Thursday, April 28, 2011

Accuracy in Alternate History: When is Enough Too Much?

So as all of my profiles blare so prominently, I'm a chick with a master's degree in medieval history who's interested in writing alternate history novels. What gives with that anyway, and what kind of special issues doe it lead to?

For starters, let's be clear. I don't mean I'm writing things like The Other Boleyn Girl. I've never read that book, for the same reason that I don't watch most movies set in the crusades, or TV shows like the Tudors. Because they would drive me up the wall with how badly they warp actual history. My 'alternate' world is something more like Naomi Novik's gorgeous tales of the Napoleonic Wars With Dragons, though I don't really hope to match her craft till I've had significantly more practice. The Genevieve novels are set in a world where magic really exists, but it's controlled by the Catholic Church, who explain spells away as miracles. As a massive oversimplification, you could call it a cross between Katherine Kurtz's Deryni novels and Harry Potter. For the most part, I don't use real historic figures, save at a distance. My Genevieve has nothing to do with her namesake, who happens to be the patron saint of Paris.

My world of course features differences from traditional medieval Europe; the presence of working magic in the world has caused history run slightly differently. Wars began and ended in different ways and at different times, but the underlying culture is much the same. And that's what I really want to talk about here: how important is maintaining perfect periodicity in something like this?

Of course, you want a novel with any kind of historical pretensions to be as period-accurate as possible, or readers will have fun nit-picking at it. Someone will always notice everything. I've found myself going back and changing things that I wrote without thinking for reasons like "oh wait, that needs to be some other kind of grain, they didn't have corn there then" or "how can I phrase this without using a word that was coined in America 300 years after this is supposed to have happened?" I even find myself using clunky, cludgy phrases to talk about "herbal infusions" and the like, since peasants wouldn't have access to tea, and wouldn't even know the word for it, making me feel awkward about calling something "herbal tea". Accuracy is great, and I'm glad that I have my education to know how to phrase things properly. I'm sometimes left wondering, though: can any phrasing be 'better' if it sacrifices elegance and concision for simple, fairly unimportant historical accuracy? Couldn't I just wave the wand of narrative necessity and pretend that anything that's giving me trouble happened to occur differently in my version of the world?

It's a question that I don't really know the answer to. The problem is that it feels lazy to me, and I'd rather err on the side of keeping things as accurate as possible unless I have a plot-related reason to change them (partly so I can remember what I've changed and what I haven't, to keep myself consistent). I'm trying my hardest to maintain a balance, and to find ways to phrase things so that I can be accurate and still be happy with my writing. It's harder sometimes than others, but I feel like it's worth the effort. I wouldn't say that all writers need to focus on matters like this, because the more fantasy and less history you introduce into a novel, the less need there is for minute accuracy in a world that's already wildly different. On the other hand, though, if you want to write something that you can feel good about calling alternate history, be prepared to make a lot of unnecessary trouble for yourself.

1 comment:

Scott Niven said...

Okay, this isn't the same thing, but your post reminded me of this. The Saguaro cactus only grows in certain locations, no exceptions. So when writers or movies have Saguaro cactus growing in a State or location I know it doesn't grow in, I feel like they didn't do their research.

Anyway, good post, and well thought out. Your blog needs more followers!