Saturday, June 15, 2019

Historical Fiction: 4 Things Writers Get Wrong

Greetings to you, fellow rebels!

So as a Rebellious Reader (and a Rebellious Writer), it can be very difficult to find a clean and well-written piece of historical fiction. There is a lot of swearing, and a lot of lust in several modern works of historical fiction.

But beside these obvious flaws, there are 4 other major pitfalls that historical writers fall into which madden historical fiction fans.....and actual historians like me. And it is these four that I wish to showcase in this blog post.

1. Everyday Language

This is the biggest pitfall of historical writers - even modern readers will pick it up.

For example, we use the phrase "can't get the time off" as an excuse for when we can't be there for something. Before the 20th century and highly standardized timetables/companies, it was all based off of "obligations", i.e. they had to meet someone, something had to be inspected, etc.

Language is one of those things that reveals a lot about a world - sometimes, even down to the decade. This even applies to slang and everyday terms for objects. As the phrase goes "the devil is in the details."

To combat this, I try to look for novels, letters and other contemporary sources from the time period in which I'm writing in. A well-researched movie, documentary or TV show can also be a good choice. Not only is this great for research purposes, but it immerses you into that culture - allowing you to pick up those little linguistic quirks and translate them to your own stories.

2. Attitudes towards events or objects

Each generation views the past in a different lens. A lot depends on the political and social movements that were current for the time...and even past movements. For example, our view of the past has been shaped by several movements in the 1960s-70s as well as our current political and social movements. 

One of the most stereotypical things that writers write with a modern view is......THE CORSET.

Corsets are support garments that support not just the bust, but also the back and abdomen. They are descended from the 17th century stays, which are in turn descended from stiff bodices of the 16th and earlier centuries. Our brassieres are, in fact, direct descendants of corsets.

Contrary to popular opinion, they are not meant to be constrictive contraptions of torture. The only reason why they are viewed this way is because of sensationalist journalism and pseudo-medicals. Nor were they viewed as waist-trimmers (except maybe by a few nutty women who were concerned with fads).

They were, for about 90% of women, quite important garments that didn't earn a second thought after putting them on. Similar to what we think of brassieres today. Not only did they allow plenty of movement, they provide help in maintaining posture.

So pleaseeeeee for the love of history, do not write corsets as if they were worst thing in the world. There ends the rant from the historical reenactor (who, ironically, has never worn a corset yet!).

3. The Women's Role in Society

Women's role in society is one of those things that many people get wrong. There are misconceptions abounding about what women could and couldn't do. Part of this has to do with the Women's Lib movement in the '70s, the other has to do with the lack of unbiased sources in the historical record...because apparently primary sources were not used for several hundred years??? 

A Tumbler post I found via Pinterest....and edited for cleanliness's sake by me

It certainly wasn't all tea parties and socializing, I can tell you! Women were more educated then many people realize, so they could influence the political sphere in an indirect manner. They take care of the home and most took a lot of joy out of it...which includes sewing, cooking, and cleaning. They were free to pursue a hobby or two. They were also involved in churches, which often provided a lot of humanitarian aid. They were teachers and nurses, businesswomen, and writers.

Without women, nothing got done. Literally.

4. Fashions and Clothes

I have read a few books where some elements of women's clothing show up in the wrong decade. For example, bloomers show up in a book that supposed to be pre-1880s. And that doesn't work.

Each decade (and class) has it's own fashion plate. While it may be safe to go up to five years in the past (or you can have an eccentric or older lady that adheres to an older fashion style), going into the future for your character's fashion breaks one of the cardinal rules of historical fiction writing. Just don't do it. Please. And thank you.

Instead, check out actual historical fashion plates. Go find a living history site for your time period and see what the costuming looks like. Or go check out historical sewing channels and blogs such as Prior Attire, CrowsEyeProduction, and American Duchess.

And there completes a rather rant-y post from a historical fiction nut....who is indeed trained as a historian in real life. All of which probably could be solved by research....

So, if there is a moral to this post, it is to do your research when writing historical fiction.

What about you? Are there some things that annoy you about historical fiction? Or myths from history that annoy or interest you? Need help with sources? Feel free to chat with me in the comments! 

Fight on, rebels!


  1. As a lover of historical accuracy, I thank you for this post!

    1. You are so welcome, Blue :) So glad to see others who value accuracy!

  2. I love this! Helpfulllllll to the extreme <3

  3. Replies
    1. Thank you Clare! We shall regain femininity yet!

  4. really love the second and third points. I despise how people put modern day philosophies into old stories. Just so not true. And just because one can't understand how others used to live, doesn't mean it was bad. Especially with dresses. Most girls didn't even question wearing dresses ... the idea would have appalled them, and they certainly didn't fantasize wearing men's clothing.
    great post!

    1. Thank you so much, Keturah!! And I feel the same and agree with you 100%.

      As a fellow wearer of long skirts and dresses, I say AMEN to that last point of yours. It was a matter of life for them - and I will say, it's quite easy to get used to skirts.

  5. This is a great post! I love history but not even I knew some of this stuff, especially about the corset. I bought into the whole they were all restrictive and tight and uncomfortable all the time. But I totally agree with you about the misconceptions about what women could and couldn't do. It annoys me when historical fiction writers write women from the past as if they could do nothing in society except sew and throw tea parties.

    1. Thank you so much Melody! I don't blame you in the least, that's the conception that's been handed down for at least 50 years or so. I'll be honest and say that even I bought into it at first...until I became a historical reenactor and actually looked at it through past women's eyes. It's really hard to root out something that embedded.

      Amen to that! The whole conception of femininity is based off of that kind of misconception, and it annoys me to no end. Time to take it back, LOL!

  6. Hi! This is a super interesting post, & I thank you for writing it. However, I do have a question: Where are you getting your information on the contemporary reaction to corsets? (That 90% of women were fine with them & didn't give them a second thought?)

    I don't ask to argue, but to find more information on this topic because I'm quite interested in history -- especially female history. Just a quick glance at Wikipedia shows that corset-wearing was indeed a controversial topic as far back as Rousseau?

    Are you saying that corset-wearing was criticized (by men like Rousseau in what you call "sensational journalism", and by many women who wrote to papers in their day describing their love or hate of the corset), but that the reality is that most women didn't think twice about wearing corsets? If so, I find that super interesting & would love a reference so I can read up on it. I have found that the historical archive on a topic (such as how men & women really felt about corsets) doesn't always match what was actually lived and experienced by real people. However, often real people didn't leave an archive of their thoughts, so it's hard to really gauge what many thought, let alone be so exact as to list a statistic like 90%. Possibly you've read a lot of journals and letters from the era. Primary source materials are the best. :)

    Thanks for saying women did more than sew! Hear hear! :)

    1. Excellent question, Jillian! I'm a public historian by trade, so I follow a lot of historical reeanctors and costumers who work with primary sources. Since I personally have no experience with corsetry (much to my chagrin), I've taken many of their opinions. I will admit that the statistic of 90% I used was not exact, but a generalization - like today, I'm sure that only a small percentage followed extremist fashion fads.

      For starters, I'll redirect you to two people in particular: Bernadette Banner (who has an excellent video on corset research, which you can find here: and Izabella @ Prior Attire, whose lovely post on corset myths I will leave here:

      I've also found that intellectuals will leave rather dubious documentation about such controversial topics. Unfortunately, as historians, we are trained to follow the paper trail before any other. As if paper is always infallible, which I believe is false. What I think many of these intellectuals miss is the entire context in how corsets are used and what their purpose was. A man like Rousseau is not going to understand the struggles of supporting a heavily endowed chest, or the need of support on your back from standing all day.

      Sometimes, simply doing something will prove the veracity of what the paper says. Once these garments are put into context, it makes so much more sense.

      Personally, I think the longevity of the bodice/stays/corset style of undergarment speaks for itself. If they were so lethal as intellectuals made them out to be, women would simply stop wearing them within a generation, never mind 300 years.

      I hope this was a help to you! I am also fascinated by women's history and find these sort of topics quite fun to talk about. Feel free to drop me a note at one of my personal blogs (they're linked down below) if I can be of any further assistance.

      Catherine Hawthorn

    2. Hi Catherine! Thank you so much for the detailed response. I'll check out the sources you've shared! :)

      Isn't it frustrating, as an historian so interested in female history, how few primary source materials there are on the topic? We have women's journals and letters and some publications, but we must conjecture so much because so few of the everyday thoughts of women (their ideas, philosophies, etc) are available given that they so often didn't publish.

      On the topic of women's involvement in communities: I was recently at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello & spoke with one of the historians there about the lack of information offered about Martha Jefferson during the tour. She suggested I read Parlor Politics by Catherine Allgor. It's all about the way the prominent women of the Revolutionary era (like Abigail Adams and Martha Washington) quietly influenced politics -- exactly as you say above. I thought you might be interested. I own a copy but haven't had a chance to read it yet. :)

      I just added you to Goodreads if you get an obscure friend request from a "Jillian." I love meeting other historians interested in women's history. I didn't major in History in college, but I wish I had. I started out as an English major (literature), & become fascinated by history through the courses I took. I didn't have the money to double major, & since I'd completed most of my English & literature courses before the history bug bit, I couldn't follow the interest as I'd have liked, so I settled for a minor in history. I'm fascinated by the way historians reconstruct the past from the bits of primary source material we have!

      I agree that trying out a corset might change one's perspective on how it felt back then (although we must remember no one is forcing us to wear it in the face of social shame, which would probably change how it feels to wear one.) I do love what you say about Rousseau. It's important to take the documentary trail with a grain of salt, right? :)

      Anyway, thanks! I love this topic! :)

      All the best,

    3. You're very welcome! I'm glad to be of assistance.

      Oh yes! But biographies can be a help too. Speaking of which, I forgot to mention a podcast that you MUST check out. It's called The History Chicks, and it's completely devoted to women of history. I think you would enjoy it very much.

      Oh wow, what a coincidence! I was at Monticello last month! I too noticed the lack of info on Martha and had wished there had been more on her - particularly books. I will definitely check out that book, it sounds fascinating!

      Oh wow! I've always been a history nut, but I too didn't start out majoring in it. I majored in agriculture and had history as a minor. I switched it to a double major during my junior year, once I discovered I could fit all the courses.

      I'll be honest, I learned more about history from the documentaries and museums I visited more than I did in school. So follow the passion!

    4. Biographies, yes! I'm just discovering them after having been up to my elbows in classics for essays and presentations, ha ha! I'm excited to explore. I was just telling a friend of mine I think historical biography is the most vivid way to read history. Now I just need to read some! :D

      How funny that we were both at Monticello recently! I got to see it in a new-morning fog -- just breathtaking. My favorite room was Jefferson's library right before you enter his living quarters. ALL THOSE OLD BOOKS. I asked the guide, and he said Jefferson's favorite book was Don Quixote, and pointed to HIS ORIGINAL COPY IN SPANISH. * faints * He said Jefferson read something like 20,000 books in his lifetime. Goodness!

      I know -- I was so disappointed about the lack of attention for Martha Jefferson. She was an enormous presence at Monticello, in Jefferson's life, and in the life of our country and Virginia (First Lady of both.) It's stunning they basically said, "here's her comb and here's her mirror. And there's the desk where she did some bills." THAT WAS ALL. I said, "Her life is RIPE for conversation and exploration." (I mean, other than that, it was an awesome visit. I also saw Mount Vernon, Gettysburg, and I SAW A PLAY AT FORD'S THEATER. Pardon me while I take a moment.)

      Thanks for the poodcast suggestion!! I'll check it out!! :-D

      There is a novel I'd STRONGLY recommend if you're curious about Martha Jefferson: Monticello by Sallu Cabot Gunning. She's an excellent historian and novelist and sheds some light. I have also read America's First Daughter by Stephanie Dray, about Martha Jefferson. It's highly rated and was very good, but I personally prefer Gunning's Monticello because I feel that it offers a fuller portrait of Thomas Jefferson.

      AND thank you SO MUCH for saying that museums & documentaries teach so much. I adore visiting real sites from history, & exploring museums and documentaries, so that makes me HAPPY.

      While I was in Washington I saw the First Ladies' dresses at the Smithsonian! Abigail Adams was small. :) I especially loved Mary Todd's dress. But all they showed of the women was their dresses and their dinnerware. I wondered what century we were were in. * shakes head * Let's see some of their quotes, their ideas, and their influence. History is still being written.

      (Anyway, not to keep you. Just thanks!!) :)

    5. * Sally Cabot Gunning, not Sallu!