How accurate is that historical novel, really?

A quick Google search of “historical fiction” yields more than twelve million hits, including this list of over five thousand historical novels listed by time and place, as well as the Goodreads historical fiction page, which doesn’t even attempt to put a number on the vast offering in this genre.

It’s safe to say that a lot of authors have written historical novels.

But how accurate is the history, really?

Six years ago, I moved from my home country of the United States to Madrid, Spain, where I’ve since made a life for myself. In the grand scheme of things, Spain is not all that different than the US. The alphabet is the same. Lots of food is recognizable. Cultural attitudes are generally similar. Madrid is definitely different than Minneapolis, where I’m from, but there’s also a sense of familiarity. I felt comfortable here fairly quickly.

Modern Spain has a lot fewer winged babies and flowing robes than, say, this place.

However, there’s comfortable and then there’s comfortable. There are a lot of layers to understanding a culture, even one as as ostensibly similar to one’s own. After six years, I’m still stumbling against ingrained differences I had never encountered before and was not prepared for.

I’ll give you a few examples to give you an idea of what I’m talking about.

  • Meal times are different here than at home.
  • A lot more people smoke: on the street, on restaurant terraces, in their cars. Most of my American guests notice and comment on it when they visit.
  • Wearing shoes in the house is not only acceptable, it’s often the only way to behave. As a friend said, “What if your feet are sweaty and smell bad?” It’s much worse to have malodorous feet than to track dirt and dust into the house.
  • Street signs and billboards look different. (Not to mention the fact that they’re in Spanish, but I think that goes without saying!)
  • When given a present, you’re expected to open it right away, in front of the giver. Not to do so is very rude.
  • The more the merrier — in most situations, it’s okay to invite other friends to social events without asking the first friends. To be introverted is unusual here and can even make people look at you strangely.

What I’m trying to say is that there’s a lot going on under the surface that you wouldn’t necessarily notice right away, but it adds up. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, and what’s true for some or even the majority isn’t true for all. Nevertheless, if I were to read a book set in Spain but written by a non-Spaniard, it would just ring false if all the details weren’t in place.

I guess those flutes were familiar sights to somebody at some point.

You would notice something “off,” too, if you read a book about your country but written by someone who had never been there!

There are just so many tiny mindset changes and small differences in the physical objects that surround us that all add up to a vastly divergent whole. What were people really wearing back then? What did their fabrics look like, feel like, smell like? What were the seams like? What did they do when they got holes in their pockets or when the soles of their shoes ran down? How did they lock their doors? Get their news? Give each other presents? Celebrate their birthdays? Sign documents? What litter was lying on the side of the road? What jokes were popular? What references to poetry or literature or famous figures did everyone recognize? How did people categorize others at a glance — i.e. what was the analogue to today’s soccer moms, frat bros, horse girls, etc?

It’s a lot to think about, particularly if you’re an author.

What kind of society produced doodles like this?

While there are a lot of historical novels that fall flat on the details, there are also excellent books that weave a beautiful and accurate picture of life in another place and time.

Which historical novel is your favorite?