historic accuracy

Or lack thereof.

That is my current battle. I’m writing a very lightly-historic Romance, and I keep running into a problem: facts versus assumptions.

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“La Fraternité des peuples” 1883. by Aimé-Jules Dalou on the Town Hall, Paris

There are many instances where the things we assume to be true about history, the things we read in other fictional works, are not historic truth. And so I’m left with a dilemma. I’ll explain.

My story is a male/male romance, set in the very late 1700s. (I never pinpoint a date, but I’m using 1790 as a reference point for my research) One of the issues that has come up is how acceptable “gayness” was then. Obviously, I have no idea. I’ve read that earlier, in the “golden age of piracy,” there were a lot of openly gay pirates and sailors. Among pirates, there were legal same-sex unions (though whether or not these were sexual in nature is unclear.) And obviously there have been same-sex unions throughout history. However, lots of critiquers have brought up the fact that my characters should be more “closeted,” as if the current level of tolerance is a modern thing. My research has not been exhaustive, but I’ve done enough to know that while homosexuality may not have been widely accepted, it was certainly a fact of life then, as it is now. (It is actually kind of sad to realize that social progression in this area is totally non-linear. There were many time periods which were more open and accepting than we are now.) So as a compromise, I’ve given my characters a healthy caution, but no self-hate or shame.

footbath
FRANÇOIS BOUCHER (PARIS 1703-1770) A YOUNG WOMAN TAKING A FOOTBATH

Another thing which has given me some grief is cleanliness. There is this idea, which is repeated in so many historicals, that people of the 18th century were disgusting, never bathed, and basically just didn’t care about hygiene. This is downright ridiculous, but as recently as last year I picked up a romance which perpetuated the same nonsense. Sure, bathing (as in full body immersion) might have been a rare and difficult thing, and laundering clothing was a much larger challenge, but I hardly think that means people did not wash at all. I accept that the level of stink in 1750 was more pungent than in 1950, but reject the idea the entire world was nose-blind.

So then… what to do? Do I keep everything accurate, and hope that anyone who questions it will do some research of their own before criticizing me? Or do I gloss over the details, and avoid the problem all together? I refuse to knowingly perpetuate inaccuracies. Should I add in yet more historic detail to support my character’s actions?

So far, I have been able to get by through avoidance. My book is a Romance, not a history lesson. But I don’t want people thinking my characters are acting oddly. And I DO want readers to be immersed in the story, to believe they are reading events taking place in a period of time long gone.

I am at the final polishing stages of the draft now. So this is when I really have to be sure all those details read smoothly. Any advice is appreciated!

6 thoughts on “historic accuracy

  1. I think you make a plethora of good points. There’s a lot of misinformation about history, and have been many instances of purposeful misinformation just to make the present look better compared to those “savages.”

    I think the sheer fact you’re putting effort in makes all the difference. Even if you’re not 100% right, if you challenge people’s assumptions then you’re in good shape.

    • Also a lot of daily life stuff is really hard to find documented, especially for a casual researcher like me 😉

      I’ve spent most of this morning trying to find out what the protocol was for black servants when their “master” was eating at a pub or tavern. If they were traveling, did they eat together? Were there segregated places to feed slaves/servants? Would they simply eat at the bar, or at another table, so “separate but equal” sort of? Further complicating the issue is how much these things vary based on the decade, and the geographic location.
      Seriously makes me want to re-work the entire scene.

      I am questioning whether I should have attempted this story at all! lol

  2. Amelia, the pirate unions were called matelotage and they were sexual in nature. Don’t forget the Sacred Band of Thebes either, hand picked male lovers who fought together in ancient Greece. As for the cleanliness, just have oils around. We know Christ bathed in oils, why not your guys too? Don’t worry so much about the M/M relationship and just make sure the other facts that you need are straight. If they want to be argue a gay relationship, they shouldn’t be reading it. 😉

    I don’t know the premise of your story but one thing I do know is in that time era, it was the British military that hung open homosexuals. So steer clear of the British navy (unless they are an adversary) and you’ll be fine!

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