Of late I’ve been frustrated. Not necessarily so much with my work per se although a couple of stories have been giving me revision fits. No, what has been gnawing at me are comments and discussions I see on the internet about the level of accuracy in books. In particular criticisms leveled at historical fiction. Admittedly reading comments and participating in discussions on the internet is a pointless exercise since a good chunk of people are stuck in their ways.
I guess why it’s been bothering me more and more is because I’m getting closer to starting the arduous revision process of my historical fiction book. Seeing how petty and nitpicky people get over relatively minor flubs angers me. It gets tiresome to keep pointing out that authors are humans too and therefore things will get overlooked. What I mean by minor flubs are errors that don’t have an actual effect on the overall plot or story. Just little things like a particular dagger wasn’t in style in year XYZ but a couple of years later. Or an article of clothing was out of fashion by a few years before a character wears it. People harping on things like that drive me nuts.
Granted there are times to get legitimately annoyed with errors. For example, an author referencing a character using a gun that hadn’t been invented at that time. Or assuming everyone knew or was using a piece of technology that, while may have technically been around during the time period in question, wasn’t well-known.
Another source of frustration, and this one isn’t anything new but is a huge pet peeve, is when people complain about a female character displaying ‘modern woman’ characteristics. Usually this character fits the trope of being feisty, headstrong, unwilling to accept the societal norms, smart, and who may or may not desire to be a wife and mother. Apparently there is this incredibly flawed assumption that the idea of women desiring to explore their potential beyond a narrow scope is something that is only unique to last 50 to 100 years of human history.
Let’s open up a history book shall we? Look at how many women through history have behaved in direct opposition to societal norms. Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, famously never got married no matter how much her council pressured her and no matter how much the lack of an issue could throw the governing of the country into chaos upon her death. Ancient history shows Queens ruling just fine thank you very much. Women have been heads of states in countries such as India and England while the US hasn’t even come close. Joan of Arc led a freaking army. Mother Teresa wielded quite the influence when she was alive. Well-behaved women rarely make history indeed.
Expanding our net beyond queens, we have Harriet Tubman constantly risking her life to help others to freedom with the Underground Railroad. If caught she would face death but it didn’t faze her and this was during a period in American history where only wealthy white men mattered. Or to some of our First Ladies known for actually being involved in helping the world rather than being a fashion icon. Scientists such as Marie Curie, winner of not one but two Nobel prizes.
These are just a scant sample of women who have defied what was normal so why is it so difficult for people to wrap their brains around that a woman in the lower classes, for lack of a better term, could feel and act differently from what society tells them how they should behave? Yes women in lower classes lacked the socio-economic resources to better themselves but it doesn’t mean none of them couldn’t or didn’t at least try.
While we have all sorts of laws and other evidence showing what was expected behavior for both genders and all classes, think about it this way. In our own modern times, do people follow laws? Follow what society expects? No. So why do we think that our ancestors were all such goody-goodys? They weren’t and some of us wouldn’t be alive if they had been. Granted, the stakes for failing to fall in line could result in death or banishment from the community but people did it anyway.
And it’s not just female characters I see getting criticized. To a far lesser degree a male character considered enlightened for his views on women being more than just being on this planet solely for their amusement gets called out for not being realistic. Apparently men have been nothing but thick-headed, abusive asses until the last few decades when a bolt of lightning or something struck them in utero and rewired an enter gender’s brain.
It’s insulting and again, while laws are still largely created and enforced by males does not mean that all men follow societal ‘norms’, past or present. It’s asinine to believe no man in the whole of human history didn’t appreciate a non-doormat woman or didn’t appreciate a woman who was his equal and treated her with respect.
Another source of frustration and concern are when readers can’t, or who flat out won’t, either look at the historical context of when a book was written or the world the story is set in. There are attitudes and language which today wouldn’t fly but which were somewhat normal in other places and times. As a reader it is your responsibility to read something in the context of what makes sense for that world. This is regardless of genre. If you want to read books which agree with your view of what is right and wrong in the world then there are plenty out there but don’t be surprised if you read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Gone With the Wind and they use the word nigger and treat blacks with zero respect. Or if you read The Scarlet Letter and are puzzled as to what the big fuss was about Hester Prynne and that damn A she had to wear.
These things bother me as a writer because people get way too upset too easily nowadays over the silliest crap. I also see way too much pressure from some in the general public for everything to be 100% perfection even though no one is perfect. From my own experiences in research I can tell you I’ve encountered discrepancies. Historians can’t agree so why expect authors to be perfect? As far for personality types, we’ve had a rainbow of differences going back to the caveman days.
Instead of harping on the little things, instead look at the content and context of the story. Really using critical thinking skills to analyze something while keeping in mind there may very well be changes from what we think we know of the history of a time period. Feel free to check the accuracy of something but before going off on an inaccuracy, look at it. Is it something that was a simple mistake? Was it a big change and if so, why do you think it was done? Was it done to help the fiction of the story? Chances are the author did it knowingly but it’s not as if it changes actual history. After all, friction equals fiction.