#Writing: Get Historical Fiction Right

Miss Primm is reading a historical fiction romance series that falls under the time-traveling Highlander subgenre. No, I won’t tell you which one it is, (and no it’s not THE Highlander story.) And as much as I’m enjoying the story, I shouldn’t. There is so much that’s wrong with its assumptions and statements about 18th-century life, I should have given up by now. The author had failed to get historical fiction right.

I tend not to take ghostwriting jobs relating to historical fiction. Not that I can’t write it. I’ve written one, and the clients were extremely pleased. But Regency and Highlander require A LOT of research—not just history, but getting the facts straight on day-to-day living, just like the writer failed to do in their story. If you are reading and writing historical fiction there are some things you should know.


One.) Life before the 1900s wasn’t as filthy as we imagine. Reading books of poorly researched historical fiction will have you believe that people didn’t clean their butts, change their clothes and most everyone who wasn’t upper class walked around with dirt smudges on their faces. None of this is true. People gave themselves sponge baths every day (running water past the Roman age wasn’t available to most) and they were quite thorough about it. They also cleaned their teeth, with different methods. It’s true the outer garments were brushed cleaned instead of dry-cleaned, but we are dealing with natural fabrics here. You can’t wash up a wool garment as frequently as we clean them now. HOWEVER, people were big on changing their shirts, shifts, and undergarments daily. And yes, women had ways to deal with their “monthlies” rather than drip over themselves.

With proper housewifery, homes weren’t riddled with fleas and lice. Housewives kept in their arsenals a host of natural herbs to keep their homes pest free. Why do you think dried lilac was a popular flower to use in clothes and bedding storage? Not only did it smell good, lilac, among other flowers and herbs, to keep uninvited guests at bay.

Two.) The food at taverns and inns were terrible. Nope. People weren’t served slop for a meal. Depending on the inn, they served fresh bread, regional cheeses, mutton, fish, eggs, seasonal vegetables, pies, and pudding. So if you had the coin, you ate well on the road. If you didn’t have money, you exchanged your labor on a farm for a meal, and the barn to sleep. Monasteries would welcome weary travelers, though perhaps not as comfortable as an inn. Hospitality was a “big thing” as people didn’t have a “pull yourself up by your bootstrap mentality.” They couldn’t afford to. When you got an extra hand to help with the chores, you took it and shared your food.

Sure, poverty was a thing, especially for single parents who lost their spouses through illness or war. Guess what? It’s a big thing here too in the United States where one in three children in the United States goes to bed hungry. If you had a farm to work, you had food and shelter. To say that life prior to the twentieth century was horribly worse is an overstatement.

Nor is it true that government support for the disadvantaged didn’t exist. In England, in 1601, Queen Elizabeth the First set up the English Poor Laws, which instituted the state administration of aid to the poor. The monarch found this necessary because England had been through massive social upheaval since her father reigned, and the battle between the Catholics and Protestant churches destroyed church support of the poor.

Three.) The amount extreme rape and physical abuse culture outstrips modern life. Hmmm. It is true in the middle ages, men were expected to keep their wives and children in line, but laws existed on the books that could bring the man to justice for intentionally killing his wife, or inflicting damaging harm to her. Anti-rape laws existed were on the books as well, though society and the courts considered a crime against the victim’s family—not necessarily her. Currently, things are dire for women in the United States now where one in four women experience intimate partner violence through their lifetimes. in the United States, 2 out of 1,000 women report a rape or 362,000 women per year.

Our human rape culture runs centuries long, and all women live in a certain amount of fear of male violence. Let’s not color past centuries as worse than ours.

Four:) Our ancestors worked harder than we do. False. Juliet B. Schor writes in her paper The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure:

Consider a typical working day in the medieval period. It stretched from dawn to dusk (sixteen hours in summer and eight in winter), but, as the Bishop Pilkington has noted, work was intermittent – called to a halt for breakfast, lunch, the customary afternoon nap, and dinner. Depending on time and place, there were also midmorning and midafternoon refreshment breaks. These rest periods were the traditional rights of laborers, which they enjoyed even during peak harvest times.

Historical fiction writers that dig in the past to render believable stories are my heroes.

Writers, be a hero and please, get historical fiction right.

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