Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here. The phrase “willing suspension of disbelief” was one I learned in college literature classes as a necessity if one was to enjoy fiction. I’ve been thinking about that lately. Certainly many classics, from Shakespeare’s Richard the Third to Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe are far from historically accurate, but that never stopped readers from enjoying them. Why, then, is there so much emphasis on getting the details right when it comes to writing fiction today?
Yes, I’m playing devil’s advocate. I do think writers owe it to their readers to do their homework and avoid the most horrendous bloopers. On the other hand, there’s no way any writer can get every single nit-picky detail exactly right, especially if they write historical fiction. And for all writers, typos and continuity errors are bound to slip past even the most skilled proofreader. Yes, okay, a character put on a sports coat on page six and it somehow turned into a down jacket on page forty. Or maybe a character is called by the wrong name. It happens. A modern equivalent of the “willing suspension of disbelief” advice might be “don’t sweat the small stuff,” to which many would add “it’s all small stuff.”
When I read for pleasure, I have difficulty doing this with historical mysteries set in the sixteenth century, a period I know far too well. Getting British forms of address wrong will pull me out of a story, no matter what century it is set in. I also find it jarring when certain forensic details—the smell of cordite; dead bodies continuing to bleed; calling what would probably be a constable in a small town a sheriff—pop up. But overall, I find I am much more forgiving than I once was.
In my own historical novels, where once I used contractions like ’tis and avoided it’s like the plague, I’ve learned to relax. No one really cares that it’s, don’t, doesn’t, and other contractions weren’t yet in use in England in fifteen-whatever. As for other anachronisms, by all means avoid those that come from someone’s name (like mesmerize, from Franz Mesmer, who lived from 1734-1815) but if you write a novel about Chaucer, you’re not going to write it in Chaucer’s English. Very few people would be able to read it. A novel set in France or Spain is essentially “translated” into modern English. Why not use the same logic with one set in the past in England or America?
A well-written novel that tells an engaging story can make me overlook a great many minor flaws. I can forgive a lot if I’m caught up in the plot. If the author’s voice is powerful enough to keep my eyes glued to the page, I barely notice any errors that slip in. That’s true for fiction set in the past and the present, and also for paranormal, urban fantasy, and futuristic novels, too. Far more important is whether the characters and their actions are believable.
So, what do you think, fellow readers? How much are you willing to forgive if the story and characters are strong enough to make you want to keep reading?