Well, the short answer is it depends! I know, that’s a satisfying conclusion to any debate 😉 But it really is the sort of thing that’s up to the reader.
Because some people will be happy for historical fiction to be graphic and authentic and hard-hitting… others are looking for light entertainment. And that’s okay. A lot of readers are looking for a little escape from reality and history can be a little grim.
And I have to admit, even I’m not always into hard-hitting historical realism. I’ve mentioned before that everyone has their limit and I can’t pretend to always be down for some skull-bashing war drama.
Buuuut… Sometimes I feel like the historical setting is entirely lacking. Recently, I’ve had this problem with a some popular alternative history books, like Bringing Down the Duke, Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue and Ransom My Heart, where the modern twist is so prominent that the history sinks into the backdrop. In Gentleman’s Guide and Bringing Down the Duke in particular, it was the characters that felt out of place- so much so that I wondered why they were not just written for a modern context. All the characters either thought like people from the 21st century… or they were a moustache twirling villain. And that’s a little frustrating- because, more than getting the setting right, it’s got to feel like the people come alive.
Though perhaps this is just an issue that stories like these stretch the bounds of reality a bit too far for me (which is a shocker, given I’m a massive fantasy nerd 😉). For some reason, if I know the history or I’m thinking of real people, it’s just going to be that much harder to suspend my disbelief (which is why I’ve never got on well with Philippa Gregory books for instance). It’s not so easy to switch off that sceptical part of my brain snapping out “yes but the real Anne Boleyn probably didn’t commit adultery… least of all with her brother!” (okay, I have good reason not to like Philippa Gregory- what is with her and incest plotlines!)
What I’ve come to realise is that this is a world building problem- just as much as it would be in fantasy if everyone started breaking the rules of the magic system. I can suspend my disbelief… but only so far. I have to be able to buy the way the world works- and in historical fiction it’s that much harder to change things up.
Of course, it’s hard to draw a definitive line here. Many of you will know, I’m all about *exceptions* and I’ve read my share of great alternative fiction. For instance, it’s not like time travelling to Ireland before its independence is a realistic plotline- but I still enjoyed the hell out of that book! So, I really can’t be the one to judge what is “too far”- what works for me could easily not work for you, and vice versa!
Which is why I wanna pass the question over to you- where do you draw the line? How accurate does historical fiction have to be for you? Let me know in the comments!