason to mention forks at all.

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