I Need Your Help—And a Giveaway!

In August I’m giving a talk at the SCBWI Summer Conference entitled “The Ten Commandments of [Writing] Historical Fiction [forYoung Readers].” Here’s a sample:

  • Thou shalt not repeat falsehoods. Don’t say that Columbus took his voyage west to prove that the world was round; don’t say that spices were used in the Middle Ages to prevent food from rotting. Both are false.
  • Thou shalt not show off. You found an intriguing fact—great! But if it isn’t necessary for your story, don’t cram it in.
  • Thou shalt remember that “historical” is an adjective; thou art writing fiction. Don’t forget character development, good pacing, interesting dialogue—everything that makes a story a good story, historical or not.

I have seven more (including the obvious, such as getting your facts straight) but maybe there are things that irritate others that haven’t occurred to me. So tell me, readers of historical fiction—what bugs you when you read a novel set in the past? What makes you roll your eyes and shut the book—or hurl it across the room?

Best comment received by July 20 earns its writer a copy of my young-adult historical novel Dark of the Moon!

  • http://www.facebook.com/EdwardBruceWilliams Edward Bruce Williams

    What I hate is when the “history” in a historical novel is just used to provide a framework for a hack, formulaic book. I don’t know how many times I have picked up a novel because I found that period of history or the historical figures interesting, only to find out after I had wasted some of my precious reading time there was no story there.

    • Tracy Barrett

       I absolutely agree! It’s so frustrating.

  • http://historywithatwist.blogspot.com/ Vicky Alvear Shecter

    How ’bout, “Thou shall be compulsive about details, even if the reader might not even notice.” Example: I wrote a scene where my characters canoodled under an orange tree.  The scene was set in ancient Rome. Then, I thought, did they have orange trees then? Turns out, they did not. They were introduced to Italy in the MIddle Ages. So, I changed the tree.

    However, that rule should probably follow with, “Thou shalll not demand perfection.” We do the best we can and then forgive ourselves if something slips through!

    • Tracy Barrett

       I think food is one of the hardest things to get right–not only were many foods familiar to us lacking in various parts of the world at various times, but the things that people have eaten can turn the stomach of the reader and distract from the story!

  • Rachel W.

    It bothers me a lot when the author doesn’t include a foreword or afterword that, at the very least, explains what liberties he or she took in regards to historical accuracy to write the book.  I always appreciate it when an author includes notes on the real life historical figures and events the book is based on.  When a foreword or afterword is missing, I can’t help but wonder how much actual research the author did before putting pen to paper.

    • Tracy Barrett

       Agreed–the afterword is so important, especially for young readers, who freqently take the printed word as gospel. Come to think of it, so do a lot of grown-ups!

  • JDobson

    Maybe not politically correct, but I don’t like a plethora of empowered women in my historical fiction. Take Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth for example. It is a fantastic book but all of his female characters have empowered personalities that were essentially unheard of in the Middle Ages. I know that it is done to allow readers to connect with the characters but there was very little feminist thought in the Middle Ages. Sure there were a few women who broke free, but they were the exception, not the rule.

    • Tracy Barrett

       Absolutely. If the author wants to have someone out of the ordinary (like an empowered medieval woman, a Greek slave who sees slavery as unjust, etc.), it’s crucial to point out somehow that this *is* abnormal, and why the character differs so markedly from the rest of her/his culture.

  • Wendy Hennequin

    I am often irritated by “historical” movies and fiction that assume that all history happened at the same time and same place.  In other words, researchers find out that something is “medieval” or “Victorian” and assume that a) that particular thing happened or was used during the *entire* period and / or b) that particular thing happened or was used everywhere in that period.   For example, I have seen medieval movies with medieval costumes–but the movie took place in early 13th century England and some of the costumes were late 14th century Spanish.  Another common error I find is medieval novelists referring to people as “Norman” and “Saxon” in the 14th century, by which time that distinction had certainly died out.

    An offshoot of this problem: I am also often irritated by historical movies and fiction that get the technology or the use of technology wrong.  I’m a traditional archer, and I often see historical movies that show people shooting with terrible technique or with bows that didn’t exist in the setting of the movie.

    • Tracy Barrett

       So true, Wendy. It’s mind-boggling how many people view the past monolithically! And in the age of YouTube, there’s no excuse for getting things like bow technique or spinning or whatever wrong.

  • Anonymous

    Although he was speaking about film, the sentiment works for writing as well — it’s all story telling.

    “There is nothing duller on the screen than being accurate but not dramatic.” — Darryl F. Zanuck

    This is somewhat ironic, given that Zanuck was thed producer and driving force behind the film, The Longest Day, still the most historically accurate feature films about the 1944 Allied invasion of Normandy.

    • Tracy Barrett

       Great line–I’m going to steal it for my presentation. Thanks!

  • Tracy Barrett

    From Joyce Paull Lansky, who is having trouble getting her comment to post: “When I read historical fiction, I find it aggravating to
    find words or phrases that do not fit in with the time period. For
    example, Hector was never rad, hip, sweet, fly, or hot (unless the sun
    shone too brightly on him). In fact, Hector wasn’t even groovy!”

  • http://www.marycronkfarrell.com/ Mary

    Hi Tracy,
    I don’t have many complaints about historical fiction. I love it! And the few I have, have already been mentioned.  My two pet peeves are when the historical information overwhelms the story, or when the story is lame.  

    • Tracy Barrett

       Agreed! “Historical” is an adjective; “fiction” is the noun. It’s a story first, historical second!

  • Patti George

    I have found that some authors of historical fiction use timelines that don’t flow in sequence, which can be difficult (sometimes impossible) to follow. Add to this the fact that historical characters are often on adventures far from North America, readers are left trying to keep up with not only WHERE the character is but WHEN.

    • Tracy Barrett

       Good one, Patti–I always appreciate maps, family trees, chronologies!

  • Busyauthorcz

    I was going to say 21st century slang coming out of 18th century lips, but someone already mentioned that.  I also get annoyed by authors who seem to forget that horses are not automated–they were and are flesh and bone and could only carry a rider so far before needing rest and food and water–they also couldn’t climb straight up mountains, nor straight down cliffs.   Finally, if you have someone who knows too much (when I used a character, a young man in a YA novel, who was a Civil War doctor, and I wanted him to be a bit cleaner with his instruments than the norm at the time, I had to suggest some reason.  I had him having studied with Louis Pasteur in France, one of the first to conceive of germs and their importance to our health.  Since the character was from New Orleans, where many had strong ties to France, this wasn’t inconceivable…  Finally, as Tracy already said, characters should develop and grow against their historical background just as they would against a contemporary one. 
    Cheryl Zach

    • Tracy Barrett

      Yes, if the character is out of the ordinary in a way that appeals to moderns, there has to be a reason.  Same with the use of modern terminology in historical settings. If done brilliantly (as in Barry Unsworth’s _The Songs of the Kings_), it can be very effective. Usually, though, it’s clunky and distracting.

  • elisabeth

    I see several readers have already mentioned my pet peeve – anachronistic linguistic register  – but maybe sheer numbers of votes will get that one on the list!  “Thou shalt not speak out of time!” or some such thing. Now, I’ll try to think of something else…

    • Tracy Barrett

       I like your phrasing, Elisabeth!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=699907208 Bryce Lee

    I get uneasy when reading fictionalized accounts of noteworthy people in the past. I feel as if the blend of real events with dramatic filler is corrupting the real story. As an example, Neal Stephenson’s novel Quicksilver, about Leibniz and Newton and the birth of the Royal Academy, filled my head with so many “facts” that ranged from verifiably true to obviously fantastical, but everything in the middle hurts my brain.
    I recognize that Quicksilver probably isn’t “historical fiction” in a useful sense of the word, but the level of detail does present valuable explanations of historical conditions and events…with funny money thrown in.

    • Tracy Barrett

       That’s a real challenge for writers of historical fiction, Bryce–thanks for bringing it up!

  • Vrmarvin

    I’m surprised no one mentioned this one yet – the over abundance of language describing costuming.  Really, does it matter what color they were wearing?  When you read contemporary accounts of historical events, clothing is rarely mentioned until it is important to the event being described.  THere’s no reason that authors of historical fiction should belabor every ruffle or flounce.

    • Tracy Barrett

       Wow, hadn’t thought of that one! Interesting!

    • Tracy Barrett

       Please write to me at TracyTBarrett [at] yahoo [dot] com so I can send you a book!