Saturday, June 19, 2010

Just the Facts: The Importance of Author Research and Being Accurate

Are you the type of reader who enjoys reading a book even if the author has wrong information or hasn't done enough research for their story? Should a historical fiction book, regardless of it being a romance, be historically accurate? If a character has a specific job or works in an industry that is important to the plot, should the author make sure their research is correct with what the characters do for a living?

Ever since I read Sarah F's review of Jungle Heat by Bonnie Dee over at Dear Author, I wondered if an author doesn't research enough or have their facts correct, should that be a big deal? I've read Bonnie's work before and I've always enjoyed her stories. I was really interested in picking up Jungle Heat, one of the few MM romances released this month from Carina Press. Jungle Heat is a take on the Tarzan story, but with two men who fall in love.

It seems one main issue Sarah had with the Jungle Heat is that the main character, James, who's trying to come to grips with his homosexuality. He ponders his sexuality, using the word, "homosexuality" in his mind. Jungle Heat is set in 1888, and from what Sarah states:

"An 1888-set text shouldn’t have James musing about his “homosexuality,” considering the word was first published in English in 1895 in a translation of von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, which itself was only published in German in 1886. As scientific as James may be, I really don’t think he’d think about his sexuality *as* a “sexuality” — that is, as a sexual *identity* — or be calling himself “a homosexual” in 1888"

A few commenters didn't appreciate Sarah's opinion, especially with the lack of possible research Bonnie may or may have not done. D Suede states:

"Completely disagree. Not only with the thrust of the review, but also with the strange criteria by which you were judging a romance novel. I loved this book, and found it fresh, well structured and moving.

Burroughs was hardly historically accurate, and he’s flagged on the title page. And while it’s fortuitous that you are educated in postcolonial history that in no way puts you in a position to treat a romance novel as if it were a modernist treatise on the ethics of imperialism. That’s such a weird preconception! Ditto Kraft-Ebbing. ALL genre fiction takes liberties with period and veracity.

It’s great that we all went to liberal arts schools and have these facts at our fingertips, but does anyone read GONE WITH THE WIND for coverage of the treatment of slaves or social roles of women in the antebellum South? What could they learn thereby? Bizarre. Romantic fantasy is a genre with its own rules. KNOW THE RULES before you denigrate them."

I feel as an author, if you're writing a historical piece of fiction, you should to the best of your ability to research the time period. Many readers may have a historical fiction background and if a historical fiction author, including one who writes romance, mentions a specific event or verbal slang that may have been used during that time period, and doesn't have all their facts straight, readers may be less than pleased. The same goes for industries mentioned. If you write a book set around baseball, hockey, race car driving or even the day in the life a taxi drive, you better do your research because a person reading your book could be involved in this world and know everything about it because they are living it. Authors can't take for granted that readers may just take what they're reading at face value and leave it at that. But in the same vein, some readers may not care and find enjoyment in the story even if what they are reading may not be factual.

Also, I believe as a reviewer, you have the right to bring up these discrepancies and mention them up in your review like Sarah has done. And if you give a book a lower grade because of it, so be it. Book reviewers come from all walks of life and different backgrounds. An author can't take the chance that a reviewer or reader is not going to call an author to the floor is something in their story is misleading because they didn't do their research, even though the story maybe a work of fiction.

In my case, if an author is writing about the television and video industry and has incorrect tape formats and post-production procedures and terminology, I may find myself disappointed in what I'm reading because I'm very knowledgeable about this industry from working in it for so long. My overall enjoyment in reading the story would be ruined because the author didn't do their research. And, I would mention this first and foremost, if I posted a review about the book

By the way, does the romance genre have their own set of rules? If so, what are they because apparently I don't know them. Is one of the rules being liberal with possible known facts, events and careers and changing them in a way to suit a story?



Buriedbybooks said...

I think there's a difference between nitpicking historical detail and nitpicking the etymology of word usage that is within a decade of being correct.

I don't think *most* people read historical fiction (romance or not) for the historical facts. They read it for the atmosphere.

Grossly inaccurate information can ruin a book--contemporary or historical. It throws you out of your suspension of disbelief. Everyone has his or her own tolerance level for that kind of thing.

Just as I don't expect movies or tv to accurately represent history to me, I don't expect it from my fiction. Entertainment is entertainment. And unless the author makes claims to an advanced degree of knowledge or expertise, I go into a book assuming that he or she may make some errors.

How they affect the grade of my review depends on how they affect the believability of the characters and story. For me, personally, I would never fail a book for a word usage error or two. But that's my prerogative.

Tam said...

The only time I care about accuracy in a book is when I actually know if something is accurate or not (or it's grossly off kilter - using zippers in ancient Rome). I have no clue how you lance a boil. If the guy used an 8 foot sword and a ball of twine to achieve this I'm good with that as long as the story was interesting.

Did it really take 3 days to get from London to Dover in 1874? Who the hell cares as long as they got some smexin' in on the road trip and the bad guys were chasing them.

The thing that does annoy me and it's strictly because of my field of work is when characters go "I hate Detroit, let's move to Greece" and the epilogue has them 3 months later sitting in their taverna in Greece sipping ouzo. Sorry, countries don't just let you "move there". That why we have immigration departments. It can take well over a year and lots of paper work and prove you're not going to be a burden on the social system, etc. to get permission to move to another country. But most readers don't really give a damn because they don't know and it's romantic and a lovely HEA. And that's as it should be.

I had no clue that word wasn't used in 1988 so it would have flown over my head and probably for 99.9% of the readers it's the same. As you said, the "classics" were not historically accurate but no one criticizes Ernest Hemmingway, figuring out the weight of the fish vs the type of boat and the quality of the rope that would have been used vs the current and weather system that may have existed in whatever year that fish story was set in. If I want historical or medical or legal PERFECT accuracy, I'll read a text book or guide of some kind. I hope authors try to get most right, but if the details are minor, I don't care.

Katiebabs/ KB said...

Buried by Books: I think I heard once a historical romance author used a type of champagne glass in a scene and it wasn't even invented yet and some readers were up in arms. Something like that is a bit much.

Tam: LOL. As long as there's sex on the long carriage ride, it's perfectly okay.

Lynne Connolly said...

It's complex. On the one hand, you're writing for the modern reader. On the other, you're depicting a time that actually existed, not some made-up fantasy world.

As a reader - I expect complete accuracy, down to the dress fastenings and mode of transport. I want to know what i twas like to live then, I want to cope with their problems, not mine, and I want to believe in it. And actually, the more you research, the more surprising things turn up. I hate modern characters who think in modern terms, especially when that term hasn't been invented yet. It destroys the read for me.
So you've limited your readership just by getting it wrong.
But there are accuracies and accuracies. Things you wouldn't believe but are actually true. If the author can back it up, go with it. And it's not exactly difficult to get it right. Not that I expect complete accuracy, like the champagne glasses. They wouldn't bother me, but the other inaccuracies in the book, (yes, I know which book it was) with its title misuse and modern attitudes, did.

As a writer - I love doing research. Always have done it, along with the writing. It was a no-brainer for me to write historicals, because it's a good way of using the bits and bobs I pick up compulsively. I can't understand writers who write historicals and complain about the research.

Getting it right expands readership (and no, I'm not talking about a 'history lecture' or taking an opinion on a disputed part of history - infodumps are infodumps, whether it's family angst or unnecessary historical dumps), it's good for the genre and it pays respect to both the people who lived then and people who live in the country the writer is 'borrowing' for the story. So why not do it?
Somebody asked me once if I really wanted to know about the horse dung on the streets and the pickpockets. Hell, yeah! (and in any case, the dung was collected every day by the night soil men, so it wasn't that bad - see what I mean?)

Elizabeth said...

Historical fiction is never going to be the same as fiction written in the period--it's filtered through modern eyes (and we probably wouldn't really want to read medieval characters who talked exactly as they did in their time). At the same time, I want it to have an accurate enough feel for the period to transport me, so that I can imagine myself into another time or world (whether it's the Regency or professional baseball.

Anachronisms/inaccuracies that I notice will bother me, especially if they're basics, like aristocratic titles, that should be easy to get right. And I don't really like historical fiction where everyone talks and acts like contemporary Americans. I can read contemporaries for that. On the other hand, I've loved historical fiction that takes real life people/occurences and fictionalizes and alters them, as long as it gets the feel of the period right. Perfect accuracy isn't possible or necessary.

I thought the heated response to Sarah F's review was a bit odd. Her main objections to the book had little or nothing to do with historical accuracy; as a reader she didn't feel the characters were developed and didn't care about them. I think her point about "homosexuality," though it did kind of come off as etymological nitpicking, was really meant to be about that: she didn't think that James thought about his attraction to another man in a way that a man of his time would have, so she didn't find his character/internal conflict believable or fully developed.

Misfit said...

I had read the review in question and loved it, she had some excellent points but I came away feeling that the inaccuracies mentioned were minor nits - what she didn't care for was the writing itself.

I prefer my historical fiction as accurate as possible, and yes I know there's another camp that always argues back that "its fiction" so get over it. Problem is, if you are going to *diddle* with history you had better write a damn good story as well as not blathering all over blogland how much research you put into it, and how true to known history you've kept it (Philippa Gregory anyone?).

As for historical romances, I don't expect a lot of accuracy with them, but at the same time if you're going to write novels set in say the medieval period at least do a little research and try to get the basics right - bag the long flowing hair and running about unattended.

That said, reviewers are entitled to their honest opinions and should not have to suffer attacks an Amazon and elsewhere by snarky, anonymous commenters. Not everyone is going to love your book.

HelenB said...

I once picked up a book where the hero sees the heroine at a ball and gazes at the shape of her legs - Ok, now if the book was set in 1816, he probaly would have got a good idea of her shape but the book is set in 1861, so unless he had x-ray vision to see through her crinoline, no way. It threw me straight out of the story and I gave the book away. It had been given good reviews but I could not get past that error.

Julia Rachel Barrett said...

When I read a historical romance, it's the tiny details that bring the story to life for me. A discrepancy, like say...(tongue in cheek here) a 13th century Scottish Highland clan chief uttering the word, !dude! can be glaring and immediately jars me out of the story.
Yes, every reader has his or her own notion of what a historical romance should be and a different level of tolerance when it comes to accuracy. I prefer accuracy.
Why throw stones at the reviewer? She reviewed the book in good faith and expressed her opinion. One of her criteria for critiquing the work of historical fiction was, apparently, historical accuracy or lack thereof - no different than critiquing a book based upon any other criteria.

Bev(QB) said...

The word "homosexuality" didn't exist back then? I never would have guessed that at all. But now I'm wondering if there was another accepted name for it.

In any case, I don't think it's unfair to mention a discrepancy like that in a review, particularly if it's mentioned relative to the reviewer's other thoughts on the book. In fact, it allows those readers who have historical accuracy "Hot Buttons" to decide is the issue is a deal breaker for them or not.

Case in point: I just glommed Lydia Dare's Westfield Brothers trilogy. There were a couple instances of modern speech that elicited a "Huh?" from me (heroine asked hero if he was "getting in touch with his feminine side", another occasion, heroine says "Thanks" instead of "Thank you" or "My thanks to you"). Now I KNOW those phrases sound completely out of place for the time period, but the books were such delicious, entertaining FUN, that I really couldn't care less about the slips (note, unlike me, author used "COULD care less", which SOOOOO many authors also trip over).

However, those "shrug-offs" of mine might become wall bangers for historical accuracy "purists" so I think it's helpful (and not nit-picking) to mention them in reviews.

Kaetrin said...

I'm with Elizabeth. I read the review and thought that the reason Sarah didn't like the book was because of a lack of believability (part of which was the historical inaccuracies) and a lack of character development. I've read one other Bonnie Dee book and I liked it but it was a contemporary so it was a totally different type of book.
I think a fair minded person reading Sarah's review would be able to make a decision whether or not to give the book a try based on whether Sarah's reasoning resonated or not. There are some reviewers where when they hate a book, I'm probably gonna love it. (Sarah's not one of them - actually it's much more likely the other way around for me).

Me, I'm a details person so I like the stuff in the books I read to be accurate. I bring my best to the reading, I'd like the author to bring his/her best to the writing.

Kaetrin said...

@ Tam - can I just add that while I like it to be accurate, I'm still looking for the smexin' on the way to Dover! I want it all!!

Holly said...

I think I give authors some room with creative license. Yes, there are things that pull me completely out of a story, but for the most part I'm willing to overlook incorrect terms or things that might not have been invented yet, because the authors are writing during modern times. As someone said above, would we really want to read a novel that was completely accurate, even down to the dialogue used in medieval Scotland? Probably not.

I also think it depends..I remember you writing a post about Lucy Monroe not having done her research because there were "modern" words in her paranormal historical. But you gave us incorrect information to prove your point - meaning some of those words DID exist back then, and the source you quoted wasn't accurate.

It depends on the source and how full and accurate your research is.

heidenkind said...

It's only natural to nitpick at the accuracy of something you know a lot about. Like my dad will go on and on about how gun battles in movies aren't accurate. And I've been known to be bothered by art historical inaccuracies, too.

I think a writer should do his or her research, but as long as it's not ridiculous enough to suspend the disbelief of the average person, I don't make a big deal out of it. I'm more concerned if there are great characters and a good story. That being said, great research can open up a whole new world to readers.

Liz Fichera said...

If you're going to write historical fiction, research should definitely be on your list of to do's. However, if your novel gets too too caught up in every little detail, it becomes more like a college (or high school) history book and you lose the story. Finding the right balance between history and story is key and it's what sets apart the men from the boys, so to speak.