R is for Realistic (in historical fiction)

Just how realistic should a historical story be?


ID 59303266 © Wrangler | Dreamstime.com                                                                     “Just kicking it back for one of Ruth Ann Nordin’s historical romances.  I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with a convertible in 1876.”

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.

This post is part of the A-Z Challenge.

About Ruth Ann Nordin

Ruth Ann Nordin mainly writes historical western romances and Regencies. From time to time, she branches out to other genres, but her first love is historical romance. She lives in Omaha, Nebraska with her husband and a couple of children. To find out more about her books, go to https://ruthannnordinsbooks.wordpress.com/.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to R is for Realistic (in historical fiction)

  1. As you know this is what I struggle with, you want it to reflect the time period but also you cannot be completely accurate. If you do, people reading it in the contemporary setting will not understand it. When Abraham Lincoln was shot, a humorous line in the play was said. When we visited Ford Theater years ago, they read the line. It meant nothing. God bless and nice post.

    • That’s a good point. I think of the TV shows I’ve seen and the contemporary references they have in them. Years from now, no one is going to understand the jokes were funny. Times change way too fast.

      • Yes, times change way too fast. I was thinking the other day what happened to the word, broad. Everyone was using it to refer to women a few years ago, but you seldom hear it now. I never liked the word because I think it is derogatory. However, so many people use to use it. God bless.

  2. I end up doing historical for vampire shorts and have a lot of the same problems. I have one story where an Executioner confronts a pack of rogue vampires who are former Confederate soldiers. Not only is she black, but a woman, telling them what to do. They get the “N-” out and she kills them, so it’s there but NOT there a the same time – authentic enough for someone looking for it (because it IS what they’d gave said), but I didn’t actually need to use it.

    In regard to language in general, I think doing a “history light” is enough – throw in an old fashioned phrase or word here or there and maybe cut back on contractions and call it good :p

    • I think you handled that perfectly in that situation! It does get the time period across without being insulting.

      I agree. “History light” is the ideal way to go. You get a flavor for it without bogging the story down.

  3. I think the main thing is not to have glaring inaccuracies. If an object wasn’t invented yet in that time period, I wouldn’t put it in there. It’s easy to research and find out for sure when that was invented. The same thing with words. Especially VERY modern words and phrases. When I edit for clients, if a word seems too modern for the times, I always research it and mark it. It’s up to the author to decide what to do with it. 🙂 At the same time, I definitely agree about NOT using certain words that could be offensive or misunderstood. If it’s a word I wouldn’t use, I certainly wouldn’t want to put it in a book.

    • I did take out the phrase you caught that was modern. Even when I go through and edit my stuff, I’ll miss those little things. This is why it’s good to have someone conscious of this stuff to look at the book. 🙂

      What I have found surprising is that some things I thought for sure weren’t around back in a certain time period actually were. Like condoms. I had no idea they’ve been used way back before Regency times. I thought for sure it was a 20th century invention. What did surprise me is how late pads (or even rags) were used. The research I did said in historical west US, most women just bled through their clothes. I don’t care how historically accurate that is, I won’t have any of my heroines doing that. LOL They always use rags or cloths or something.

      Also, I agree. If I wouldn’t use the word, I don’t want it in my book, regardless of the time period.

Comments are closed.