Another fascinating blog post from author Carolyn Hughes; one of a series of posts based on her 2015 PhD thesis on the subject of authenticity in historical fiction.
People read historical fiction for a range of reasons including understanding the lives of those who lived in the past (especially those marginalised by history), immersion in a different time and place, and a desire to learn about history from stories. (Reference made here to Mary Tod’s 2013 survey of readers.) Similarly, readers require varying degrees of historical accuracy; for some a “sense of authority” rather than absolute correctness may be adequate – but only if the story is good enough.
My own reason for loving historical fiction above all other genres is the escapism afforded by immersion in another world – but a world that has tangible links with my own world (which explains why I dislike fantasy and science fiction, I suppose). Do I, as a reader, care about historical accuracy? Yes, increasingly so – because the greater one’s knowledge of a particular period (in my case WW1) the more irritated and distracted I am by errors and lazy resort to stereotypes and clichés. Would I be more easily pleased when reading a novel set in another era? Up to a point, maybe – but I think my built-in bullshit-radar would still start be bleeping away in the background.
Which brings us to an interesting question; do readers of historical fiction chose their next bedtime book on the basis of period or type of story – or is choice a much more subjective and random process? Does it matter? Probably not. Harry Bingham of the Writer’s Workshop advises authors not to waste time worrying about about genre; that’s what publishers are for, apparently.
In the meantime, my job is to tell a bloody good story set in a world that is rich and believable and (to quote Carolyn Hughes) conveys “a sense of historical truth”.