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Tuesday News: Historical fiction and accuracy, cultivating diversity on television, Comcast...

How true should historical fiction be? – An interesting piece from Stephanie Merritt, who argues that authors of historical fiction have no responsibility to make the history in their books authentic. At the same time, however, she indicates that for authors who do not know the actual history, changing the rules may get them in trouble, because it’s only those who know the rules who can effectively break them. I agree with Merritt, but I would also argue that if you’re twisting the history, it’s no longer historical fiction…

But novelists are not history teachers. It’s not our job to educate people, and if we start using words like “duty” and “responsibility” about historical fiction – or any fiction – we’re in danger of leaching all the vigour out of it with a sense of worthiness. A novelist has no real duty to anything except the story he or she is creating, the characters who inhabit it and whatever view of the world he or she is offering with the novel’s ending. But if you are going to play fast and loose with historical fact for the sake of a good story, you’d better have done your research thoroughly if you want readers to take you seriously; only then will you have the authority to depart from those facts. –The Guardian

Bringing Diversity to TV: Whose Job Is It? – When we talk about responsibility to portray certain things accurately, the issue becomes much more complex when we’re talking about the appropriation of another people’s experience, whether that be straight women writing about m/m Romance or white authors writing about people of color. I know this article is about the television environment, where power structures operate somewhat differently, but I’m also somewhat ambivalent about this argument. On the one hand, I agree that those in power must actively support and cultivate more diversity, but I also worry that it’s going to be diversity on white male terms, and that’s hardly ideal. Interesting article, though, and Mindy Kaling’s perspective is thought-provoking, as well.

A community effort is needed here, and the folks with actual greenlighting power (who are still overwhelmingly white and male) should lead efforts to support diversity in movies and television shows. The demand and the money are there, and it’s now up to the studio and network executives to catch their content up to reality. –Hyphen Magazine

Some Thoughts On The Latest Apple-Comcast Streaming TV Talks – So we all knew this was coming, right? And apparently Apple’s stock rose upon reports of these discussions. Frankly, I’m kind of worried about Comcast or Apple getting any bigger, but as TechCrunch points out, this is not really a revolutionary idea. Still not sure whether I prefer the idea of an Apple TV streaming model, or a Comcast app on Apple TV, though. Is neither an option?

Already, Comcast has introduced a managed service for streaming videos that it delivers through its streaming Xbox Live app. That means that those streams don’t travel over the broader Internet, but to work they require a subscriber to be a Comcast broadband subscriber as well as a TV subscriber.

All of which is to say, the type of deal that Apple and Comcast are talking about isn’t without precedent. And a whole lot of how it is delivered will be dependent on who exactly owns the customer relationship and what the service entails.  –TechCrunch

11 Ridiculously Overdue Library Books (That Were Finally Returned) – From the WTF files, check out these overdue books — some of which are more than two hundred years overdue. Yes, two HUNDRED years overdue. –Mental Floss

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

28 Comments

  1. Lynne Connolly
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 04:53:30

    I’m with you on the historical fiction front. After years taking the high ground on the discussion, I’ve finally realised that my reaction is visceral. And it depends on two things.
    When I read a story, I want to trust the author. So when I read a Regency, I want it to reflect the times. I want to be transported to a time that existed, and that I can believe in. To feel it, smell it, even. I don’t want the author to effectively lie to me by making things up. Unless that’s explicitly stated.
    There are tons of arguments about “we don’t want to read about fleas” and “it’s called fiction for a reason,” but for me, that’s what it comes down to. The rest is straws in the wind.
    That’s why I’m in the market for historical romance, but not for fantasy historical romance, but there is definitely a market for this. Time the two subgenres were hived off and made distinct.
    Second, I feel that we owe it to our ancestors to get it right. After doing a bit of family research, I can understand a lot more why it’s important to respect their memory.

  2. Jeannie Lin
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 07:18:39

    I have a library book beside me on my desk titled “Women in the Chinese Literati Tradition” that’s about two years overdue. Sunita borrowed it from her university for me and it’s been vastly helpful for the worldbuilding in the Lotus Palace series. I guess this is a call to finally return it to her….*slinks away*

  3. Monique
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 07:27:14

    Stephanie Merritt reminds me of precisely why I – for the most part – no longer read books marketed as historical romance. I like traditional Regencies and there are a handful of authors I trust enough to read historicals from. But, when I read a historical, I do expect certain things to, well, be historically accurate. I’ve read way too many historicals where some 20th or 21st century woman gets dropped into an Empire style gown and runs amuck.

  4. Sunita
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 07:30:24

    @Jeannie Lin: Hah! That’s one of the most useful loans I’ve made, and I want more Lotus Palace books, so don’t you dare send it back. ;)

    I think my current longest-loaned book is going on 5 years. I’m still using it, too (it’s an ongoing project). Academic faculty at the places I’ve taught generally have de facto indefinite loans on books unless someone else needs the book and it’s “recalled.” That you take seriously.

    The U of Chicago extended indefinite-loan privileges to graduate students *and* provided lockers in the library. You can imagine the books that piled up. A friend had borrowed (and had to return) nearly 1000 books when he finished his dissertation and left the university.

  5. Sunita
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 07:31:38

    That Guardian piece by Merritt was annoying but the comment thread is excellent.

  6. Nicole
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 08:07:24

    @Lynne Connolly: Fantasy historical romance! If by that you mean those wallpaper historicals where everyone has a title (usually used incorrectly from the first page) and the characters have modern day opinions and a cavalier attitude to sex and only want to marry for love and all kinds of other anachronistic nonsense, then that is a great way to describe them.

    If you didn’t mean that at all, then I still think that is the term I will use from now on! Readers soon get to know which authors are dishing up historical accuracy and which ones aren’t even trying, but if their books weren’t even considered to share the same subgenre then it would save a lot of unnecessary explanation by frustrated reviewers. People who really like to experience something of the past could automatically bypass scores of inappropriate books.

    To me, a completely clueless ‘historical’ might as well be labelled ‘paranormal’ in that it bears little resemblance to reality. If I was reading a romance and an unexpected werewolf or vampire or some such suddenly turned up, I would be really annoyed that the book hadn’t been labelled correctly, and that’s how I feel about a lot of historicals.

  7. Anne
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 08:24:55

    I don’t need my books to be *entirely* historical accurate, but if you’re going to write a book- whether it be historical, or contemporary, I’d like it if you did some research about the time and setting you’re writing in. World-building so to speak.

  8. Isobel Carr
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 09:28:21

    If you don’t want to write “historical” historical fiction, label your books “fantasy” or “alt-history” or something that tells readers what you’re actually offering. Nothing wrong with those kind of books (plenty of people doing it really, really well), but giving yourself permission to ignore or alter history because it doesn’t fit your plot simply means you’re skipping over the defining factor of the genre and are in fact NOT writing historical fiction.

    The craft aspect of historical fiction is a writer’s ability to convey a historical world and write an interesting story WITHIN the confines of what was real and what was possible. I’ve talked about this a lot, and what it comes down to for me as a writer of historical romance, is finding the sweet spot of the implausible, but possible (which is probably true for just about every genre).

  9. Isobel Carr
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 09:32:54

    @Nicole:

    Readers soon get to know which authors are dishing up historical accuracy and which ones aren’t even trying, but if their books weren’t even considered to share the same subgenre then it would save a lot of unnecessary explanation by frustrated reviewers.

    I caught a lot of flak several years ago for suggesting there were actually two distinct subgenres, with their own entirely different goals: HISTORICAL romance and historical ROMANCE. And I STILL think it’s true.

    http://historyhoydens.blogspot.com/2010/06/historical-romance-vs-historical.html

  10. jody
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 09:42:42

    I’ve always appreciated the authors who include afterwords to explain where their version of history departs from actual events. It’s easier to trust an author who lets readers know she’s fully aware when she’s making stuff up to fit the plot.

  11. cleo
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 09:49:39

    @Sunita: When I was in undergrad, seniors could check out books for an entire semester (my college requires all seniors to complete an independent study) – most seniors had a carrel in the library where they kept their books. I remember wandering the stacks, looking into carrels, hunting for checked out books that I needed. I’m not sure that’s as big an issue these days, with more resources available digitally.

  12. Stacie
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 10:15:14

    Totally unrelated comment.

    I got my Amazon eBook settlement today! How long before BN/Fictionwise and Sony? I did BooksOnBoard also. I had to send paper copies of all my receipts for them. I think I get a paper check for them. I feel a book spending frenzy coming on. :)

    I had at least a $5 credit for BooksOnBoard when they closed down shop. I guess I’ll never see that money again. It was a gift card. I loved buying from them. I felt I was helping Texas out after they helped us in Louisiana out after Katrina. Oh well.

  13. Nikki
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 10:27:17

    @@Stacie: I got mine as well. I would love to see a breakdown of what the refund amount means you spent in the first place. So easy to fall to temptation with Amazon.

  14. Angela
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 11:31:26

    I want to be able to take a side, or a stance even, on the historical romance discussion, but I’m having trouble with the definitions and lines that are being drawn. What constitutes acceptable deviation from historical accuracy? While I feel that I’m pretty picky about historical accuracy in novels I also am getting the impression that I don’t pay nearly as much attention as some others here (and there’s nothing wrong with either of these).

    I’ve read a lot of historical romance novels that are damn near spot on with historical accuracy, but they don’t deal with lice, the plague, VD, starvation, bad hygiene, tooth decay etc. Or they ignore other aspects of what was really happening. I wouldn’t consider these to be historically inaccurate because of where the author’s focus is.

    On the other hand I’ve read some historical romances (and enjoyed them) where the focus was less on the history (which was more of a set dressing) than on the parties and balls that were incorporated in. (I’ve often seen these called ‘wallpaper historical romances’).

    I would like distinctions between the two, but who’s going to give them reliably? I know which authors I can trust with their history, and which that I’m reading just for fun. Every other historical romance I pretty much feel like it’s a crap-shoot on what I’m going to get. There’s no real way to tell what I’m getting into before I start.

    As an aside, I’m not sure I like the term ‘Fantasy Historical Romance’ because it just comes too close to ‘Fantasy Romance’ which is a whole different kettle of fish, IMHO.

    I’m really enjoying this discussion! :)

  15. Lynne Connolly
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 11:58:33

    @Nicole: Yes, I did mean that! They’re not for me, but some readers lap them up. I’d love to know what kind it is before I buy. Usually the first couple of pages will tell me. Good luck to the people who like them, just that they’re not my cuppa.
    Fantasy is a lot less perjorative than “wallpaper” or “non-historical historical” but any term like that, that indicates that it isn’t actually historical would help. Girls’ academies for the daughters of the aristocracy, all those titles, mauve Regency gowns, women wandering around on their own demanding their independence, all that stuff. Doesn’t interest me. Others love it. I don’t want to disparage anyone for their choice of reading matter, but I’d love some way of differentiating between the fantasy ones and the reality-based ones.

  16. Lynne Connolly
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 12:08:58

    @Angela: Something that takes you back to that time. An author you can trust to evoke what life was like then, as much as they can. Someone who knows what people drank, what their meals looked like, where and how they slept, who was Prime Minister at the time, all that. A really good historical novelist will know everything, but she won’t feel obliged to shove it all into one book. For instance, I know how women coped with the practicalities of menstruation, but I haven’t yet felt obliged to write about it. But when I write about a woman who is having her period, I can put myself in her shoes, so to speak. And she’s married to a Whig, so I know her attitudes about the important issues of the day. All of it speaks to character.
    Forget fleas and lice (not much a problem in those times – they all washed!), what did they do when it became obvious that George III was getting doddery? Did they all switch their furniture to Chippendale when the Cabinetmakers’ Directory came out in 1754? How about the Pompeii fever that struck?

  17. Caro Kinkead
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 13:18:08

    @Stacie: I got mine, too, which was a pleasant surprise to wake up to. It’s not that big, but since Amazon is letting it be applied to both print and ebooks, I’m indulging in the third volume of the “Annotated Sherlock Holmes” to complete my set and an art book I’ve had my eye on.

  18. Evangeline Holland
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 13:26:46

    Nah. I’m leaving the historical romance genre as it is–which fulfills the wants of various readers (the most important thing)–and forming a new genre: Romantic Historical Fiction. A bridge between HR and HF! ;D

  19. Angela
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 13:43:01

    @Lynne Connolly: I definitely don’t disagree with that at all. Though I take historical to encompass more than just Regency or Victorian eras, so some of the issues I listed deal with different time periods.

    I’m not against sub-dividing the genre. In fact I’m all for more distinction instead of less. Those that don’t mind can look at one level up in the genre divide, but those that do could get the further information they’re looking for. This makes for happier readers all the way around.

    I still see a problem with it though, in that I don’t see a practical way for them to get labeled or divided. I can’t even count on publishers/authors/other reader/reviewers to use the same reliable terminology. And what doesn’t get noticed as inaccurate history to one is that irritating fly to another.

    It’s the same problem that comes up every time we talk about doing something like this. Bookstores shelve the same books in different sections, libraries do it too, readers don’t even always agree on what kind of novel something is.

    Then you have so many readers that cut their teeth on the historically inaccurate books of the past, but they thought they were accurate. So if they see something in a well-researched novel that doesn’t jive with what they ‘know’ from before…does that book mistakenly get labeled as ‘fantasy historical romance’? I know I personally try to describe which type of romance I find it to be when I review, but that doesn’t seem very efficient in the wider context.

    I’ve started rambling, but I guess my question boils down to: Who’s the gatekeeper/decision maker? How do they get labeled as HISTORICAL romance or historical ROMANCE?

  20. Isobel Carr
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 13:46:59

    @Angela:

    What constitutes acceptable deviation from historical accuracy?

    That’s always the catch, isn’t it? I don’t need the focus to be ON the history, but I need the history underlying the story to be sound. For me the line is where the book crosses over into “impossible” territory. This can happen in concrete ways (e.g. bastards inheriting titles, younger sons inheriting ahead of their elder brother’s son) or in more amorphous ways (e.g. plots that just utterly miss the social mores or realities of the times, or the book is just chockablock full of little errors [forms of address, clothing, food, etc.]).

    A little fudging around the edges (young handsome dukes with all their teeth and no VD is a gloss I’m willing to accept, as it was possible, if not probable).

  21. Lynne Connolly
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 14:40:06

    @Angela: Gosh yes, Angela, that’s true. There’s a comment on one of my Amazon pages that accuses me of being inaccurate because there were no newspapers in the 1750’s! I did reply to that one, although I know you’re advised not to answer back, but I have no idea where that idea came from.
    Like that thing that was going around in email a few years ago that contained all kinds of historical fantasies, and people still quote them. And a program like “The Tudors” is being taken as history now, God help us.
    But there’s history, and there’s Regency characters who say “OK.” There are people who get it mostly right, and people who don’t try. They really, really get it wrong.
    But your point is a valid one, of course it is. Urban legends! Sometimes perpetrated at the time. I’m currently researching the Jacobites for a new series, and the Jacobites actively started publishing “the legend” shortly after the ’45, so it’s nothing new. They promoted Charles Stuart as a romantic hero, when in reality he was an overweight, alcoholic wife-beater.

  22. Lynne Connolly
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 14:41:21

    @Lynne Connolly: Oh, and I have to ‘fess up. I’m also writing a paranormal historical series for Samhain. Not a werewolf, shape-shifter or vampire in sight. Or ghost, come to that. Nope. The gods of ancient Rome run amok in Georgian England.

  23. Kate Pearce
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 14:41:35

    I don’t mind what people want to read, and there is room for all kinds of degrees of historical accuracy within the romance genre. I always try and be accurate as I can being that I’m writing fiction. And we all make mistakes even if we do a ton of research. I got an email about my having a paper bag used in the bakery in 1816. Totally wrong and 40 years out of time. I totally missed it and so did everyone else. LOL
    One of the bigger problems I see today is that some new writers use other romance writers as their primary source of historical information and so in accuracies get reused, (annulments, divorces, illegitimate children inheriting titles, etc etc, get somehow set in stone and seen as ‘fact’ when a 5 minute google would tell the writer otherwise. (Even Georgette Heyer got things wrong occasionally)
    Also as a British writer some things that are obvious to me having grown up in that culture, -class distinctions, the hierarchy, the eccentric behavior of the aristocracy,- aren’t always obvious to others and are hard to explain, but jump out at me when I read. it’s one of the reasons why I don’t write contemporary American books because I miss little things that make it obvious that I wasn’t born here.

  24. hapax
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 14:48:47

    And, in all fairness, I’ve read a few historical fictions set in an era I know quite a bit about (Anglo-Saxon England) that are spot on correct with every detail, down to the shoelaces and knifeblades… and dreadfully dull, with flat characters, plodding storylines, and limp prose.

    So accuracy should always be the handmaid of art, never the master.

  25. txvoodoo
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 19:24:37

    I am a BIG historical reader – romance and otherwise. I absolutely do not mind an author who conflates actual people and fudges a bit on time of events to serve the narrative. Especially since I’ve studied so much history, I generally know the actual facts enough to figure out the “truth” and when/where fudging it is appropriate. You can move the date of a battle, or bring two people together even if there’s little chance they met. I don’t want to see is the erasure of major history or people.

    I do not want anachronisms, however. Speech, food, clothing or technology that wouldn’t exist in the era. Those yank me right out of a story, and annoy me mightily.

    I appreciate authors who, in an author’s note, will talk about the changes they made, and why. This shows me that they have knowledge of the era in which they’re writing, I can respect that.

  26. JessP
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 21:49:39

    @Nikki:

    From a blog in the Houston Chronicle, I get that the refund is $$3.17 per ebook bought if it was a New York Times bestseller, and $0.73 per non-New York Times bestseller ebook. Unless you live in Minnesota – in which case it is $3.93 and $0.94.

  27. gwendoline ewins
    Apr 06, 2014 @ 01:38:19

    I agree with txvoodoo. There are times when I’m yanked out of the story by quite small things that scream the writer hasn’t bothered to check which year a) or b) was invented or when c) or d) was born. I don’t know what really happened, of course, because I wasn’t there either – but I think there’s a body of knowledge passed down from Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, and more recently taken up by Mary Balogh and Candice Hern. When I read them I have a sense of familiarity and confidence that they actually know what they are talking about and I can relax into the story. And of course hapax is absolutely right – it’s no use writing a book that’s as accurate as can be if it’s a total bore.
    Sorry about the late post – life has got in the way – Gwen

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