16 April 2007

Is there such a thing as too much accuracy?

People who know me might be surprised to hear my answer to this question - yes!

As a general rule, I prefer the fiction I read to have a high degree of accuracy. However, over the years as both writer and reader I've come to the conclusion that sometimes too much attention to period detail and language can detract from a good story.

This does not mean I'm advocating fudging history or using obviously modern language, but in certain situations, choosing a better word or dialling back on the period detail can improve the book. One immediate example I can think of is when you use a word that may be right for the era, yet it sounds too modern. This will pull your reader out of the story and only a small percentage of them will check an etymological dictionary to see that you indeed are correct. Most of the others will think you're either too lazy to look up the right word or don't care. Either way, you've pulled them out of the story, the last thing you want as a writer. I ran into this upon discovering that the word "sidewalk" has been around since the late eigtheenth century.
"path for pedestrians on the side of a street," 1739, from side (adj.) + walk (n.)
I finally decided not to use the term after polling members of a writers group, even though it's entirely correct, because it has such a modern sound to it. Most of those asked said they'd never have suspected it was such an old word and it would indeed pull them up short.

On the other hand, sometimes it's so tempting to use a really neat period word, one that resonates with you. But will it work for your reader? Again, a very unfamiliar word can pull them out of the story. OTOH, used judiciously, and put in context, these words can add historical depth to your manuscript. The key, IMO, is to use them sparingly or risk your reader shutting the book and giving up because they don't want to be bothered trying to figure out what your characters are saying.

The same thing goes for going into too much detail about say a battle, or the process of a handcraft or something similar. Yes, readers read historicals because they love the past, but they also want to be entertained, not lectured. I know just how easy it is to find something fascinating and want to include it in my story to share with others. But I have to stop and think about whether I as a *reader* would be as interested. No matter that it might increase the verisimilitude of my manuscript, if it bores the reader, it doesn't belong there.

So, that's my opinion. What do you think? Is there such a thing as too much accuracy in a work of fiction? Do you edit your work for words or details that, while interesting to you, might make the reader either skip pages or worse, close the book?



Marjorie Jones said...

I have to agree. I once asked a bestselling author who happens to have a doctorate in medieval history about this and she said, "If I wrote a medieval romance that was 100% historically accurate, the readers would stone me." I'm paraphrasing, but that's the gist of it.

I wouldn't have a problem with 'sidewalk' per se, because I was raised on the song, "Sidewalks of New York" which is very old, dating back to the 1890's.

I just love that song!


carrie_lofty said...

I have this trouble at the moment with my medieval chemistry-based MS. Some of the words can be found in common usage way back when, like EXPERIMENT (1426). But ACID only dates to the time of Newton (1727). Experiment sounds much more forward, almost a sci-fi or Frankenstein feeling, whereas the olden term for acid, SPIRIT, has since taken on radically different connotations. I have found this to be a challenging act of balance, between perception and history. BUt I think that's a theme we've mentioned here before, how telling these historical stories is all about balance, between fact and entertainment.

Liz Clare said...

I agree also. My take on it is that the purpose of the book is to entertain a modern-day reader. If a person wants to be certain of getting complete historical detail that has been vetted by a scholar, well, that is what non-fiction is for.

One of the things that has come up for me is language. When my co-author and I are writing, we do research into the period language, slang, and the letters and journals of the person we're writing about. Often a good part of the dialog comes from those sources. But at the same time, we're going for the emotion and human feeling that is universal, so we'll temper that period language with a conversational tone.

You can't please everyone. Purists and buffs may not like the novelist's art, but I just try to keep in mind that the novel is not for them -- it's for people who like to read novels.

I agree about the modern sounding words. I recently ran across a quote from Jefferson about John Adams "driving the car" of the nation out of control. I never realized until that moment that "car" is simply a slang word for carriage.

co-author of "To the Ends of the Earth: The Last Journey of Lewis and Clark"
Foreword Book of the Year Finalist