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An Example Why One Shouldn’t Learn From Fiction


A couple of months ago at a news site for mixed race readers, one commenter self-identified as an “Asian Cajun”, which got me remembering my journey of assumptions and corrections years ago as a romance reader.

At the time a few years ago, a huge number of “Cajun romances” – contemporary and historical – pretty much dominated the genre. In spite of this, I still didn’t understand exactly what ‘Cajun’ was.

Believe me, I tried when I investigated. I only had vague impressions. Such as “It was something to do with French and African heritages, maybe?” and “the majority of Cajuns speak French and the best-known Cajun community lives in Louisiana, U.S.”

I somehow came to believe that Cajuns had black heritage. At the time, I understood that Cajuns were historically seen on the same level of ‘Indian savages’, ‘coloureds’, ‘rednecks’ or ‘hillbillies’. I think this was why I believed that Cajuns were basically a group of mixed race Louisiana residents, with mixed Canadian Caucasian, French Caucasian and African black heritages.

I didn’t realise I was wrong until a discussion about interracial relationships in the romance genre cropped up at AAR. The reader, who asked for book recommendations, was particularly interested in those with black men as heroes. So, I suggested books by Linda Howard, Sandra Hill, Samantha Winston and some other authors. Quite a few readers quickly corrected me, explaining that not all Cajun families have black heritage. A couple thought I may have confused ‘cajun’ with ‘creole’. One suggested my mix-up was understandable because the Creole history and the Cajun history overlapped so times that some aspects are deeply entwined and some influences from each other can be found in each other.

Their correction and explanations had completely altered my mental picture of Cajun characters from romance novels, particularly Linda Howard’s legendary contemporary romances. Until then, when I read those romance novels, I had this imagery of mixed race people with black heritage. Most authors and readers treated ethnicity so differently at the time.
Particularly in contemporary romances. Such as restricting race-related issues to POC characters only, and restricting social mobility and social issues – such as class differences (rarely explicitly stated, though), universal social issues and wealth – to white characters only. As for mixed race characters? Authors tended to restrict the heavy use of physical descriptions and ‘exotic sensuality’ to mixed race people. Such as “elegantly almond-shaped eyes”, “milky mocha skin”, “a touch of exotic in smile”, “her oval face, the skin of white porcelain doll, framed by ebony straight hair”, and so on. It was almost all about sex where mixed race characters were concerned. Authors did used this to their Cajun characters as well. Such as describing Cajun characters – especially heroes – as tall, dark, exotic, and black-haired. Oh, and let’s not
forget sensuality.

They however went further than with the usual mixed race crowd. While they occasionally referenced a history of discrimination and bigotry against Cajun people, they treated Cajun characters as everyday people with ordinary problems and needs. It had the kind of balance I liked. An acknowledgement of what those characters had to deal with while still leading ordinary lives.

That was how I came to believe Cajun people had black and white heritage. The moment I understood my understanding of ‘Cajun’ was wrong, my mind was so blown. It had also completely destroyed my almost only line of defence.

Some people had repeatedly scorned the mainstream Romance genre for being “so white”, but I frequently pointed out – while acknowledging it did have its moments of fetishising and otherising – there were many popular Cajun romances, particularly in category romances. Those were extremely popular at the time, mind.

I did avoid mentioning ‘savage Indian romances’ because… Heh, come on. Cajun romances seemed better in comparison as most Cajun characters were pretty much everyday people. A refreshing change from those where authors who routinely introduced “racial issues” to justify the existence of POC heroes or heroines in their stories.

I mean in a ‘Savage Indian’ romance, a warrior would have an issue with white people so he took it out on the “lily-white” heroine. In a Cajun romance, the hero would have an issue with greedy landowners, so he took it out on the heroine for being the daughter of a greedy landowner. The latter seemed better than the former, I felt.

It didn’t even occur to me to wonder why Cajun characters were treated so differently from other POC characters in the Romance genre. I just assumed it was their French white side – and I later realised, lack of references to actual racism – that made them more acceptable to readers. (Heh, I almost wrote “less scary”.)

I should point out that I wasn’t that aware of the old “one-drop rule” issue at the time. So to me, a Cajun person was a person of mixed race ancestry. It didn’t even occur to me that a Cajun person would be seen as African American if my understanding of ‘Cajun’ was indeed right.

Once I understood that I misunderstood, I went off Cajun romances. Mostly out of embarrassment and mortification.

So that’s one of many reasons why I don’t think it’s a good idea to learn anything from fiction. Not just because I was dumb enough to misunderstand ‘Cajun’, I didn’t have enough American cultural knowledge to understand all those little nuances. Thank goodness that I’m not alone. There is a friend who once admitted he nursed a misunderstanding about the Cold War for years because of those Cold-War spy novels he loved reading.

Have you had a similar misunderstanding about – say – a culture, profession, technique or such as the result of reading a staple of specific novels?


  1. Angie
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 05:03:10

    Oh, man, did I ever! :D

    I started reading historical romances when I was 12, which would’ve been around 1975. Scottish Highlander romances were a fairly popular subgenre, and by the time I was a senior in high school I’d read a few of them. One book, which was one of my favorites, spent a lot of time on the Uprising and climaxed with the Battle of Culloden Hill, in ’45. Except this book placed it in 1845 instead of 1745.

    As a teenager, I just assumed that anything published in a fiction book, unless it was blatantly SF or fantasy or something, was true. I mean, the editors would catch any mistakes, wouldn’t they? And if something snuck in, readers would send angry letters by the sackful, so surely the authors and editors would be incredibly careful to get every fact straight. [cough/eyeroll]

    I took a Western Civ class my senior year, and we had to write a paper. I wrote about the ’45 and Culloden. I asked my teacher — I can’t believe I’m admitting this — whether I could just use this favorite novel of mine as a source. [hides under keyboard] He was a really nice guy and said that I could cite it, but I should use some nonfiction books too. Oh, all right, if you insist. :P

    So I got a book on Scottish history out of the library, but the stupid thing said Culloden was in 1745! Obviously it was wrong. :P

    I wrote my paper based on a mid-nineteenth century Scottish uprising, and on the day we turned our papers in, we all had to take a turn at the front of the class to give an oral report. So I sat there in front of the teacher and all my classmates and talked about how Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Highlanders invaded England, then retreated, and made a final stand at Culloden in 1845.

    The other students didn’t know the difference, but my teacher was looking very puzzled. He asked, “Wasn’t that in 1745?” It suddenly hit me that, well, maybe the novel had been wrong…? I didn’t want to admit a thing, though, so I thought fast and said, “They did it again in 1845.” My teacher blinked a few times and asked, “Are you sure?” “Yes,” I lied. “I looked it up in a couple of books.” (I was completely shameless as a teenager, and darned if I’d admit my stupidity in front of the class.)

    I guess I sounded convincing, because the teacher just sort of looked like O_O and nodded. He gave me a B+ on the paper — my analysis of various assumptions and mistakes Prince Charlie made was apparently well done — and… I guess he never double-checked my assertion of the 1845 date, LOL!

    I never thought quite the same way about “facts” in fiction after that, though. :)


  2. Mireya
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 07:16:32

    I never used fiction as a source for anything. Even as a kid, I was too aware that “fiction” was “make-believe” even if the action took place in a different time and/or place. I was also too enamored of history and when I prepared reports for my social studies (it included geography and history) class I liked to grab the encyclopedia and find out the info from sources I thought were accurate and “real”. I did come up with a couple of outrageous fobs while in grade school that I remember to this day, 40 years after the fact.

    That being said, like you, I didn’t know what a “cajun” was until I started reading romance, and things got even more confused while reading those stories as “creoles” also came up. Being from a different country (Puerto Rico is part of the US, but being a little island in the Caribbean, sort of isolates us. I have learned quite a lot more about the US since I moved to the continent), I didn’t know what was what, but I don’t think I ever thought of race to define them. I thought more in terms of “social” status. In my mind Cajuns were the equivalent of the “rednecks” in Louisiana and creole were the “city people”. I didn’t participate much in romance related forums at the time and those I were involved in, were specifically dedicated to erotic romance.

  3. Moriah Jovan
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 07:57:17

    I got my heart broken in the 6th grade when my teacher was forced to tell me that the Little House books were fiction. I knew what fiction v nonfiction was and never EVER to use fiction as a reference point, so this was devastating. She did allow as how the kernels of real life were there, but that the way it was written made for better storytelling, and that was the goal.

  4. Patricia
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 08:29:52

    This is not a mistake from reading romance (I think), but is a favorite of mine. My husband is a professor of political science in the SUNY system. He assigned a research paper for a course and the student decided to do his on the Boer War in South Africa. However, the student never realized that the Boers were Dutch colonizers and that the War was between two white colonizing forces. He thought the Boers were a native group. Completely changes the nature of the dispute.

  5. Avery Flynn
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 08:45:45

    @Moriah Jovan: This was a heartbreak for me too.

  6. courtship
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 09:33:39

    When I was younger and stealing my mother’s romance novels to read in secret, I thought being raped meant having all your clothes ripped off. Of course, to my nine or ten year old brain, that was absolutely the worst thing a boy could ever do to you. When I found out what rape really was, I was like, oh yeah. That’s worse.

  7. Shiloh Walker
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 09:49:58

    Ahhh…well, my misunderstanding had NOTHING to do cultural or racial issues or anything, and it’s horribly stupid, too.

    BUT. In my defense…I started reading romance when I was like 12. Rosemary Rogers stuff, too.

    You know how they talk about breasts feeling full and aching? One line I read sort of lead me to think you’d get this…breast erection.

    For a couple of years, I thought women would get the equivalent of a guy’s hard-on. But not just the nipples. The entire boob would perk up and be rock hard.

    AGAIN. In my defense…I was 12.

  8. willaful
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 10:10:08

    I remember seeing a heavily romanticized movie about the story of Queen Esther and thinking the whole thing was true, and being very disgruntled that none of the good parts were in the story books about her.

  9. Jane
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 10:16:26

    @willaful Sometimes I watch those and others try to tell me the “truth” and I want to just close my ears. Sad. But yes, romanticized and incorrect portrayals lead to a lot of inaccurate conclusions. I think of all the things I thought I learned from Julie Garwood books and I hang my head in shame. Poor Maili.

  10. Jane
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 10:17:05

    @Shiloh Walker This made me laugh for a good two minutes.

  11. cbackson
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 10:26:05

    When I was a small kid (about four), my dad read the Lord of the Rings trilogy aloud to me. I was so bummed, midway through Return of the King, when I realized that “Mary” was actually “Merry,” and was NOT a girl.

    How I had missed the male pronouns throughout, I’m not sure.

  12. Darlynne
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 10:35:50

    Two words: Dan Brown

    I don’t think any author has done a better job of blurring the line between fact and fiction. IMO, he’s a mediocre writer, but a terrific storyteller (not the same thing) and I devoured his books. Although a great deal of what he wrote is true, I would not make the mistake of relying on any of it as fact or to support an argument, unless I conducted my own thorough research.

    But, yes, I really wanted The DaVinci Code to be true.

  13. Shiloh Walker
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 10:51:07

    @Jane: Again. I was 12. O.o And I still snort and shake my head over some of the stuff I thought I used to ‘know’. But this was the best one.

  14. Maili
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 10:52:55

    :D I’m really enjoying your stories. So funny! Thank you. Here’s another:

    Years ago (translation: when I was roughly 13) there was a historical romance novel that featured a glass dildo, which Hero used on Heroine. This truly blew my mind. For some reason, I had this image of the glass dildo as something like a test tube that we had in our school’s science room. So I kept fretting throughout the scene: “Wouldn’t it break? How will they get those pieces out of there?”

    I’m pretty sure it was a Susan Johnson historical romance, too.

  15. Jane
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 11:07:30

    @Maili It was forbidden. He had a pleasure boat on the Thames. Oh, Susan Johnson. I worried about the fragility of those dildoes too!

  16. Tina
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 11:13:23

    I have had this experience, except a romance novel is what actually opened my eyes to a more, not less, accurate depiction of a person in history.

    In school my first exposure to Richard III was via the Shakespeare play. In it, of course, Richard is a child murdering, Machiavellian power hungry villain. For years, this was my absolute sure knowledge of him. He was Eeevil.

    It wasn’t until I read Rose of Rapture by Rebecca Brandewyne that I got a very different picture of ol’ Dick. This is one of those old’ skool romance novels. A meaty historical (with a capital ‘H’) romance, with a gorgeous Elaine Duillo cover. The book paints him as a very sympathetic figure, really a doomed victim of the Lancaster machine. At the end of the book, the author had tons of bibliographic references and ends notes etc. explaining why she felt that he had been given a raw deal historically. It made me go and look him up in real-live history books and stuff.

  17. Mackenzie
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 11:22:09

    I just remember reading Forever… by Judy Blume and not knowing what “come” meant in a sexytimes context. I thought it meant something like “and then he was there.” So with lines like, “I was just starting to get into it, but then he came,” I thought it meant something like his ugly face snapped her out of the mood. It took me a few more books to get a sense of what was ACTUALLY going on.

    In retrospect, maybe I was too young to be reading Forever…

  18. Jane
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 11:22:33

    @Tina: You know who else has a a sympathetic portrayal of Richard? Joan Wolf in Fool’s Masquerade.

    “The Fitzallans live too much in the past,” he said frankly. “They haven’t approved of a monarch since King Richard was killed at Bosworth Field, and ever since then they have sulked here in the north, minding their own affairs and ignoring London.”

    “King Richard?” I said incredulously. “Do you mean Richard the Third? The hunchback?”

    His handsome face looked suddenly stern. “Don’t ever say that here in the north. Here he is ‘good King Richard’ and still beloved in memory. The eldest son of the Earl of Leyburn is always christened Richard in his memory.”

    This was astonishing news. “But Shakespeare…” I began.

    “Shakespeare lived under a Tudor sovereign,” he said. “It was in his interest to vilify Richard.” I still felt unconvinced and he laughed. “I shouldn’t advise you to look like that around Lord Leyburn. He can get quite violent on the subject of King Richard.”

    “But Bosworth Field happened in the fifteenth century,” I protested.

    “I know.” He sighed. “That is precisely what I mean about living in the past. The world around us is changing dramatically, and we should be more aware of where we are going than where we’ve been.”


    I remembered what Mr. Fitzallan had told me about Richard III. “I understand that here in the north people do not think of King Richard as they do elsewhere,” I said tentatively.

    The earl’s dark eyes were hard on my face. “No, they don’t. Richard the Third, Valentine, is the most bitterly wronged king in all of English history.”

    I held his gaze. “I only know about him from Shakespeare.”

    His mouth twisted. “You and everyone else. Crookback Richard, villain, usurper, murderer. And none of it is true.”

    “What was Shakespeare’s source?” I asked. One thing I had learned from my father was to evaluate the bias of historical sources before coming to any conclusions.

    Lord Leyburn looked at me speculatively. “The History of Richard III by Sir Thomas More.”

    “Sir Thomas More?” I shook my head. “I don’t think one can call into question the integrity of a man like More, my lord.”

    The earl made an abrupt gesture. “Sit down, Valentine.” I sat on a low stone wall and stretched out my legs. Lord Leyburn did the same.

    “Thomas More was brought up in the household of Cardinal Morton, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Morton was the right hand man of Henry the Seventh, the Tudor usurper who defeated Richard at Bosworth Field. Morton was also, and had been for years, Richard’s deadly enemy. There is no doubt that Morton is the one who supplied the information about Richard to his pupil, Thomas More. And the history was never published in More’s lifetime. It was found with his papers after his death. It was not finished. I’ve always thought that More, who was an extremely intelligent man, never finished it because he had begun to doubt the honesty and the value of the material supplied to him by Morton.”

    This was all extremely interesting. “Are there no other sources?” I asked thoughtfully.

    “Nothing chronological. There are, of course, Parliamentary records and decrees, personal letters from the time, the Patent Rolls, things like that.”

    “Things like that can be very informative.”

    He was sitting a little distance from me, staring straight ahead at the town clustered on the next hill. His hands were lightly clenched on a leather riding crop, and the breeze from the moors lightly stirred the raven thickness of his hair.

    “Very informative indeed, to those who care to look with an unbiased eye,” he said, and his dark eyes turned to me. “What do you know of Richard the Third, Valentine?”

    “That he murdered his nephews, the little princes in the tower,” I answered promptly.

    “And why would he do that, do you think? Richard had already been crowned king and widely accepted by the country.”

    “Because the princes were the sons of Edward the Fourth and Richard was only the former king’s younger brother. They had a better right to the throne than he.”

    “So did the boy’s five sisters. And his brother George’s son and daughter. In getting rid of the boys he would only be scratching the surface of the York heirs who supposedly stood between him and the throne.”

    I narrowed my eyes and stared at the stone walls of the ruined castle. “What happened to the other heirs?” I asked finally.

    “You have a beautiful mind, Valentine,” he said. “When Richard died, they were all alive and prospering.”

    “When Richard died,” I repeated. “What happened to them after he died?”

    “Henry took immediate steps to secure the persons of all of the heirs and kept them in close seclusion until he could get rid of them with a minimum of fuss.”

  19. Shelly
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 11:29:57

    Hmmm, I don’t learn facts from fiction. If something in a book interests me, I go look it up in non-fiction to find the facts.

    What I do learn from fiction are other points of views about things, and how people might handle situations differently than I would. I’ve learned to be much more open-minded about everything because of the books I read.

    But facts? Maybe it’s because my father is a story teller who exaggerates everything. When he’s telling a story, I enjoy it but believe nothing. When he’s answering a question as an educator, I believe him.

  20. AnaMardoll
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 11:43:19

    When I was a small kid (about four), my dad read the Lord of the Rings trilogy aloud to me. I was so bummed, midway through Return of the King, when I realized that “Mary” was actually “Merry,” and was NOT a girl.

    You’re not alone. I thought Merry was a girl, too, and also Legolas. I mean, c’mon, LegoLASS. And she carries a bow. And she runs so lightly on snow she leaves no footprints. C’mon.

    I have to say, I really do believe the narrative was… confusingly written. Because I’ve seen a lot of people make LOTR gender mistakes as a kid. :D

  21. Tracy
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 11:43:34

    After all those romance novels, I somewhere got the idea that having breasts/nipples played with was *always* a pleasurable experience. When I found that, for me, it was actually kind of *meh* I felt a bit broken. Of course, these days, after pregnancies and breastfeedings and whatnot, they’ve kind of turned into, “no, seriously, you touch me there and you’re not getting ANY, dude!” zones. Sadly, my DH is kinda obsessive about them, soo…

    It might be nice to read more romance novels where not every inch of the heroine’s body is orgasmic-ly sensitive. Or where they have to do some actual TRYING to find good spots (and find a few not-so-good spots along the way. You know, a more balanced representation of actual sexuality.

    In retrospect, it’s not that I expected all sex would be as intensely satisfying as it routinely is in romance novels, so much as I was expecting that, since all the romance novels and (IIRC) a lot, if not all, of what I was getting from magazines was indicating that breasts were these obvious and dependable fonts of happysexyfeelings. Well after the fact, I learned that size actually plays a factor in how sensitive/responsive you are there. Apparently there’s only a certain number of nerve endings to go around, and if you experience extreme gain in them (as I did; starting with my first pregnancy I ballooned from a C/D cup to a G cup & it hasn’t budged since, despite having managed at least twice to lose all the baby weight) — anyway, extreme gain stretches and separates those nerves out so much that it severely limits sensitivity.

  22. Angie
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 11:52:21

    @Jane: I loved that book. :) Well, the first half of it; after Val’s masquerade was uncovered, it wasn’t as much fun anymore. But that was the first time I heard the other side of King Richard’s story too.


  23. LVLMLeah
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 12:08:58

    Before I lived in Japan, I only knew the stereotypes of Japanese life. One of them being the Japanese social and “accepted” norm of keeping concubines.

    I wanted immerse myself totally into Japanese culture so I started reading all the classics by the major Japanese authors. However, most of those books were written during the Meiji era in which having a concubine was an accepted norm. Those classics reflected this. Although now that I think about it, many of those stories revolved around the tensions and jealousies between the wife and concubine and the concubine’s issues around not being legitimately married or having rights.

    And I saw how hostess clubs were an accepted norm for men to go to to unwind even during the 90’s

    So at the time, I really thought all Japanese women were accepting of and didn’t mind their men having a mistress.

    I was so shocked to find out that no, they are actually jealous and pissed off like every woman is in the rest of the world when their man is cheating or having a mistress on the side. And that they hated that their men went to hostess bars even if it was required by the company to do so.

  24. Maili
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 12:36:34

    @LVLMLeah: Heh! That reminds me of those times when every year there would be a bunch of tourists coming up to wander around, trying to find the Summer Isles (a collective of small isles, really), a couple of miles from our home. They all wanted to see *the* isle as seen in The Wicker Man. There’s a little problem with that. Summer Isle doesn’t exist. :D

    We had a few coming up to see the locations of Dennis Wheatley’s occult horror novels, Arnette Lamb’s Scottish historical romances (there was a tour called Arnette Lamb’s Scotland), Nigel Tranter’s historical novels, and Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey and of course, Aleister “Laird of Boleskine” Crowley’s works. We can spot a Crowley fan miles away. Watching them was a fun pastime for us kids. :D We were really grateful to them because otherwise, life would have been so dull.

  25. cbackson
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 12:45:52

    @AnaMardoll: Ha, I’m glad I wasn’t the only one. I think part of it was a subconscious desire for there to be more interesting female characters (I loved Eowyn, but Arwen bored me and I was too young to appreciate Galadriel).

  26. Claudia
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 13:02:33

    Believe it or not, the initial blog buzz over JR Ward’s Dark Lover had me believing the Brotherhood were literally black men. Black author posts about about cultural appropriation and language first caught my attention and it wasn’t until I saw the cover and started reading reviews that I understood my imagined Bruhs were just Bros :D

  27. Jill Sorenson
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 13:46:24

    @Tracy: There’s a Linda Howard heroine (Blair) who is not excited in the least about having her breasts touched. Her neck is much more sensitive. You might enjoy it.

    I also recall a chick lit, (I think it was Watermelon by Marion Keyes) in which the heroine thinks oral sex for her is boring. That was unusual.

    I’m not sure if romance novels are to blame–probably–but I was under the impression for many years that most/all women had orgasms from penetration alone. In the 90s I read a lot of vague sex scenes in which the characters exploded into ecstasy at the same time, without any mention of the clitoris. Maybe this is one of the reasons I prefer frank language and detailed sex scenes.

    @Maili, I remember reading quite a few Cajun romances by authors like Tami Hoag and Sandra Brown. My impression of the South is that it’s more racially segregated than other parts of the US. Without that understanding, I might also have assumed that Cajuns were mixed-race. The portrayal of that culture seemed heavy on non-Christian spiritual beliefs and alternative medicine.

  28. Sunita
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 13:51:19

    When I next went to London after starting to read romance, I was 16 or so. I’d been there before, but in between I’d read Thirkell, Heyer, and a bunch of Signet Regencies. Even though I *knew* those were set in different time period and places, I was jarred by how multi-cultural London was. I had this image of Mayfair in Regency times, not Mayfair as it was in the late 20thC. It wasn’t exactly misinformation, but it shaped my mental image in a way that carried forward into the present.

    Also, in the not-romance area, I was reading a fair amount of erotica when I became sexually active. And as an Indian, I’d been asked about the Kama Sutra (as a junior high & high school student!) enough that’s I’d, um, read it. So to speak. I was definitely not limber enough for most of those positions in real life. Ahem.

  29. Michelle
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 14:25:12

    @Tina-have you read Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time? Here is the blurb from amazon
    Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, recuperating from a broken leg, becomes fascinated with a contemporary portrait of Richard III that bears no resemblance to the Wicked Uncle of history. Could such a sensitive, noble face actually belong to one of the world’s most heinous villains — a venomous hunchback who may have killed his brother’s children to make his crown secure? Or could Richard have been the victim, turned into a monster by the usurpers of England’s throne? Grant determines to find out once and for all, with the help of the British Museum and an American scholar, what kind of man Richard Plantagenet really was and who killed the Little Princes in the Tower.

    It is an awesome book.

  30. Moriah Jovan
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 14:45:11


    And as an Indian, I’d been asked about the Kama Sutra (as a junior high & high school student!) enough that’s I’d, um, read it. So to speak. I was definitely not limber enough for most of those positions in real life. Ahem.

    The Kama Sutra is fiction. /snerk

    Now that y’all bring up your own experiences, I can remember reading SHANNA (I was ELEVEN, people!) and not really understanding what all was going on down in there. I knew the mechanics of sex, except, well, not the part about an erection. Could NOT for the life of me figure out how one squished it in there.

    I absorbed a seriously extensive vocabulary by the time I graduated from high school (but I mispronounced some things wrong because I had never heard the words used in real life). I grokked enough history to be able to skate through my classes with minimal verification of facts.

    Kind of like Shelly, my dad was an…embellisher of the truth, shall I say. He was the one who confused me with what I saw of the world versus what he told people. To me, fiction was an honest lie.

  31. Jessa Slade
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 14:54:03

    I too was an early romance reader and I was convinced — based on the experiences of several heroines I’d read — if I played hard enough and rode horses I wouldn’t get my period. That seemed like such a win-win, even then I should have known it wasn’t true.

    Now I’m old and jaded and have Photoshop, so I don’t believe anything anymore.

  32. Kate
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 16:10:58

    @courtship–I too thought rape meant having your clothes ripped off you. I remember being very confused after reading an article in the local newspaper about a women, who had been sleeping in the nude, who was awakened by a man raping her. In trying to figure out how that could have happened I thought that he must have dressed her while she was sleeping and then she woke up once he started ripping her clothes off.

    @Maili–I was so freaked out about the possiblity of the glass dildo breaking, I held my breath until the scene was over.

  33. Emily A.
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 16:59:30

    I read a lot of historical fiction as a kid and even in romances. I never would cite a novel as a serious source, but I did learn a lot of history with which I answered questions in class. I never had a teacher tell me I was totally wrong. I don’t know. I actually learned a lot from fiction.

    However I frequently read sutff and misread things occasionally. I was reading The Silent Governess, but I kept thinking the title was the Secret Governess. I kept thinking Secret until one day I looked at book and again and decided it said Silent.

  34. HelenMac
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 17:05:54

    @Maili: on a similar note, when I was 11? 12? Something like that, I read what I am sure must have been a Susan Johnson historical romance where the hero used a wooden dildo (possibly the unscrewed handle of a hairbrush?) on the heroine, and freaked out at the idea of splinters and the possibility of the dildo being lost inside her, and yeah, yeeesh.

  35. lazaraspaste
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 17:45:39

    I have no distinct memories of learning anything untrue from fiction. I don’t know why. It may just because I’ve totally forgotten what wrong-headed notions I picked up when I was a kid. Of course, I also grew up in an extremely media permissive family. My mother’s policy was like, “if they like it and understand it, let ’em have it. If it scares ’em, take it away.” My parents were also big on having long, intellectual discussions with us about the movies and books we read so I think our weirder notions often got corrected.

    Most of the time, it was like I just didn’t “get” something about a story. Like in the movie “Gigi” I could never figure out why he proposed to her and then took it back and then came back and proposed again at the end of the movie. It made no freaking sense. I was in my mid-twenties before I figure it out. All three of my sisters suffered the same confusion. Suddenly, we were all, “Oh shit! She’s a courtesan. This movie suddenly makes far more sense.” It was extra funny because, like I said, we weren’t particularly sheltered when it came to knowledge or information. I guess we had just seen the movie when we were so little that we never really thought about it before.

    The one thing I do, and continue to do, is pick up new words from books. And then I work them into a sentence while having a conversation. And then my father laughs at me because I’ve pronounced the word wrong as I’ve never heard it said aloud before.

    @Sunita: Same experience the first time I went to London. I was picturing something out of a Dickens novel and I was so sad when it didn’t look anything like that. Even though I knew, intellectually, it wouldn’t, it was like emotionally I was totally unprepared for how different it was from what I had read.

  36. Author on Vacation
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 18:05:59

    So that’s one of many reasons why I don’t think it’s a good idea to learn anything from fiction. Not just because I was dumb enough to misunderstand ‘Cajun’, I didn’t have enough American cultural knowledge to understand all those little nuances. Thank goodness that I’m not alone.

    I don’t advocate utilizing novels as a great resource for learning facts, BUT I do think a well-written novel read by an attentive reader can prove a stepping point to a more accurate learning experience. I’ve researched historical figures and events after first reading about them in novels.

    The willful ignorance in some authors is actually much more heartbreaking than in readers. I’ve become extremely picky about selecting books featuring New Orleans as the setting or presenting alleged “Cajun” or “Creole” characters. It’s painfully obvious many writers have only a vague notion of what “Cajun” or “Creole” actually are.

    In a writer’s workshop, an award-winning author asked me for some common Cajun phrases she could use “for a character who grew up with servants in New Orleans.” I replied that the Cajun communities were situated outside of New Orleans and that Cajun French dialects were distinctly different from Creole French — a dialect combining French, Native American, and Sennegambian dialects — most common among the servant classes and young people of Creole descent. She decided “that was all too complicated and she’d just use regular French. She just wanted (hero) to sound like he was from New Orleans and had servants.” I’m still dying to know how a working class (servant or even enslaved) person would have spoken true Parisian French and taught true Parisian French to a youngster in the household.

    Eh bien.

  37. Susan/DC
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 19:21:01

    Michelle is right, Josephine Tey’s “The Daughter of Time” is an awesome book. I just read her “To Love and Be Wise” over the weekend (don’t know how I’d missed it before). It was good, although I didn’t like it as much as DoT simply because it didn’t have the rich historical background to add depth and interest. What it did have was a trope sometimes used in romances, which I won’t give away because it gives away the mystery. She’s definitely a mystery writer with a bit more to the books than simply solving the puzzle.

  38. Heather Massey
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 19:21:49

    @Mackenzie: Talk about being too young–whenever the characters referenced using a “rubber” I thought they were setting out a rubber mat to lie on. ROFL!

  39. Meoskop
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 20:37:24

    Wait, what? Little House is fiction?!?

  40. rebyj
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 20:39:06

    LOL This is too funny.
    I read romances from 12 years old on and years later on my wedding night when we got nekkid I thought from the descriptions erections pointed straight at you instead of curving up and I asked him “is that what that’s supposed to look like?” Something one should never say to a naked man.

  41. Kerry D.
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 22:04:03

    @Heather Massey: Down in this part of the world, a “rubber” is an eraser. Guess how confusing that made things!

  42. aislin
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 22:12:58


    The one thing I do, and continue to do, is pick up new words from books. And then I work them into a sentence while having a conversation. And then my father laughs at me because I’ve pronounced the word wrong as I’ve never heard it said aloud before.

    I just had one of those oh thank God I’m not the only one moments. My mother thinks it’s hysterical.

    @Sunita: Right there with you. I was in London on the 4th of July several years ago and was absolutely SHOCKED to find a fully fenced off and heavily guarded US Embassy taking up one side of Grosvenor Square with protestors opposite. I’d read a ton of regencies wherein the characters lived at Grosvenor Square so that was a sad bit of reality for me.

  43. SAO
    Feb 14, 2012 @ 23:28:52

    I absorbed tons of history from novels as a kid. The worst was Gone with the Wind. All those slaves were so happy and well cared for on the plantations. It fit perfectly with my desire to see the world as a nice place full of nice people where nothing bad really happens. I cringe when I think about it now. In my defense, I was 11 when I read the book.

    When my book club read Wolf Hall last year, it killed me that everyone was willing to accept Hillary Mantel’s generous view of Cromwell as probably a more accurate view than history, as the book was so clearly well researched. Cromwell was a copious note taker, diarist, letter writer and his voluminous papers were seized when he was tried for treason, and are still available in the British archives, so scholars who’ve read them (probably including Mantel) know that he was a lying, cheating sleeze who promised exiles the king’s mercy if they returned to England and then handed them over the king’s executioners if they were so foolish as to believe Cromwell and return.

  44. etv13
    Feb 15, 2012 @ 02:18:42

    @Sunita et al.: I was last in London in 1980, and no doubt it’s changed a lot since then, but I remember being taken with how much of it did remind me of the Heyers and other historical novels I’d read. I took a picture of Half Moon Street because it was Sherry’s and Hero’s home street. On the other hand, 21st century Los Angeles seems like a very different place from the LA of Philip Marlowe, even though the time difference is much shorter (and even though it’s NOT true that they tear everything down and rebuild it every twenty years).

    @Jane: I read The Daughter of Time before I read Fool’s Masquerade, and as a consequence, the Fool’s Masquerade’s take on Richard seemed really derivative to me.

    @Tracey: I am so with you on the breast thing.

  45. Junne
    Feb 15, 2012 @ 03:51:37

    Well, I did learn english by reading romances( if I only relied on the awful english classes in high school, I wouldn’t be able to understand half of DA’s posts and comments).

  46. Author on Vacation
    Feb 15, 2012 @ 06:07:23


    I absorbed tons of history from novels as a kid. The worst was Gone with the Wind. All those slaves were so happy and well cared for on the plantations. It fit perfectly with my desire to see the world as a nice place full of nice people where nothing bad really happens. I cringe when I think about it now. In my defense, I was 11 when I read the book.

    I think GWTW has been so widely read and the film so widely viewed that many people foster mistaken impressions about antebellum southern culture. People seem to miss the point that Scarlett O’Hara is not a true adherent of that culture and Scarlett herself knows it and is disturbed by it.

    However, like any well-written historical fiction, it’s not necessarily dishonest in its portrayals of that culture. I thought the portrayals of the slave characters were very believeable. Scarlett and her friends/family are truly astonished by the “dessertion” of (nearly all) their slaves during the war. It makes perfect sense for them to feel like that because, from their more limited perspectives, the slaves were “their people.” Ashley (perceived as “overeducated” and “overintellectual” by his peers) is the only character who voices any interest in freeing his slaves.

  47. Maili
    Feb 15, 2012 @ 07:10:10

    I love, love your stories. So funny and some quite an eye-opener. Thank you!

    @Sunita: When I was in Las Vegas, my number one mission was to see The Cowboy With the Swinging Thumb.

    He showed up in the opening theme of two or three popular crime dramas (so popular that I forgot the names now <_<) and many LV-based films throughout 1970s and 1980s. I searched all over the place, but he was nowhere to be found.I asked a couple of locals and they didn't know which I was talking about. I even acted it out. A dumb grin with my hand on my hip while my other thumb rocking sideways. Anyway, I decided the city must have destroyed it, which left me rather heart-broken.

    Then, by accident, I found him a couple of days later inside a domed street. I was shocked at how tiny he was. He seemed massive and awesome in the opening themes of those crime dramas, but right up there, he was small and rather retro. He was the Oz of Las Vegas.

    @Jill Sorenson:

    @Maili, I remember reading quite a few Cajun romances by authors like Tami Hoag and Sandra Brown. My impression of the South is that it’s more racially segregated than other parts of the US. Without that understanding, I might also have assumed that Cajuns were mixed-race. The portrayal of that culture seemed heavy on non-Christian spiritual beliefs and alternative medicine.

    Nooooo! I thought non-Christian spiritual beliefs and alternative medicine were a Creole or Haitian thing. I got it wrong again, eh? *headdesk*

    I did forget that the South was racially segregated (I vaguely knew it existed, but the Cajun romances I read were contemporary so it didn’t occur to me to consider that aspect), but I didn’t realise it was more segregated than the rest of the US until now, though. Hm.

  48. Heather Massey
    Feb 15, 2012 @ 07:16:32

    @Kerry D.: Oh my!

  49. Ros
    Feb 15, 2012 @ 07:27:21

    @Moriah Jovan: I am 37 and I did not know that. I’ll just be over in the corner, weeping.

  50. Moriah Jovan
    Feb 15, 2012 @ 07:55:38

    @Meoskop and @Ros, the Ingalls and Wilder families were real. The places were real. Most of the events were real. None of the actual events were made up out of whole cloth.

    However, they were amalgamated, rearranged, and/or embellished to make the books flow better and, quite frankly, not be boring. The Ingalls family lived in places and did things not documented in the books (Iowa, running a hotel, for example). Ma had a baby boy who was either stillborn or died shortly after birth, and she was documented later as saying having no sons made their lives measurably harder. Also, Laura had a crush on Cap Garland, and couldn’t have cared less about Almanzo at the time (for one, he was so much older than she was). Nellie Oleson was a combination of three girls, but most heavily influenced by one.

    It’s a fictionalized memoir. IT HAPPENED, but…it didn’t. Kind of. It’s not even so far removed from reality that you can say “based on a true story.” The SPIRIT of her books tells the truth of her life and the pioneer journey, so it’s always a bit tricky saying they’re fiction. But they’re not NONfiction, either.

    ETA: BTW, both my brother (and his wife) and I were so influenced by the books, he named his daughter Laura after her, and my daughter’s middle name is Grace.

    Also, I’ve never seen the TV show. My mother thought its existence was akin to desecrating scripture, so she didn’t allow us to watch it. LOL

  51. Sunita
    Feb 15, 2012 @ 09:48:32

    @Maili: @Jill Sorenson: [Warning: Pedant alert.]

    No, the South was not more racially segregated than the North (for our purposes, let’s forget the West for this conversation). The South was de jure segregated, that is, Blacks and Whites were not allowed to use the same institutions and facilities in places where Jim Crow laws were in force. But they lived near each other. As Blacks moved to the North, some after slavery but many more in the 20thC, they were barred from moving into many neighborhoods and wound up in segregated ghettoes (much like Jews in parts of Europe). So in terms of spatial distribution, the North was more segregated than the South.

    A factoid: Court-ordered school busing for desegregation in the 1960s-1980s reduced the amount of time southern children spent on buses because they could now go to schools closer to their homes. Northern children increased their time to school because housing patterns mean that desegregation required (at least some) children to attend schools outside their neighborhoods.

    I’m not sure what the patterns are in the 2000s, but when southern Black in-migration back to the South started to exceed out-migration in the 1980s, there was this great quote from an African-American man in the New York Times about race relations: “In the South, they don’t care how close you get as long as you don’t get too big. In the North, they don’t care how big you get as long as you don’t get too close.”

  52. Jill Sorenson
    Feb 15, 2012 @ 11:02:34

    @Sunita: Ah. Well, I’ve never been North or South (just West and Midwest) so I’ll take your word for it on segregation. I was actually talking about marriage and relationships, not physical distance. I was under the impression that mixed couples weren’t as common or as accepted in the South. But then I live in San Diego near a military base. It’s a very diverse community in terms of couples and neighborhoods. In Kansas, where I grew up…not so much. The contrast between these two places (Midwest smalltown and California city) has definitely shaped my outlook and led me to make assumptions about other parts of the country.

  53. Susan
    Feb 15, 2012 @ 17:20:18

    Delurking for my first ever comment.

    For another sympathetic depiction of Richard III you can’t beat Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour. I’ve never gotten over that book. Broke my heart.

  54. Eliza Evans
    Feb 15, 2012 @ 17:25:23

    @Moriah Jovan: Do you have a recommendation for a good book on the true Laura Ingalls Wilder? I read The Ghost in the Little House, about Rose Wilder Lane, but it wasn’t that great.

    I would have loved to have read about their family running a hotel! I’m so curious about what else was left out.

  55. Danielle
    Feb 15, 2012 @ 18:00:17

    @Susan: Heartily seconding your recommendation!

  56. Moriah Jovan
    Feb 15, 2012 @ 18:23:49

    @Eliza Evans

    Anything by William Anderson will do, but this is a comprehensive place to start:

    I know I gave the Amazon link, but as a relatively frequent visitor to her home in Mansfield, I wanted to give their site link too. They’re a nonprofit:

    Re Ghost: The debate on Laura versus Rose is a relatively hot one, if you can believe it, and there are scholars on one side or another. It’s hard to know what to believe, but I’ve come to the conclusion that they were frienemies and possibly codependent.

    She (possibly Rose) influenced my writing (and philosophies) heavily, which I did not realize until just a few years ago. I say possibly Rose because she was a gifted editor and there is some speculation that the early books were so heavily edited by Rose that she might as well have written them. Certainly, she taught Laura how to be a novelist, but Laura needed little help in essay writing, as she was a natural. (This is one of my most treasured books:

    Thing is, the more I got to know these women, especially through Laura’s farm journal and newspaper articles, the more I loved them. The little girl of my childhood was wonderful, but when I made the emotional transition from knowing this fictionalized little girl to understanding who she (and by extension Rose) was as a real person, I loved her for the incredibly remarkable woman she was.

  57. Merrian
    Feb 15, 2012 @ 21:18:29

    @Kerry D.: and for many years ‘durex’ was stickytape not condoms LOL

  58. Merrian
    Feb 15, 2012 @ 21:24:08

    @Susan: Totally agree I still own it but cna’t bring myself to re-read

  59. Sherry Thomas
    Feb 15, 2012 @ 21:43:05

    When I was growing up in China, the Sissi movies were very popular. (For those who are not familiar with those movies, they are a trio of films depicting the life of Empress Elizabeth of Austria, wife of Franz Josef, starring Romy Schneider.) My goodness, that first movie, the scenery, the clothes, the handsome young emperor–we were completely swept away by the story.

    The subsequent entries of the trilogy was a little sadder, but the trilogy still ended on an optimistic note.

    Imagine my shock and dismay when years later I decide to actually look up Sissi and find out that not only did she and Franz Josef lead separate lives later on in their marriage, but that she was assassinated!

    Real history sucks at HEAs.

  60. Eliza Evans
    Feb 15, 2012 @ 21:52:16

    @Moriah Jovan: Brilliant, thank you so much!

  61. cleo
    Feb 15, 2012 @ 22:08:30

    @Shiloh Walker: I got similarly confused about masturbation. I read Deenie by Judy Blume in grade school – I was probably 10 or 12. The book mentions masturbation – the main character talks about “rubbing her special spot.” But there are no details about WHERE the special spot is (or why exactly, one would want to rub it). So I, naturally, assumed that the special spot was on the inside of the elbow. No idea why. But hey, I was 10. or 12.

  62. Lynne Connolly
    Feb 16, 2012 @ 07:06:04

    Yes, Cajun for me. I’m British, so I know most historical romances published in the US today are deeply inaccurate (it really pains me to say that, but it’s true). They’re not about history at all.
    But from my recent experiences writing books about US characters shows me how some of mistakes rise from simple misunderstandings and other, more profound, cultural differences.
    Anyway, Cajuns. I recently wrote a book with what I originally thought was a Cajun hero. He’s the son of an old established family, who live in a run-down plantation house. People who know these things are screaming “No!” now, and I’m really glad I took the time to do some proper research. His mother would have been insulted to have been called a Cajun (she’s a snob). Actually, there’s only one true Cajun in the book, as it stands now. Class differences are so interesting, aren’t they? And so that I can write more freely about my hero, I gave him a French father. Now I understand the French – actually, no, I don’t. I’ve just lived with them on my doorstep for a bit longer.

  63. etv13
    Feb 16, 2012 @ 14:50:40

    @Lynne Connelly: What does your being British have to do with it? Do you think you have some special insight into the mores and language of the past than Americans, simply by virtue of your nationality?

    I just came from the Language Log thread on anachronisms in Downton Abbey, and it’s interesting to note that there are plenty, in a British production by a created by a British writer and performed by British actors, set in a well-documented period barely a hundred years ago (or less). I think when it comes down to it, most historical fictions are “deeply inaccurate” because they are created by contemporary people dealing with contemporary concerns, and in their own language/dialects, which is different from the language of the past. That’s fine with me. While I want my historical fictions to have some reasonable patina of verisimilitude (I don’t want the authors to get the use of titles wrong, dress their characters in polyester or rayon, or have nineteenth-century characters psychologizing in Freudian terms, for example, ), I’m happy to see people present, say, Napoleonic-era soldiers who are suffering from PTSD, or Victorian aristocrats with autism-spectrum disorder in ways that reflect twenty-first century attitudes on the part of the author. When I want to immerse myself in completely accurate eighteenth-century English language and attitudes, I can always re-read Tom Jones.

  64. Lynne Connolly
    Feb 16, 2012 @ 15:43:50

    @etv13 Quick answer to your question is no. Of course not.

    The historicals are inaccurate because the authors, or publishers, or editors, or all three, don’t care enough to check the facts. The books are selling, so what the hey? The authors could be any nationality. I should have left the “so” out of my original post. Sorry about that, I should have read it over again before I posted it. Of course it doesn’t follow.

    Still, it would be interesting to see an American-set historical written by a British author.

    I mentioned my nationality because I thought it relevant to the discussion about Cajuns. A Cajun is something exotic and foreign to me, something I don’t come across in everyday life. We don’t get dramas with Cajuns in them normally, nor do we get the music (which I’ve been listening avidly to recently). I thought it was relevant to the discussion, that’s all.

    There are no anachronisms in Downton, as far as I know, but I know very little about that era, except the First World War destroyed it all. Oh yes, and the Titanic sailed in the period, I think. Over here we’re awash with Titanic stuff, because it’s the hundredth anniversary. And Dickens stuff, because it’s his 200th birthday.

  65. etv13
    Feb 16, 2012 @ 17:39:36

    @Lynne Connolly: I haven’t read any of them, and have no inclination to read about a Northerner who chooses to fight for the South, but Bernard Cornwell is writing a series of American Civil War novels.

    “I’m just sayin'”, “floozy” and “step on it” are three of several Downton Abbey anachronisms that were identified in the Language Log piece.

    When I think “Cajun” I think of the food fad we had a few years ago for “blackened” things — I believe it started with red snapper, but then was applied to a bunch of other foods. And James Carville. Not very romantic, I’m afraid.

    When you say “inaccurate” what do you mean? Hoopskirts when there should be bustles? Ladies who are too friendly with the household staff? Getting the laws of inheritance wrong?

  66. Lynne Connolly
    Feb 16, 2012 @ 21:09:14

    Re Inaccuracies. All that you said and more. Laws on inheritance. Title usage (drives me batty because it’s repeated throughout the book, you can’t get away from it, or think, oh well, and read on) – Sir Surname, calling a duke “my lord,” all that and more. Illegitimate children being chosen above legitimate offspring to inherit a title. Anachronistic first names – tricky, that one, but women called Vivian, Shirley and Jamie have featured. Driving in a carriage from London to Cornwall and back in a day. Women wandering around London unaccompanied. Single women sleeping around and getting away with it. Courtesans and prostitutes becoming duchesses and being accepted into the highest society. Ladies (children of aristocrats) posing as housekeepers, ladies’ maids or housemaids. A high ranking nobleman living a double life as leader of the London underworld. Women who treat maids as personal friends and confide in them, and maids who respond to that. Faberge eggs in Regency England. Crickets, bluebirds and gophers in English woods. Respectable women not wearing stays or corsets (that old thing about dampening garments is a crock, or rather, it was a satire). Respectable Regency women wearing drawers as part of their everyday wardrobe. Respectable women climbing out of their bedroom windows, down the branches of the oak tree outside (an oak right outside? Really? Why hasn’t the house fallen down?) and running off to be a fighter, or a lover, or to pretend to be a courtesan. Women sneaking out of the house when everybody is asleep (those hallboys and kitchenmaids were heavy sleepers!). Aristocrats running away to sea and becoming pirates. A gentleman driving a landau in the country (the roads were rough and landaus were low-bodied – would have been ripped to pieces – also, a landau was a vehicle for a widow or a staid older lady. And in case you think that’s esoteric, most UK residents know what a landau is, because the Queen uses one at Ascot and other televised events, and the commentators invariably talk about the state landau). Cottages with more than two rooms, and a kitchen and a fireplace. A muslin pelisse.

    I swear, I’m not making any of those up. And I could go on. Some of the above are possible if the situation is set up and explained carefully, but they’re treated as everyday occurrences. Some are completely impossible.

  67. Moriah Jovan
    Feb 16, 2012 @ 21:22:13

    @Lynne Connolly:

    Aristocrats running away to sea and becoming pirates.

    Guilty. And liking it.

  68. etv13
    Feb 17, 2012 @ 03:42:14

    Well, some of the things you name as inaccuracies are exactly that, but some of them, I think, just fall into the category of “fiction.” Which is to say, aristocrats running away to sea and becoming pirates is a story element that could turn up in a story written in just about any era. It’s not a product of twenty-first-century people thinking anachronistically. Likewise a lady making a confidante of her maid. (And what about Lady Mary and Carson? They have an extremely tight and affectionate relationship, and yet it seems to me it’s plausible.) Writers screwing up the laws of inheritance or getting titles wrong drive me batty, but noblemen leading a double life, women sneaking out of the house, and ladies posing as servants strike me as exactly the kinds of things that make for a good story, when they’re done well. When Georgette Heyer has Pen Creed dress up as a boy and climb out of a window and into the arms of Sir Richard Wyndham, for example — it isn’t realism, but it’s perfectly good romance, and plausible enough for my enjoyment. (If somebody called him “Sir Wyndham”, though, I’d be grinding my teeth.) The events of Armadale, or No-Name, or Bleak House — these aren’t everyday, humdrum occurrences, but that’s exactly why we buy the books, isn’t it? Because they’re exciting and entertaining.

    My ratio of historical-to-contemporary romance is probably in the range of 20-1, or more, and I wonder why that is. A Tale of Two Cities, War and Peace, Vanity Fair, Ivanhoe — those are all historical novels, and I wonder what it is that gives them, and Sabatini, and Heyer, and Baroness Orczy, and Laura Kinsale and Liz Carlyle and so on their particular appeal to me and many other readers. Or why, for that matter, all those writers chose to write historical fiction. Well, you write historical fiction, and also fiction set in a country that’s foreign to you. So maybe you can give me some insight into that. Why don’t you just write comtemporary romances set in England? What draws you to the eighteenth century, or to modern Louisiana?

  69. Lynne Connolly
    Feb 17, 2012 @ 10:56:03

    Aristocrats running away to be pirates – never happened, not once. We’re talking pirates here, not privateers with licenses. If you dig a bit, you find out why – pirates were guilty of treason. They lost everything, title, land, dragged their families into disgrace. Now if an aristocrat became a highwayman and got caught, he’d be hanged, but his family wouldn’t lose everything.
    Lady making a confidante of her maid, even treating her as an equal? I can’t believe it. Lady Mary and Carson both know their places, but as I said, I’m not an expert on the Edwardian era, but wasn’t it a time of change? In earlier eras, I just don’t believe it.
    Women sneaking out of the house – how? The hallboy slept in the hall, and his job was to notify people. Likewise, kitchen maids slept in the kitchen. Windows and doors were locked and barred. And if she got out, the chances were that she’d be attacked either by the criminal element, or by Mohawks.
    Anyway, enough really happened in those times for the enterprising writer not to have to make anything up. Some of the most outlandish things in my books start from court cases, anecdotes or accounts of real people – I shamelessly steal things like that all the time, and hoard scraps of news.
    I actually do write contemporary romances set in England, but I do know what you mean. I also write contemporaries and romantic suspense. It’s different for every writer, but for me, it comes from the inside, not the outside. I want to explore issues and conflicts in the characters. My new series (contracted but not yet published) is about how people cope with change and making decisions. When they reach a fork in the road, how do they choose? My paranormals are often about what a two hundred year old being has in common with a much younger person. and so on, and so forth. The historicals are often about how people make decisions or cope with dilemmas that we face today, but it’s the difference that interests me, how differently they think and cope with their problems.
    I will read about incidents and take note of them, but I only write so many genres because I want to approach the conflicts differently and from different angles. One of “my” themes is bigotry and prejudice – how do different people in different circumstances view it and cope with it?
    So I think that’s why a historical that takes modern dilemmas and treats them in a modern way don’t interest me.

  70. Moriah Jovan
    Feb 17, 2012 @ 11:14:40

    Aristocrats running away to be pirates – never happened, not once.

    And thus we see it cannot ever happen in fiction…

  71. Laura Vivanco
    Feb 17, 2012 @ 11:23:32

    @Moriah Jovan: The Pirates of Penzance, though, is satire.

  72. Sunita
    Feb 17, 2012 @ 12:43:50

    @Lynne Connolly:

    Lady making a confidante of her maid, even treating her as an equal? I can’t believe it. Lady Mary and Carson both know their places, but as I said, I’m not an expert on the Edwardian era, but wasn’t it a time of change? In earlier eras, I just don’t believe it.

    By that logic, blacks and whites didn’t fall in love in the antebellum South, people of different castes didn’t have friendly relations ever, and so on. Unlikely and problematic, yes. Impossible? Hardly. And I have trouble seeing the “earlier eras” as times of statis. Let’s take the last 3 decades of the 18thC. Britain lost one set of colonies, gained another, started the Industrial Revolution, fought some wars, and continued to ennoble a whole bunch of gentry and lesser aristocrats in order to solidify the monarchical regime.

    Maybe we just define “change” differently.

    Women sneaking out of the house – how? The hallboy slept in the hall, and his job was to notify people. Likewise, kitchen maids slept in the kitchen. Windows and doors were locked and barred.

    I’ve lived (not visited, *lived*) in houses where servants slept in hallways, kitchens, and passageways. One consequence of sleeping in public spaces, for some people, is that they sleep harder. They snore. I managed to sneak by without detection on more than one occasion.

    I’m with @etv13: on this: I’ll take unlikely but possible events, but get the unassailable facts right. Otherwise, take it from me, you can throw out 90% of the historical romances set in Asia, I don’t care who wrote them. And that includes a lot of reader favorites.

  73. Lynne Connolly
    Feb 17, 2012 @ 12:50:25

    Not if you’re writing historical fiction, no. If you’re writing fantasy, then have at it. I’d love that distinction to be made, then I’d know what to pick up and what to leave on the shelf.
    If you write historical fiction, then you’re playing in someone else’s world. If you write fantasy, then you’re playing in your own and you can do whatever you like. I’d have thought you owe it to the first to at least try to get it right.

    But the point is, if there were no examples, there must be a reason. I gave the most obvious – the treason one, but doing research like this makes you do more research to discover why. And in doing that, you find out fascinating things about society of the time, and the whys and wherefores, and then you discover something and think – hey, I can use that.

  74. Moriah Jovan
    Feb 17, 2012 @ 12:52:13

    The point of fiction is to explore the extraordinary. I live the ordinary and I can get the ordinary history in history books. By the time you’ve picked up a novel with an aristocratic pirate (which does not preclude the possibility that he KNOWS he’s committing treason and that it MIGHT be his entire PURPOSE), you’ve accepted the premise of an aristocratic pirate. So I don’t see the problem.

    Now, what I can’t buy is a pirate of any class (as in a novel that drove me up a wucking fall) who is portrayed as The Wiliest And Smartest Pirate EVAR To Have Sailed being suddenly unable to deal with a fire, and being paralyzed by its threat. THAT is a problem.

  75. Moriah Jovan
    Feb 17, 2012 @ 12:56:30

    @Lynne Connolly:

    Not if you’re writing historical fiction, no.

    Says who?

  76. Maili
    Feb 17, 2012 @ 13:33:39

    @Moriah Jovan:

    The point of fiction is to explore the extraordinary.

    For me, it makes more sense to say the point of fiction is to explore a possibility as a response to a “What if…?”

    An English aristocrat can become a pirate if it’s clear he knows that if or when he’s caught, it won’t be just him who loses everything including his title, his estates, his life and his everything. His entire family would lose it all, too; from the good name of his parents to a cousin he hasn’t even met. They won’t die for sure, but shame can travel, fast and far. The fun of exploring this possibility of having an aristocrat as a pirate is lost for some if this isn’t acknowledged. Authors, unfortunately, rarely if ever acknowledged how serious a punishment for piracy was at the time. Ah, well.

    A lady with her maid as a confidante can happen — as long as authors bear it in mind that the Lady is effectively the maid’s boss. An excellent, easy-going employer-employee relationship does and did exist, but there are some lines that either side wouldn’t ever cross. Not many authors recognised those lines, so the fun of exploring this possibility – as well as testing and pushing the boundaries – is also lost.

    I do think anything’s possible in fiction as long as it makes sense. Otherwise, it’s better to create a fake country and its history, and just go with that. I mean, what’s the point otherwise?

    I also think the problem is there’s a tug-of-war going on. There are some readers who like reading stories in a cocoon – with all the pesky real-life issues out of the way – while some need those stories to fit in a chosen setting as realistically (and perhaps, historically true) as possible.

    I think either side doesn’t mind either side as it’s possible to co-exist peacefully, but there’s an additional problem to that: there are much many more cocoon-friendly historical romances than there are historical romances for the other side. It can be frustrating when it’s so one-sided.

  77. Moriah Jovan
    Feb 17, 2012 @ 13:39:29


    For me, it makes more sense to say the point of fiction is to explore a possibility as a response to a “What if…?”

    Yes, that’s what I meant, but you said it so much better than I did.

  78. Angie
    Feb 17, 2012 @ 13:45:11

    On the historical fiction debate, there are readers and writers both on either side. I think the solution to this is truth in advertising; make it clear whether your book is rigorously historical or whether it contains more flights of fancy. (Personally, stuff like calling a Duke “your lordship” isn’t a flight of fancy; it’s a wall-banger level error.) But making it clear whether your book is particularly aimed at the sticklers or particularly aimed at the people who want to read adventures with cool costumes can let the people who’d enjoy it find it, and the people who’d hate it avoid it. That’s a win/win in my book.

    Doesn’t Dreamspinner have a line like this, wallpaper historicals for people who enjoy them? Someone did, anyway. I remember them getting some snarky criticism when the line was announced, but I think it’s a perfect solution, and people who are very strict about their definition of a historical really should have liked it too, as a way of knowing for sure what to avoid. Knowing where not to spend my money — so I can spend it on other books I’m more likely to enjoy instead — is valuable information, and I appreciate when a publisher hands me that info openly.


  79. Mara
    Feb 17, 2012 @ 14:32:53

    @Lynne Connolly “Aristocrats running away to be pirates – never happened, not once.”

    I try to not make the assumption that something *never* happened just because I haven’t found documentation to prove it did. You can research some things to death, but I don’t believe you can ever be absolutely sure (even if you lived all those centuries personally!) that something out of the ordinary couldn’t have taken place. If there’s no example (or no example that you’ve found) I agree that makes the likelihood more remote. But to say never? I don’t think so.

    Of course, using the rare instance in historical fiction can put you in the position of having readers take you to task. That’s a choice the individual writer has to make.

    As far as friendships between maids and mistresses, I recall L.M. Montgomery forging something like friendship with at least one of her maids; although since Montgomery tended to stew over most things internally, I had the impression it wasn’t a close friendship and there was always that line in the sand. In Eight Cousins, Alcott writes a friendship between Rose and her maid, Phoebe, so it was not an unimaginable event in her era, even if it was unusual.

    All I’m saying is you can’t rule something out just because you haven’t found it documented somewhere. There are plenty of interesting possibilities you’re shutting out by doing so, and you’re not giving your ancestors much credit for creativity, individuality, and occasionally bucking the system. People did things differently at times, even in the most rigid societies.

    I do agree with you that the writer has to make it clear that the system is being bucked, however. :) I don’t like wallpaper historicals any more than you do.

  80. etv13
    Feb 17, 2012 @ 15:21:21

    @Lynne Connolly: I thought it was kind of funny that you object to aristocrats-turned-pirate on the ground that it never happened, yet you write paranormals, but more seriously, and as your later comment re “call it fantasy” makes clear, it has to do with where you set your genre boundaries. I set mine differently, and I’m happy to read both The Black Moth and A Civil Contract. I love The Scarlet Pimpernel, but did any eighteenth-century English gentleman form a league with other like-minded English gentlemen to rescue French aristocrats? (If they did, I would love to read about them, too. I did a double major in English and history because I love both literature and non-fiction accounts of how people lived and thought.) I count all three of those books as historical fiction, notwithstanding that they are ‘realistic’ to varying degrees. Likewise, I enjoyed reading Joanna Bourne’s spy novels, even though I think Patrick O’Brian’s Stephen Maturin is a much more realistic portrayal of a Napoleonic-era spy — or “intelligence officer,” as Stephen would prefer to be called. There’s a place in historical fiction for both Bourne and O’Brian, just as there is in contemporary spy fiction for both Fleming and LeCarre.

    I’ve never read an aristocrat-turned-pirate book, but in addition to the knowingly intends to commit treason scenario outlined by Moriah Jovan, I think a good writer could develop a plausible scenario where, say, a disaffected and angry teenager doesn’t care about the risks to his abusive family and wouldn’t have letters of marque and reprisal available to him. Or maybe he runs away to sea on a legitimate vessel, but through shipwreck, etc., falls in with pirates and rises to a leadership role by virtue of the qualities that make him a romance-novel hero. (With a variant on the running away part, that’s kind of the early plot of Josephine Tey/Elizabeth Mackinnon’s The Buccaneer, a fictionalized account of the life of Harry Morgan. It’s also close kin to the back-story of Roaring Rory Frost in M.M. Kaye’s Trade Wind, though he becomes a slaver, not a pirate. I can’t quite decide which I think is worse; the slaver, I guess, on balance, though I have a soft spot in my heart for Rory Frost.) Of course the story will be richer and more interesting if the writer understands the real historical context and works it into the narrative, but the lack of an actual historical analogue doesn’t trouble me, any more than I object to your “stealing” historical incidents and working them into your fictions. I wouldn’t call an aristocrat-turned-pirate scenario “inaccurate” even if the author did a fairly poor job of dealing with the issues that you raised, though I certainly might criticize the work on other grounds.

  81. Moriah Jovan
    Feb 17, 2012 @ 15:31:42


    in addition to the knowingly intends to commit treason scenario outlined by Moriah Jovan, I think a good writer could develop a plausible scenario where, say, a disaffected and angry teenager doesn’t care about the risks to his abusive family and wouldn’t have letters of marque and reprisal available to him. Or maybe he runs away to sea on a legitimate vessel, but through shipwreck, etc., falls in with pirates and rises to a leadership role by virtue of the qualities that make him a romance-novel hero.

    :D It’s a bit more complicated than that and there are tons of inter-familial politics involved (going back 250 years), and his family is complicit (with mostly nothing to lose by doing so), and one very pissed-off dude, but…yeah. There’s a solid foundation going in under that house of cards.

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