Wrong! Pleasing the Historical Reader

- by E. C. Ambrose

In a little less than a month, Elisha Barber will be published.  It’s a historical fantasy novel, based on my reading too many medieval history books, and way too many books on the history of medicine.  If you’re curious, you’ll find the bibliography on my website.  I also attended the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo for a couple of years, and heard unpublished papers and spoke with front-line researchers who work will take time to be recognized. I was tempted, as I wrote, to include footnotes, and I may soon be sorry that I didn’t.

Allow me to admit it, right here, in advance, I have made mistakes in this book, but at the moment, I have no idea what they are. If I had known them at the time, I would have corrected them. You see, there are so many ways to be wrong, especially when you’re writing historical fiction.  And soon, readers all over the world will have the chance to tell me so.  And they will.Something in this book may be wrong because, even if you do plenty of research, including visiting the settings, using the tools, and wearing the clothing of the period I’m writing about, I could not research everything.  There will be something in this book that I didn’t get a chance to study.

It may be wrong because the information in some of my sources was inaccurate or misleading–or, more often the case, simply contradictory, forcing me to choose between equally credible authorities.  I’m not a professor or a specialist, just an accidental scholar relying on whatever I can gather from the work of others, even when that work is a translation of a period text.

Even history changes.   There are new archaeological discoveries made all the time, and manuscripts are discovered in forgotten libraries, incorrectly cataloged or sandwiched between unrelated texts in the codices of the past.  Sometimes, historians, archaeologists and the authors who write about them are bridging the gaps between what we understand, and what the evidence suggests.

It may be wrong because it is, after all, fiction.  I made some things up.  Some of my inventions are the deliberate fabrications of the fantasist.  I’m writing into a historical period, but adding elements that did not exist at that time. I have tried to make sure that these inventions feel appropriate to the time and place I’m writing about.  I would never rely upon the excuse that, as a fantasy writer, I can make up whatever I want.  The inventions in this book grew out of the historical sources (the magical system is based on historical understandings of how magic worked; the guns were present in England, but not used in this type of battle, etc.). Different readers have different thresholds for what they are willing to accept in a book, and I may have failed to make my inventions believable.

There are other, more dangerous fabrications, however.  In the act of fictionalizing a type of event that would have occurred, I am relying on my own understanding of the actions, attitudes and materials available.  I might have grabbed something from the inspiration horde in my head which did not belong.  I hope that my first readers, editors and copy editors have spotted and removed most of these things.  I have a brilliant team backing me up on this book, but, like the rest of us, they are also fallible, and the ultimate responsibility for what this book contains belongs to me.

And this brings me to my second point.  One thing I have come to recognize the more I read up on history, is that I don’t know everything.  I can’t.  As an author, I must accept that fact–and along with it, the fact that I’ll be wrong.  And so, when I am reading and criticizing the works of other authors, I need to question even myself.  It is possible that, in fact, the author is right, and it is the reader who doesn’t have all the information–who hasn’t read the latest discovery in this area, or who is, even unwittingly, relying on the presentation of a prior authority now recognized as suspect.

It’s entirely probable that something in my book does not add up with something my reader knows–or thinks he knows.  It might be a mistake on my part. It might be an invention that isn’t plausible enough for that reader.  Or it might be something I found in my research that is outside of that reader’s experience.  Before you publish a historical work, try your best to get it all right, and then gracefully accept that sometimes, you’ll be wrong.  But before you criticize a historical work, make sure that your understanding of the facts is accurate and current.

Common knowledge is not so common, especially the further back in history you’re trying to remember, or the more specialized the field of knowledge.  Even a high degree of knowledge is likely to be incomplete, and may be upended by the next field season or graduate student researcher.   As has been said, it’s not just what you know that gets you in trouble, it’s what you think you know that just ain’t so.   Chances are, some bright researcher is just making the discovery that will prove us both wrong.

One comments

  1. So true! It’s always possible to miss something, in spite of the care an author puts into his/her research, and the information does change. In today’s internet world, information is more available than ever, so the possibility of a reader catching a “mistake” rises. As much fun as it is to weave a story into an historical setting, it’s always a little scary to think there’s some fact that was missed or misinterpreted. Yet I think most readers are aware of the writer’s challenge, and appreciate the opportunity to spend hours immersed in an experience that brings a certain time and place alive for them, even with possible inaccuracies.
    The series sounds fascinating!