Want to write a historical romance? Prepare to agonize over anachronism.
Devotees of the genre love feeling transported back to a different time period, and they will put up with minor anachronisms and historical inaccuracies, especially if the storytelling is great. But everyone has their breaking point. A narrative littered with words and ideas that don’t belong in the era will jolt readers from the “dream” of the story. Pretty soon they can feel like they’re reading someone’s Twitter feed.
Maybe you’d be okay with a pioneer woman named Kayzeene whose parents caught onto the made-up-name fad 150 years before the rest of us. Okay, so she tells her brother to “suck it up” (slang popularized in the 1980s) when she takes a moment between wagon train duties to have period-inappropriate sex with a”hot” frontier doctor who sets aside her Winchester automatic (not yet invented) while (you guessed it) unzipping her fly. It goes without saying that both women are familiar with a sexual vocabulary only introduced to startled Americans a century later by Masters and Johnson.
If you’ve paid nothing for this story as a self-published Kindle book, who cares? But no one wants to spend ten bucks on a historical romance only to discover that the author didn’t think basic research mattered.
All authors of historical romance find ourselves constantly balancing fiction with reality. Time, place, and language must convincingly convey the feel of another era and invite readers to suspend disbelief. At the same time, too much accuracy can disturb and even offend modern readers. Just because animal cruelty did not raise eyebrows 200 years ago, doesn’t mean your main character is obliged to flog her horse for the sake of realism.
No intelligent reader expects a character from the past to share 21st Century sensitivities and values, but they do expect authors to make thoughtful choices about where to draw the line. Authors of historical romance are in the business of world-building. We get to choose where and how we interweave fantasy and fact to serve story and character goals.
Debate over realism is nothing new. In the early 1990s, author Diana Gabaldon included a wife-beating scene in Outlander, now a TV series. Back then, Gabaldon was criticized for inaccuracies in her first book and went on to build a reputation for authenticity. Her decision to have her main character Jamie Fraser beat his wife Claire was controversial at the time, and with the advent of the TV series, you can find it litigated all over the Internet.
Gabaldon wrote Jamie as an Enlightenment thinker–an honorable, exceptional man for his era. Late 18th Century writings by Enlightenment men offer a genuine historical basis for this character. However, the same historical writings also show that domestic violence was considered loutish and unacceptable among men of Jamie’s social class and outlook, so it’s hard to fathom why Gabaldon has cited “historical accuracy” to excuse Jamie’s sudden sudden lapse into domestic abuse.
It seems more likely that, having included the scene as a first-time author, she simply made a poor choice. Characterization 101: behavior reveals character. When behavior is at diametric odds with characterization, there’s a problem with craft, not a dilemma over real-world accuracy.