Accuracy is in the Mind of the Beholder

Mark Pottenger


This appeared as part of an AAR column on April 15, 2003.

Accuracy comes up in many discussions of romance books. This is an attempt to clarify what might be included under that topic heading.

I’ll start with a (Random House Webster’s Unabridged) dictionary definition:

Accuracy: the condition or quality of being true, correct, or exact; freedom from error or defect; precision or exactness; correctness.

Fiction is imaginative, imagined, invented or made-up stories.

Look at the legal disclaimer on the copyright page of almost any recently published book. Even real people and places are “used fictionally”.

Given those basics, what is accuracy in fiction? I think it is limited to “freedom from error or defect” and “correctness”. My take on correctness in the context of fiction is “successfully conveying the feeling of the chosen milieu”. If a story “feels right” for the declared setting, it is correct fiction.

Accuracy Allergies

Authors get a lot of criticism for the simple reason that no story can please all readers. Each reader’s unique life experiences affect how each story is perceived. One reader’s show-stopper is another reader’s “I didn’t notice that.” Many readers who catch errors because of their own experiences don’t stop to think how specialized their own knowledge is and that the author may not shine in that specialization.

If an author of a historical story uses inventions or discoveries or language from times generations after the setting of the story, it will break the flow of reading and suspension of disbelief for some readers and pass completely unnoticed by other readers. Neanderthal [1860-65] and genetics [1905] are words I recall tripping over in Regencies. Language from modern psychology in stories set before the late 1800s (or well into the 1900s for some terminology) falls into this category.

If an author of a contemporary story uses inappropriate regional language or dialect or generation-inappropriate language or terminology, it will bother some readers and pass completely unnoticed by other readers. Americanisms in dialogue between characters in the UK are an example of this. I rarely notice this sort of problem.

If an author uses poor grammar or malapropisms, it will bother some readers and pass completely unnoticed by other readers. I call a lot of wrong word errors “mindos”, a word formed by analogy from “typos”. I often notice these problems.

If an author uses some words and phrases a lot, some readers will be bothered and some readers won’t notice or won’t care. Repetition has to be pretty extreme to bother me. This is in a grey area, since repetition can be a deliberate stylistic choice. An example I’ve seen mentioned on a discussion list is one author’s frequent use of the word “maiden” in Regencies.

Some readers notice rapid changes in point of view, some notice excessive use of short sentences, some notice mistakes in geography, some notice misuse of French, German, Spanish, or other languages, etc. My point, and the reason I’ve said authors face a no-win situation, is that each reader brings a unique set of life experiences and knowledge to their reading of the book and it is probably almost impossible for a single author to know enough to write a book that will be free of flaws for all readers. I sometimes wince or cringe at bloopers I see in books, but I also enjoy most books despite that. I know that writing fiction is not one of my skills and admire and appreciate the work of authors I read. I just wish publishers respected authors and readers enough to do a better job of eliminating (and not introducing) errors. I’ve read enough comments from authors to know that some errors in published books are introduced during the publishing process, not just missed in publishing the author’s original text.

A consequence of the above view of errors is that for the reader who does not notice the errors in a book, that book is error-free. The same printing of the same book can be riddled with errors in the view of one reader and perfectly fine in the view of another reader.

Allergic reactions or special sensitivities are a physical analogy for readers’ reactions to different details in books. Some people physically react strongly to dust, some to pollen, some to certain foods, etc. Other people are much less bothered by the same things. It would not be unreasonable to make a list of story features that different people are bothered by and let an individual reader define an “(in-)accuracy allergy” profile based on which features bother them.

Testing, Testing

An important point is that a single author (or a collaboration or an author plus an editor and a copy-editor) *cannot* know as much about a time period or geographic area or language as thousands or millions of readers. Once a book is published, it is subject to a level of examination by the “group mind” (readers collectively) that simply cannot be achieved prior to publication. In the software industry there is a step before final publication called “beta testing”--releasing a version of a program to selected users who are willing to put up with flaws for the chance to use the software sooner. Even with beta testing, many programs still contain bugs when published, but the number and severity of bugs is considerably reduced. Unless the publishing industry changes radically and institutes a system for beta testing books, errors in published books will remain inevitable.

Except in cases of extreme carelessness, the errors in most books are small problems for most readers. The Internet now allows readers who stumble over those problems to bring them to the attention of other readers who might not have noticed them, thus lowering the perceived quality of the discussed books for the other readers. This might be giving a false impression that book quality has declined or that readers are more critical than in the past. I know the impression of a decline in quality isn’t always going to be false. I still recall seeing a distressing number of new typos in the recent (2000) reprinting of several Heyer titles. Still, it would be interesting to see how many flaws a large group of readers might report on reading a book published in 1980 or 1960. I noticed quite a few typos in a recent rereading of a 1965 book.

A group of readers will always spot more of all kinds of errors than any single reader. Some readers will notice simple typos, some will notice wrong words, some will notice poor grammar, some will notice punctuation problems, some will notice anachronistic language, some will notice inappropriate dialects, some will notice poor translations, some will notice geographical errors, some will notice military errors, some will notice legal errors, some will notice costume errors, some will notice errors in titles and forms of address, some will notice historical errors, some will notice premature psychobabble, some will notice errors in science, some will notice anachronisms in technology, etc. Just as with the full reading public, each added reader of a manuscript adds one more special perspective.

I would be very surprised if any print publisher starts using large numbers of early readers, but I think it could be done in electronic publishing. A version 1 text could be available at a lower cost than a cleaned up version 2 text.

For many years I listened to a radio program about science fiction and fantasy called “Hour 25”. They spoke of their audience as a group mind and expected that someone listening would know an answer to almost any question asked on the air. I even called in some of the answers over the years. I see no reason that publishing in this electronic age should not take similar advantage of the collective knowledge of readers. I think that if the change from books printed on paper to books distributed electronically happens as many people expect, this paradigm shift will be a great opportunity for publishers to improve accuracy to improve customer satisfaction. A two-phase release of texts with a built-in feedback mechanism to report errors will give whatever publisher does it first a huge boost with many readers.

Erroneous Errors: What we know that isn’t so

Some errors that readers complain about aren’t errors. Sometimes a reader objects to something in a book due to false knowledge or mistaken memory. In cases like this, the book is OK but the reader thinks it is wrong. When the point is simple, a little research will show who is right. For more obscure problems, this kind of objection can lead to dueling authorities.

Things that are correct but “feel wrong” are a borderline area. Some names and words feel very modern to readers even though they are in fact very old. Even though things like this are not in fact errors, many authors try to avoid them because of the reader reactions. A compromise answer is to include footnotes.

Misunderstandings are another borderline area. If the text is unclear enough that a lot of readers read something other than what the author intended, I view that as an error on the part of the author. If just a few people misunderstand, it is less clearly a problem.

“Non-fiction” History

I put non-fiction in quotes because it can be argued that there is no such thing as history that is non-fiction. The viewpoint and slant of the author affects all writing, even when the intent is to tell the truth as far as the author knows it. The only form of history that would fully qualify as non-fiction is a chronicle or list of events, and even that can be subject to argument from people who believe certain events did not happen or happened at a different place or time than listed in the chronicle.

Primary sources are participants in or eyewitnesses of or physical traces of described events. Secondary sources are removed in space and/or time from described events. Some people classify works that synthesize data from primary sources as secondary sources and some classify them as tertiary sources. Web sites are often tertiary or quaternary sources. Each layer of removal from actual events adds another chance for transcription errors, lost data and biased interpretation due to cultural differences, but even primary sources have unavoidable personal biases. Anyone exposed to modern psychology or criminology is probably aware how unreliable eyewitnesses are. Most of us, including authors, learn our history from secondary, tertiary or more distant sources, so there is always a good chance that a certain percentage of what we learn just wasn’t so.

Beyond the unavoidable unintentional errors, some histories are written with deliberate intent to distort because the author has an axe to grind. Anyone who reads such a book thinking it is non-fiction is seriously misled.

Georgette Heyer is an example of a fiction author who did a huge amount of research using primary sources such as diaries and letters.

“Historical” fiction and “historical accuracy”

I think authors and publishers need to make clear their intent. Here is a list of possible degrees of “historical accuracy” in fiction in order of increasing divergence from historical facts.

Hidden history: history that could have happened but we don’t know about it.

Altered history: history as we know it with minor alterations described in notes.

Accepted history: history as accepted in popular culture despite known differences from history according to scholars, such as the fictional Regency established by Georgette Heyer, the American Old West of dime novels and other fiction, and other settings where “everyone knows” things that weren’t so. (Judging the accuracy of Regencies based on knowledge of real history could lead you to assume that features Heyer introduced--both deliberate copy traps and reflections of her own milieu--are errors.)

Alternate history: history that definitely contradicts history as we know it.

Mythic history: historical contexts used to tell a myth or historical contexts treated as myths rather than as hard facts.

Alternate reality: stories that contradict in some way the currently accepted world-view of modern materialistic science. This does not say that the reality they depict is in fact unreal or untrue, just that it is outside the limits of the current materialistic paradigm. Alternate reality can include aliens among us, angels, auras, banshees, brownies, channeling, cryptozoology (bigfoot, Nessie, yeti, etc.), curses, demons, djinns, dowsing, elves, espers, faerie, fairy godmothers, gargoyles, geases/geises, genies, ghosts, giants, gnomes, gods, golems, gorgons, harpies, hunches, immortals, incubi, intuition, invisibility, invulnerability, leprechauns, lost civilizations, lost continents, magic, magicians, mediums, mermaids, monsters, other dimensions or planes of reality, out-of-body experiences, possession, postcognition, precognition, psionics, psychics, psychic vampires, psychokinesis, psychometry, reincarnation, séances, selkies, sorceresses, sorcerers, spells, spirits, succubi, talking animals, telekinesis, telempathy, telepathy, teleportation, time travel, transmigration, twin links, undead, vampires, visions, warlocks, werewolves, wishes, witches, wizards, wraiths, xenotelepathy, etc.

All of the above lists are for fiction in which the use of history is basically serious. Fiction with humorous intent can take some different tangents.

Anachronistic history: deliberate/intentional use of anachronisms to create contrasts or incongruities.

Hodgepodge history: deliberate mixing of eras, regions, cultures, etc. to create contrasts or incongruities. This is anachronistic history carried much farther. I have seen and heard of hodgepodge history more in movies than in books.

Note that any story with invented (non-historical) royal or noble characters is, at minimum, altered history. Invented countries are also at least altered history. On this scale, I would classify Garwood’s historical books (which I love) as mythic history. Given advance knowledge of the author’s intent, readers can then judge whether the author succeeded. Some readers’ comfort zones will include all eight listed variations and some readers will prefer only stories within the first degrees of separation from history.

Even though I have sometimes used the term “horny historicals” to describe some books, sensuality levels are on a separate axis of measurement independent of accuracy except to the degree that the behavior of the characters is implausible.

Superseded history is a special subset of alternate history. This is a story that was overtaken by events. A lot of fiction with future settings becomes alternate history as soon as the present reaches the date in which the story was set or dates in which background events for the story were set. At the time of writing, the story wasn’t historical at all--it was set in a possible future. When that possible future does not come to pass, the story becomes superseded history. Even stories set in the far future can be superseded history if they describe events that did not happen in our past. A 1950s science fiction novel with Earth’s first manned spaceship to a habitable Venus in the early 1980s is an example of superseded history, as is a far-future science fiction series with a military alliance between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in its history.

In summary, we have the following list of levels of “historical accuracy”, which applies to both authorial intent and the basis on which a reader judges a story:

Hidden history

Altered history

Accepted history

Alternate history (and superseded history)

Mythic history

Alternate reality

Deliberately anachronistic history

Deliberate hodgepodge history

To tie these terms to other labels that I have seen used, I think most costume dramas are either accepted history or mythic history, meaty historicals are hidden history, and wallpaper historicals are either accepted history or mythic history.

When the packaging of a book makes clear what approach a book takes, then a reader’s expectations will be reasonably congruent with reality. When a reader approaches a book expecting one level (such as accepted history) and the book is at another level (such as mythic history), you can get a disappointed or irritated reader. For this reason, I would encourage authors, publishers and reviewers to disclose the level of history of all historical fiction.

Noble Numbers

One complaint that I’ve seen a number of times is that the historical romance genre is overloaded with members of the nobility. This is almost never an issue with a single book, but is a reaction to large numbers of books taken together. If one approaches historical fiction with the mindset that each book or series takes place in its own alternate or parallel universe this ceases to be an issue. Those hundreds of dukes aren’t all in the “same” England.

Read your bible

Another kind of accuracy complaint, currently more likely in the fantasy and science fiction genres, could also be an issue with some romances. When someone sets up a universe in which multiple people will write stories, the material (of whatever length) that defines the laws of physics or magic, the astrography, the geography, the histories, the races, the societies, the laws, the technologies, prominent characters, etc. can be described as the “bible” of that shared universe. Any story set in a shared universe that contradicts the bible is “inaccurate” even if the contradiction of the bible is valid in the universe we live in.

Expect vs. Hope

Expect and hope are synonyms, but there is a shade of difference in meaning that I think is important when discussing reading. I always hope that the next book I read will be a wonderful reading experience, but I don’t necessarily expect it. Expecting implies a degree of certainty that hoping does not imply. I think approaching the reading of a book with specific expectations leads to a lot more disappointment than approaching the reading with hopes. Just as the life experiences a reader brings to the reading of a book determine the nature of any complaints about accuracy, the attitudes the reader brings have a large effect on whether the reading experience will be disappointing or pleasing in the end. This is why a lot of publicity or hype can lead to disappointed readers if it leads them to approach a book with unreasonably high expectations.

Personal Profiles

Allergens: Which of the following items are you sensitive or allergic to?

Americanisms in dialogue between characters in the UK

Anachronistic inventions or discoveries

Anachronistic language

Anachronistic modern psychology

Anachronistic names

Anachronistic technology

Astronomical errors (confusing galaxies, stars, planets, moons, planetoids, etc.)

Asteroids with breathable atmospheres

Big lumps of information that don’t advance the story

Character actions that feel like author contrivance rather than realistic psychology

Combat errors

Confusingly similar character names

Costume errors

Culturally inappropriate names

Dance errors

Ecological errors (plants & animals misplaced in space and/or time)

Etiquette errors

Excessive repetition

Excessive use of long sentences

Excessive use of short sentences

Excessive use of slang

Facial hair style errors or anachronisms

Form of address errors

Generation-inappropriate language or terminology

Genetics errors

Geographical errors

Geological errors

Grammatical errors

Hairstyle errors or anachronisms

Historical errors

Inappropriate regional language or dialect

Inappropriate use of cant (by genteel females, etc.)

Inheritance or entail errors

Internal inconsistencies (eye or hair color changes, age changes, name changes, etc.)

Legal errors (international, national, state, local) (historical, contemporary)

Malapropisms and other wrong words

Martial Arts errors

Medical errors (anatomy, diseases, infections, injuries, physiology, treatments)

Military errors (ranks, regulations, etc.)

Misuse of French, German, Spanish, or other languages

Morals and mores errors

Punctuation errors

Rapid/frequent poorly signaled changes in point of view

Religious doctrine errors

Science errors

Story elapsed time errors/inconsistencies

Succession errors

Time zone or timekeeping errors

Title of nobility errors

Translation errors

Transportation errors (too fast for the era, etc.)


Vehicle description errors

Weaponry errors

Historical Accuracy: Which of the following do you enjoy reading?

Hidden history

Altered history

Accepted history

Alternate history (and superseded history)

Mythic history

Alternate reality

Deliberately anachronistic history

Deliberate hodgepodge history

Musings Home