Just how realistic should a historical story be?
The picture is a joke, of course. There is a need to be realistic to a point. But how far should you take it? I submit a couple points on why being authentically realistic in historicals can hurt, rather than help, you.
Consider the climate in today’s culture:
In some cases, if we were to write books exactly to fit the historical time period, we’d end up in trouble. Case in point, African Americans used to be called an offensive word for a long time in United States history. I don’t care how “realistic” it is. I’m not going to use it in any of my books. Why? Because it’s not appropriate in today’s culture. Times have changed (and thankfully so). The other day when I was reading reviews on Gone With the Wind, a lot of negative reviewers called the book “racist” and “offensive”. And keep in mind, that book was written in a time period where society condoned it.
Another example, back in 1890s, the word “gay” meant happy. Today, we think “homosexual”. To avoid confusion, I won’t use the word “gay” in a historical romance. I’ll just say “happy” so the reader knows what I mean. The older generation would know what the old definition was, but would younger readers?
Fiction is fiction for a reason, and when we’re writing it, we’re writing for today’s culture. The primary goal of fiction is to entertain. It’s not to give a history lesson. The setting is your backdrop. It’s your wallpaper. Sure, you want horses in the 1800s instead of airplanes and cars, and you don’t want to use phrases like “text me when you get in, babe”. But you could go crazy worrying about all the nitty gritty details of the time period, and if you do that, the book might never get done.
Consider just how much of a history lesson you need to divulge to your readers:
Is it wrong to write for historical authenticity? Of course not. Just don’t lose sight of the fact that your first goal is to tell an entertaining story.
I’d advise you not to get too deep into the historical time period that you forget you are telling a story. The focus needs to always be on the characters. I once read a book that had an entire chapter dedicated to a new wife cleaning the house. I’m not kidding. There were details on where she put everything, what she cleaned the kitchen with, how she was sweating, what the kitchen gadgets were called, etc. This had absolutely nothing to do with the plot.
If anything you’re writing in the story doesn’t add to the plot, get rid of it. I don’t care how much time you spent researching it or how interesting you think it is. If it doesn’t advance the character’s journey, it doesn’t need to be there. You can bore a reader with too much information.
Above all else, keep the story entertaining. Most readers will forgive some historical inaccuracy if your book is so compelling they have to keep reading, but they won’t forgive a book that bored them. Seriously, don’t sweat the small stuff. Focus on the big thing: the character’s journey through the book.