Popular History: You Can’t Judge a Book by its Publisher

guideKaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, offering a few observations based on having read (or at least skimmed) just about every nonfiction book on Tudor history and most Tudor biographies that have come out in the last 40 years in search of subjects to add to my online “A Who’s Who of Tudor Women” (now over 2000 mini-biographies of women who spent at least part of  their lives in England between 1485 and 1603) and as research for my novels.

Observation One: Well trained scholars (“experts”) can get things wrong. I have read very few scholarly books in which I didn’t spot some error, mostly to do with minor historical persons. The author simply didn’t care enough about these people to check for more recent research and just repeated the accepted “facts.” Worst example? In an otherwise well-researched book on Tudor life, the author claimed, in the chapter on food, that stews were outlawed by Henry VIII. Well, they were, but the “stews” in question were brothels, not the kind you cook in a pot.

Observation Two: Scholars writing for publication almost always have an agenda. To prove a point, they sometimes ignore inconvenient documents and/or theories.

Goodman (198x300)Observation Three: Most historical “facts” are subject to change as new or overlooked documents come to light and old ones are reinterpreted. A recent article by living history expert Ruth Goodman explains why Tudor people, despite avoiding baths, did not, in fact, stink. After reading this article, I ordered her How to Be a Tudor and it turned out to be the best book on everyday life in the sixteenth century I have ever read, and that includes the one I wrote for Writers Digest Books back in 1996.

Observation Four: When there are two or more interpretations of some historic event, novelists are allowed to pick the one that works best for their stories.

Higginbotham (203x300)Observation Five:  Some of the most interesting material (to me, anyway) comes to light because an independent scholar or an amateur historian interested in one particular aspect of history took the trouble to dig deep and find information overlooked by more scholarly individuals. A recent biography of George Boleyn (George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier & Diplomat by Claire Cherry and Claire Ridgway) had its origins in a website, “The Anne Boleyn Files.” The Woodvilles was written by historical novelist Susan Higginbotham because no one else had written a history of this fascinating family.

Observation Six: Amateur genealogists also have something to offer. They have a highly personal reason to dig deeper. I found fascinating details on horses in Tudor times in a self-published book from 1990, The Marriage That Did Succeed for Mary Queen of Scots by James Walter Deppa. His ancestors include one of Mary Stewart’s ladies and a young man who worked in the queen’s stables.

Observation Seven: “Popular” histories contain lots of domestic details and, well, gossip, and are what pique most people’s interested in history in the first place. Yes, some of these are cranked out just to take advantage of, say, renewed interest in Henry VIII generated by The Tudors, and some of their authors leap to pretty far-fetched conclusions; but, with luck, they prompt their readers to continue delving into the subject matter. Books by A. L. Rowse, back in the day, fed my interest in the Tudor period. Today, Alison Weir’s biographies do the same thing and her Henry VIII: The King and his Court is a great place for fiction writers to find those telling details that bring a story to life.

Observation Eight: Yes, there are errors in books written by popular historians, and they sometimes draw illogical conclusions, but even the ones that are full of wrong assumptions (every single book I’ve seen that claims to tell you the real story of Henry VIII’s mistresses, for example) contain material of interest, particularly if you are doing research for a novel.

Weston (195x300)Observation Nine: When novelists write about real people’s private lives, they owe it to those long-dead individuals to consider all the known facts. Philippa Gregory used Retha Warnicke’s controversial The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn as her source for The Other Boleyn Girl. Obviously, this didn’t hurt sales, but in my personal opinion it did a great disservice to at least one minor historical figure. In her book, Warnicke makes several claims that are widely disputed by other scholars who have more logical and fact-based arguments to back them up than she does.

Observation Ten: When writing about a real person, if there is a segment of that person’s life during which no one knows where they were or what they were doing, then the novelist is free to extrapolate from the facts and write about what might have happened. Here’s the thing: novels are fiction. In fact, for those really willing to suspend disbelief, there are some excellent alternate history/fantasy novels out there. To name just two, Queen Elizabeth the First fights vampires in The Secret History of Elizabeth Tudor, Vampire Slayer by Lucy Weston, and Anne Boleyn gives King Henry a son who grows to adulthood and inherits the throne in Laura Andersen’s The Boleyn King, the first of a trilogy.

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Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of over fifty books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award in 2008 for best mystery nonfiction for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2014 in the best mystery short story category for “The Blessing Witch.” Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (The Scottie Barked at Midnight) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries (Murder in the Merchant’s Hall) as Kathy. The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” series and is set in Elizabethan England. Her websites are www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com And, if you are interested in reading about the real women who lived in England in Tudor Times, click here to go to the index for “A Who’s Who of Tudor Women”

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9 Responses to Popular History: You Can’t Judge a Book by its Publisher

  1. Gram says:

    Fascinating! Thanks. I think I might look for a couple of those books.

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  2. I love how you so fully immerse yourself in the world(s) in which you write, and appreciate it when you share your insights with us.

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  3. Skye says:

    This is an excellent expose of historical fiction and the differences one can find amongst authors of the same time frame writing the same genre. I have come across this topic in Good Reads’ book group when members were always discussing the historical accuracy of one author over another. Thank you so much.

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    • Thanks for commenting Skye. When I’m reading novels set in periods I know very little about, I’m much less picky, but for those I do know well, I often I find myself asking why a writer (or screenwriter) made something up out of whole cloth when what really happened was so much more interesting.

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  4. Wonderful article. I too am fascinated by the Tudor period and love Alison Weir books. I was unaware of the biography of George Boleyn and will be looking for it. Because I’ve always loved to read about the Tudors, I’m glad the television show was a success, as it has spurred so many new books. However, I admit to yelling at the television a lot while watching it!

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    • Hi, Annette. If you actually watched The Tudors, you did better than I did. I tried several times with different episodes and every single time only got about thirty seconds into it before I hit something that was just plain wrong. After yelling rude things at the screen, I had to change channels or risk apoplexy. I don’t object to rewriting history in the name of a good story, but they should really label the result as fantasy or alternate history so they don’t mislead viewers into thinking what they’re seeing is what really happened.

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