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. I love your third point! So true!!

    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!