Discussion: Do Historical Inaccuracies in Fiction Bother You?

What I want to discuss here are not times when the author has deliberately manipulated history and provides justification for it (either within the story or as a note at the end).  I do want to discuss when authors just plain get it wrong and if it bothers you.

The other day I was reading a novel that featured a little bit about ancient Egypt in it.  It was going pretty well until I came across the place where the author started perpetuating the myth that the pyramids were places where pharaohs “would even bury servants alive in there(Earthbound by Aprilynne Pike, Page 219).  This is just totally wrong on two points.  The first of which is that pharaohs were buried alongside their retainers.  They were, but only until King Djet of the First Dynasty. (For a grand total of four kings.)  Secondly, the first pyramid was built for King Netjerikhet (Djoser) and it was built in the Third Dynasty.  Hundreds of years after the human sacrifice stopped!

After that I had a hard time getting back into the story.  I can definitely understand manipulating the facts to get a better story.  But what I can’t understand is stating something as fact and just getting it wrong.  Not even a little bit wrong but totally, utterly and completely wrong.  It bugs me because a) the author should have done even a little bit of research and b) her editor should have caught that mistake in the fact-checking process.

What I want to know now is this: Does it bug you when authors writing historical fiction just get something completely wrong?  If so, does it colour your opinion of the rest of the novel?

21 comments

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  2. Gary O'keefe

    There’s a can of worms. Artistic licence has been freely applied countless times and not only in works of fiction. I’m constantly irritated by it in books ( fiction and non-fiction), and in films, plays, TV shows and newspapers. Try and point it out though and all hell breaks loose.

  3. Lady Fancifull

    Oh yes indeed I do – though I may not notice them (if they are small errors) if the writing itself, the credibility of character and immersion in the book is strong. I am MUCH more likely to notice these bloopers if ny belief in what the author is doing has not happened – generally because the writer is not able to immerse me.

    I recently read a novel by someone with in theory a very interesting premise (set in 1920, analysis of someone with multiple personality disorder (possibly) However, when early on the therapist was talking about electric shock treatment I screamed out loud as I was pretty sure this was at least 10 or 15 years too early, as the treatment did not become mainstream till the 40s, and so it was highly unlikely to be generally in use (as described here) by 1920. It is SO easy to check stuff like this these days, so the author – who even has by all accounts a PhD in psychology, should NOT be making this sort of mistake.

    And, yes, I found myself then storting and harrumphing and further evidence of sloppiness kept on annoying me.

    Curiously though, another book i read recently, which i was captivated by (Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch) – had a fellow bookie friend spitting and cursing because allegedly a character was using an iPhone too early. Did I notice that? No. But that’s possibly because I am much more interested in medical history (and a bit more knowledgeable about it) than I am in technology and I have no idea when iphones, pads, and the like first appeared. Weren’t they around in Ancient Egypt, and the slaves buried alive used them to phone their relatives to tell them to come and dig them out?

    • Carrie Slager

      Haha, that’s pretty much how the writer’s attitude toward ancient Egypt sounded like in the novel.

      If I’m honest it’s only really when I’m passionate about a subject that inaccuracies annoy me. If I’m not passionate about the subject I likely won’t notice like you didn’t notice the iPhone inaccuracy. It all depends on your perspective, to be sure.

    • Carrie Slager

      I would love to be able to do that but if I’m halfway through a book I’m not going to stop because sometimes the story is still enjoyable but also because I need to write a review. That’s the difference when it comes to reading to review and reading for pleasure. Not that the two are mutually exclusive all the time.

  4. Kelley

    I have to admit, when I spot these, they bug the hell out of me. It makes me feel like the author was too lazy to do proper research, which in turn makes it look like they don’t care enough to be accurate (and I am all about accuracy, in everything).

  5. Grace

    It bothers me a lot because many people learn about historical periods that they aren’t familiar with through historical fiction. It’s one thing if an author makes a change for a reason and notes it in the acknowledgements, but another thing entirely if it’s a mistake out of laziness.

  6. Megan.S

    I have to say, as a writer, I make sure I back up all my facts and get them right. If I do want to change something to fit with what I’m writing, I clearly explain it. Ignoring facts or just guessing at them is annoying. I have read a few books where historical facts are blatantly wrong and I can’t even finish the book. I get so wrapped up in the inaccuracies, that I want to go back and check every other fact up until that point to see if those are wrong as well. It makes me question the writer, and that’s not something you want to do when escaping into the pages of a book.

    • Carrie Slager

      Definitely! I’m glad that you as a writer care so much because it seems like not all writers feel that way. There are certainly debates about history but getting accepted facts wrong? No, just no.

  7. Phillip McCollum

    Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. There are some areas in history that are in dispute and while one source says this, another says that. If the “inaccuracy” is in an area like that, I tend not to take the author to task. A surprising amount of history is controversial, more than we’re taught to believe. I also give the author some liberties, because, in the end, they are writing fiction and not a textbook. As long as the idiosyncrasies make sense in the story, I’m okay with it.

    • Carrie Slager

      For sure. I don’t mind if an author is going down another road contrary to the accepted theory if something’s disputed. That’s what makes things interesting. But stating something as total fact even when archaeological evidence of all the burials past Djet have no human sacrifice? That’s just plain lazy, not a disputed theory. The problem was that it wasn’t a little error but part of a much larger theory integral to the plot. Stuff like that annoys me rather than little anachronisms.

  8. lausannedc

    As a budding Historical Fiction writer, reading these comments tempts me to run screaming into the desert.

    Historical “fact” is constantly changing and I know that by the time my digital ink dries some expert will declare some event happened on a different date or didn’t even take place, at all, or they didn’t have that mode of transportation in that year, or it rained on that day, or whatever. They will have access to the most recent obscure doctoral paper proving some a battle took place three miles away on a different hill and, therefore, they will throw my book across the room in scorn.

    It is the underlying terror we live with when we take the risk.

    Readers need to give more leeway to writers attempting to place good stories in more obscure times and places. If writing about the American Revolution, with available reference material (in the writer’s native tongue) the size of a building, then readers have a right to give’em what for when writers are lazy.

    But I humbly request more patience for those of us attempting to bring life to periods and events where there are great gaping holes in the established “facts”.

    Climbing down from soapbox now. 🙂

    • Carrie Slager

      I’m well aware that there are many controversies surrounding every single period in history. However, stating something as fact that has absolutely no archaeological evidence or any other justification is just plain lazy. I used the example above because it has been established that there is no evidence of the royal court being killed off after the reign of King Djet. Whether he was really the fourth king of the First Dynasty or not, one cannot argue the fact that pyramids were not being built in First Dynasty Egypt. That’s simply laughable.

      I understand changing around some things and that’s okay so long as there is justification, especially in an obscure time period. But to state something that outrageous and not back it up at all? That’s just plain lazy.

      And the other thing is I’m not talking about obscure research papers or the latest research. When writers get facts wrong that could be fact-checked by a simple Google search, that is lazy on their part and extremely annoying. There’s no need for it.

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