Historical fiction is the worst! I was reading Dorothy Dunnett the other day (I'm always reading Dorothy Dunnett), and I got hung up on the word "ultramarine." That can't be right, I thought. That does not sound like a word from the 1550s. So I looked it up, and gosh darn it, it dates from the 1590s, which is way earlier than I would have guessed, and which in my opinion is close enough to be believable. But the problem persists: to my modern sensibility, "ultramarine" didn't feel right, and I forgot the story for several moments while I was staring at that word.
Although historical accuracy is hard, it's not the hardest thing - the hardest thing is negotiating the enormous gap between what the past was like and what we all think the past was like. In some cases, historical accuracy feels inauthentic.
My beta readers, for example, found eighteenth-century sleeping habits so bizarre as to be unbelievable. The eighteenth century was generally cold, especially on the frontier, and families shared beds. In a one-room cabin, there was no privacy. Yes, that's right. Awkward! Not only that, but people shared beds with total strangers when they were traveling - it was expected and normal. And perhaps strangest of all, there was a courting practice called "bundling," wherein a young unmarried couple would spend the night together without supervision to see if they got along. They were under strict instructions to keep all their clothes on, and sometimes they slept in separate sacks, or even had a board in the bed keeping them apart. If these seem like half-measures to you, you are probably right. A third of women were pregnant when they got married. We think of sexual propriety as everyone's number one priority in the past, and it kind of was. But it seems as if parents were aware that some amount of canoodling was going to happen, and if they couldn't control that, they at least wanted to know who was involved, so that if a pregnancy resulted, they knew which gentleman to drag to the altar beside their daughter.
All of these mindsets are so difficult to fathom today that every one of my readers stopped at a particular section and questioned it. Which is not what I wanted. I had to decide between historical accuracy and keeping the reader engaged in the story. So I went with historical inaccuracy and made it even more ridiculous which frankly is the only way to cope when the pressure becomes too much!
Dorothy Dunnett's particular weakness was vocabulary; her vocabulary was so magnificent she couldn't always control herself, hence the risky use of "ultramarine." Period language poses a problem for me, too, but in a different way.
For one thing, eighteenth-century speech and writing were not as grammatical as we would expect. We think of wealthy, educated people of the past as being very proper and grammatical, and poorer, less educated people as being clownishly ungrammatical. But! Colonial Williamsburg put out a great book called Eighteenth-Century English as a Second Language which destroys those stereotypes. First, it says that subject-verb agreement was not observed in the eighteenth century. The sentences, "You was out of sorts this morning," and "His coat and jacket was covered in mud," and "The horses is running off with the cart," were perfectly acceptable to all parts of society except the sternest of grammarians.
Further, the book says, "English-speaking people in the eighteenth century, even the lower classes, tended to use more forceful or more colorful verbs in conversations than most of us do (confound, dismiss, reproach, inform, etc.) To us, this makes their language sound more formal than ours, but it was not. These descriptive verbs were used even in informal situations."
But you can't go around having all your characters saying things like, "Pshaw, Mr. Weeks, I a'n't regretful! You was dead asleep when I pilfered your whiskey and I find myself confounded that you should be so reproachful when you had already drank more than your share. I daresay we shall both be more happier if we conclude our friendship with an interview at dawn!" It sounds like a parody; it turns every piece of dialogue into comedy.
So the difficulty is to convey the feeling of the time period without violating the reader's preconceived notions of historicity, which means historical accuracy takes second place to historical feel.
In short, historians will probably regard my version of the late eighteenth century as they would a pig with an elephant trunk, grumbling, Actual factual indeed!
Colonial Williamsburg's Eighteenth-Century English as a Second Language was written by Cathleene Hellier and is incredibly interesting.
Other things I read that informed this post include:
Susan Clair Imbarrato (1998): "Ordinary travel: Tavern life and female accommodation in early America and the new republic," Women's Studies: An inter-disciplinary journal, 28:1, 29-57.
Richard Godbeer's Sexual Revolution in Early America, published by Johns Hopkins University Press.