Historical Adequacy and Me

Recently, while I was working on the edits for my current work in progress, I made the following changes for the sake of historical accuracy, as my fantasy series takes place in an alternate version of northern Europe in the sixth century CE: 

  • I removed all instances of the word ‘orange’ from the current story (and subsequently removed it from the previous stories) because the word ‘orange’ did not exist in English until the fruit arrived in northwestern Europe in the late 15th century. The fruit arrived first, and then we starting calling orange things ‘orange’.
  • I realized that a couple of characters were eating cod and carrots. As for the cod, I remembered that, generally, northern Europeans didn’t eat ocean fish until much later in the Medieval era, at which point advances in the Europeans’ boat-building technology improved to the point where people sailed into the open ocean. The Vikings, for example, would catch cod and other sea-going fish on their way across the North Sea or the Atlantic Ocean. But my stories take place long before the Viking age, so I changed the cod to a river fish.
  • Meanwhile, carrots weren’t eaten as food (only as medicine, at most) in the British Isles until after the Viking Age (and, by the by, were described as ‘yellow’, ‘white’, or ‘red’. Because the word ‘orange’ wasn’t a thing yet). So I changed the root vegetable from carrots to turnips, which have been cultivated in northern Europe for at least a millennia or two. While doing this research, I discovered that there is a World Carrot Museum, an online museum founded and maintained by a man from England. I think this is delightful. Check it out here: http://www.carrotmuseum.co.uk/
  • I researched the process of spinning wool fibers into thread using a drop spindle and distaff, as the spinning wheel didn’t arrive in Europe until at least the 13th century.

All this tells you two things about me:

  1. I am a pedantic nerd who is curious about anything and everything, including carrots.
  2. I value accurate historical details in the things I read, write, or watch.

I will look through the books with a magnifying glass to find the answers I seek… Photo by Wallace Chuck on Pexels.com

As anyone who studies a thing for a long time will tell you, the more you know about something, the more you realize that there is so much more that you don’t know about it. And in the case of history– no matter how much you narrow your focus onto a specific place and time– there are so many things we will never know. There is so much that has been irrevocably lost that we’ll never even know what we don’t know.

So there’s really no such thing as ‘historical accuracy’. At least, not perfect accuracy.

Over the past year or so, I’ve been watching a lot of videos by historical costumers and dress historians like Bernadette Banner and Abby Cox. Thanks to them and others, I’ve learned a lot about history (and the misconceptions we have about things like corsets). I’ve also become accustomed to the term ‘historically adequate’, which is not a technical term, but it works for what they and others are doing to learn about and teach history to others. 

Historically adequate- wherein you do your research into a costume or a specific place and time or a particular person, and get the details as close as you can without worrying about being perfect. Because if your goal is perfection, you’ll never get there. You might not even start, because you know the goal is unattainable. So you do what you can with what you know, and you complete the project from there. Maybe you change things along the way when your research points you down a different path. Maybe you start over because the information you had has been overturned by new research methods or tools. 

There is no such thing as perfect historical accuracy.

But that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop researching weird historical details like when people began eating carrots in England or when Europeans started using forks. These little bits of history are fascinating and tell us as much, if not more, about our ancestors than who won a given battle. My research has also given me new interests I never imagined having ten years ago. Who would have thought I’d enjoy reading Medieval Icelandic family sagas? My 30-year old self wouldn’t have put money on that. But here we are.

So I will continue to research the odd tidbits of history and read Medieval stories and poetry because I find them interesting, and also because the more details I can put into my fanfiction series, the more real it will feel to my readers who, after several years of following the characters’ exploits, have come to expect it from me. I would feel like I was letting them down if I missed something important because one night I decided I was too tired to look it up. 

I doubt they would notice. If any of them have noticed the lack of citrus fruits or forks, the Medieval horse terminology, or the call-backs to the sagas that have slipped into the writing, they haven’t mentioned it. But I would know.

This is partly why I find it so frustrating when authors set their stories in Earth’s past– or in a secondary world based on a specific time and place– and then can’t be bothered to even try to get the multitude of details right. Will I complain about a character eating an orange carrot? No. But it pulls me out of the story when a lower-class character who is meant to be from, say, 1350s England, is eating sugar-coated pastries (a rarity even for the wealthy before the 1500s), drinking tea (which came to England after 1650), complaining about having to wear corsets (which were developed, as we know them now, in England after 1830), and then curling up for a nap with a chenille blanket (the fabric wasn’t named ‘chenille’ until the 1920s).

It also (to me, anyway) shows a lack of care on the author’s part. There is a wealth of resources available to us all, online, for free. Wikipedia, JSTOR, Project Gutenberg, Google Scholar, PubMed, Wolfram Alpha, and a host of others provide immense amounts of information at no charge. For example, I went to JSTOR’s free database, did a quick search for “T’ang Dynasty Pottery”, and within seconds had over 350 images and more than 4,500 articles. 

And research– or at least fact-checking– doesn’t have to take very long, either. While writing this I decided to look up when the Thoroughbred breed of horse came into existence. So I started a timer and Googled it. In under three minutes, I had my answer from Wikipedia and verified it with the Encyclopedia Britannica and the International Museum of the Horse

By the by, Thoroughbred horses are a distinct breed of horse that can be traced back to England in the early the 1700s, when the Darley Arabian, the Godolphin Arabian, and the Byerly Turk (all stallions from the Middle-East) were imported to England to be cross-bred with the larger local horses to produce a breed that was strong and fast over long distances. The horses were then exported to the American colonies where their popularity exploded thanks to the growing sport of horse racing.

Three minutes.

I could certainly have gone into more detail, but I had the basic answer that I was looking for, and all three reputable sites agreed with each other. 

Historically adequate. 

So if someday, I go from writing fanfiction to creating original stories, you can bet that I’ll be doing my best to get the historical details right, because even if the reader doesn’t know about Medieval carrotry, I will. And I’ll want to get the little things right. The devil’s in those details, and so are the mood and tone of the story.

Photo by Hana Mara on Pexels.com

7 thoughts on “Historical Adequacy and Me

  1. Keep researching! First off…the thing about orange totally makes sense when you say the reason, but I’d never thought of that! It’s way more interesting to think about what it was really like, then putting our 21st century spin on it

  2. Exactly! Sure, there are plenty of subgenres that aren’t concerned with being as historically accurate as possible, and that’s fine because that’s not what those readers are looking for. But if you’re doing historical fantasy or historical fiction, why wouldn’t you do the research to try to find out what things were really like?

  3. I really enjoyed this. It brings to mind similar issues in many other fields, the idea that “good enough and done” is almost always preferable to “we’re not ready yet because it isn’t quite perfect.” It will likely never be perfect, and if you keep striving for that you risk never finishing it, so learn how to tell what good enough is and then strive for the adequacy you talked about.

    And from a completely different perspective, this reminded me of authors who’ve said they prefer writing in alternate worlds because they don’t enjoy researching history and don’t want to write something that’s completely inaccurate, so they make up their own world and then have a little more leeway. I personally don’t know enough history to know whether most details of historical stories are accurate, but I do know a bit about computers and technology and know how aggravating it is to see stories so thoroughly botch something in favor of the story. I’m all about the story, but if you’ve included elements in the story that are jarringly and completely wrong it will take some readers out of the narrative. And in most cases, as you’ve said, just a little research could have prevented that.

  4. There’s a dodgy thing about building secondary worlds in order to get away from historical accuracy because when you’re building a whole new history you have to consider all sorts of bizarre things that you’d never have considered before– namely that the course of history, any history, is never sensible or straightforward, and major events can turn on the unexpected decisions of a single, random person. And even if you do build another world, you’re still going to be basing something on historical events and cultures. Nothing is new under the sun, so it’s worth it to do some research, even if you don’t think your world has anything to do with anything.

    Besides. History is fascinating. Why wouldn’t you want to find out more about it?

  5. Hear, hear! Researching can be so fun sometimes, too. I often fall down rabbit holes that I wasn’t expecting at all when a sudden thought occurs to me about some of the technology that may or may not have been available, and suddenly I’m reading about the history of aeronautics in the 30s in Portugal! It’s such a bizarre place to be, uncovering pieces of history that we’d never have otherwise considered, and it makes for a great deal of fun while embarking on something that you want to be as truthful about as possible.

  6. Yes! It’s great fun! I always find things I never knew I’d be interested in. Who knew that the history of gas lamps in Victorian London could be so compelling? Or carrots in Medieval Europe, for that matter? I always enjoy learning about any kind of history, even if it gets uncomfortable. It makes my writer better, and it makes be a more informed human in general.

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