On Wallpaper Historicals

I’m sure all of you have seen the latest dust-up over at AAR, since you don’t live under a rock like I currently do (my rock suspiciously resembles the LSAT Superprep *weeps*), but in case you haven’t, here’s my 100%-accurate-or-your-money-back executive summary of the high points: reader posts opinion about what readers really want, writer of historicals posts a bunch of random, half-cocked crap about Ellora’s Cave and something that comes dangerously close to sounding like anti-intellectual pablum in the course of defending wallpaper historicals, and gets kinda pissy when people point out that she’s kinda fulla crap.

My favorite post so far, however, is by Lydia Joyce. I’ve never read anything she’s written—Veil of Night received excellent buzz but flunked my 15-page test, and now I’m contemplating Music of the Night, but my rock, it is very insistent I stay here for several more weeks—but holy cow, she knocks it out of the ballpark, in terms of expressing exactly what bothers me about a lot of historical romances.

I’m going to take the liberty of quoting her at length here:

“Wallpaper” historicals are, essentially, costume dramas. Yes, the characters dress up in clothes that more-or-less resemble clothing of the period. Yes, characters sip warm lemonade and dance at Almack’s. But the reader can’t really believe for one minute that these people could have actually existed in 1813 (or whenever), nor did the world of the book ever exist. In essence, the readers just can’t believe in the book.

Jane Austen’s books, being entirely rooted in the mores, customs, and foibles of the time, would not be “wallpapers” if written now.

I think the wallpaper effect happens most often because many writers use other romance books as their primary research tool, with a secondary reliance upon books like What Jane Austen Ate… They’ve read tons of historical romance and love the genre, and so they think they really know the time period. Unfortunately, if I restrict my reading to those kinds of sources, the experiences of my characters will rarely deviate from what I’ve already read because that’s as big a world as I could understand. Hence a derivative story with no historical substance and characters that might be my next door neighbors in fancy clothes.

(…)

When people dismiss complaints about “wallpaper historicals” by putting up a “history lesson” as the alternative, I get a little…tetchy. It’s an attack out of left field with nothing at all to do with the issue at hand. Don’t care about accuracy in books? Fine. But don’t imply that anyone who cares about accuracy likes to be lectured or that Judith Ivory and Loretta Chase write “history lessons”.

*insert Candy fistpumping in the air with joy*

That’s not to say that I haven’t read and enjoyed wallpaper historicals. The queen of the wallpaper historical is, in my opinion, Mary Jo Putney. (Authors like Julie Garwood and Johanna Lindsey don’t count, in my opinion, because they didn’t write historical novels so much as novels set in some sort of wacky alternate reality. And we won’t even speak of authors like Connie Mason and Cassie Edwards because…we just won’t.) Putney gets many of her historical details right, but many of her characters behave, speak and think in modern ways.

But despite the exasperation I’ve felt over her characters, I still have a few of her books on my keeper shelves, because damn, that woman knows how to write a compelling love story. The wallpaper historical element, while it may interfere with my enjoyment, isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker for me.

On the flip side, nothing beats a historical that gets the feel right. part of the reason why I enjoy Loretta Chase as much as I do is because she gets the voice dead-on—or, perhaps more importantly, what I perceive as dead-on. I hear a very dry, witty British voice every time I pick up one of her books, and it’s not something I’ve seen any other American romance author accomplish. I enjoy her love stories, but it’s her voice that gives her books that extra zing, and what keeps me coming back for more.

So, where you do you stand in all this? Do you give a shit? Don’t give a shit? Think those of us who care about accuracy are nitpicking prigs? Think those who don’t care about accuracy are troglodytes with compromised palates? Something in between? Let ‘er rip in the comments.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Keziah Hill says:

    I don’t expect losts of historical accuracy in romances. A tone or a feel is good enough for me. But if there are gross inaccuracies, like very modern language, and public sexual choices made by the heroine were she then experiences no social consequences, I get irritated.

  2. 2
    Lauren says:

    I think that entire thread made my blood pressure rise ten points yesterday and the day before that.

    And it just kept getting worse, with more stupid shit being piled on about “realistic viewpoints” when the OP admits she doesn’t know a damned thing about EC royalties. Gah!

    BUT, Lydia Joyce is my new hero because smart women kick ass. I have to make a bookstore run this weekend and I’m buying her stuff.

    As for historical accuracy, I sit in the middle. I’m not really gonna nitpick if the timeline is off by a few years one way or another if the book is called a regency.

    But I am gonna notice and begin to grumble when high born young women have enough time unspervised go bump pink parts with rakes and libertines they aren’t related or or married to on multiple occasions. Or when the dialog is just too modern or too painfully steretypical.

  3. 3
    E.D'Trix says:

    I find that I can coast along quite happily in the world of the Wallpaper Historical, enjoying the reads, even loving a few. Then I read an author or book that reminds me how fan-frickin-tastic well-researched and authentic historicals can be (authors like Carla Kelly, Laura Kinsale, Judith Ivory, Loretta Chase) and they ruin me for Wallpapers for a good several months.

  4. 4
    Nonny says:

    Ironically, I actually just started reading The Veil of Night a couple days ago. It’s slow-starting, but I like what I’ve read so far. :)

    Historicals aren’t my primary subgenre; I like them on occasion, when I’m in “the mood.” About the same way I like to read space opera or epic fantasy on occasion. So please take what I say with a grain of salt.

    I personally don’t mind “wallpaper” romances, as long as the author has made some attempt towards historical accuracy. I’m not going to nit-pick about minor details, but if your heroine is a noblebred lady and you have her bitching about wearing a corset … um, wtf?

    I don’t want to read about a modern woman in 19th century getup (excluding time travel and such) … but at the same point, I don’t want to read about a heroine who is completely passive, either.

    I imagine it must be quite difficult for a writer to accurately portray historical characters while keeping them sympathetic towards modern women.

  5. 5
    Marianne McA says:

    I have been under that rock, but against that, bar a skirting board or two, my daughter’s room is painted. So v. grateful for the summary, because life’s too short to read a thread that long.
    Wallpaper history – it’s one of those things like an implausible plot. On occasion either of those can kill a book, but often the book is still enjoyable.

  6. 6
    azteclady says:

    I have been following the discussion over at ARR for most of the week and boy! Lydia Joyce has made a fan—LLG has lost a potential reader and all the potential word of mouth.

    On the actual topic, I must confess I don’t know enough about history to detect many of the details that drive others insane. I do know enough to be yanked out of the story when the characters are behaving or speaking the way my teenagers would (bar the “Whatever”).

    In general, historical or contemporary, I find that richly developed characters within a thoroughly drawn and internally consistent background society will captivate me even if the odd ‘Shouldn’t she be wearing a corset?’ or similar thought pops up.

  7. 7
    Candy says:

    I’ve been sneaking little reads for the last several hours, and I’m still not done reading the whole thread yet. I gave up halfway through Robin and Lydia’s fascinating Reader Response sub-thread, for example, because my brain was starting to creak from the pressure of all that erudition, but I’m bookmarking it so I can return to it.

    But one thing I’m noticing that bothers me a great deal: what the fuck is up with people who smack down smart people simply because they’re smart and have a vocabulary that indicates they paid attention in college? This sort of attitude is incredibly disturbing, and I’ve noticed it in various messageboards, and it seems to be happening more and more often nowadays.

  8. 8
    Tonda says:

    Most of ya’ll know I’m a history BEOTCH. Don’t put her your historical heroine in the proper underclothes (or any for fuck’s sake) *BANG* book hits the wall. Regency gal won’t marry cause she wants a career just like dear old dad *BANG* book hits the wall. Medieval Scottish hero in a kilt *BANG* book hits the wall. Medieval Europeans eating potatoes *BANG* book hits the wall. So many reasons to toss a book . . .

  9. 9
    Stef says:

    Never read AAR, but I’m curious to know who LLG is, because I’m nosy that way.

    I do know who Lydia Joyce is.  No need for clarification.

    I don’t think lack of accuracy is solely within the domain of historicals.  A contemporary can be as much of a wallbanger.  Still, I’m very forgiving, unless the error is so glaring I have to wear shades to finish the read.  At that point, I’m done.  My biggest beef is generally with dialogue.  Men going around saying silly, stupid things no man would ever say, under penalty of death.  I’m talking ANY man, alpha, beta, gamma, whatever.

    Which goes hand in hand with historical dialogue that has a modern lexicon.

    But really – who’s LLG?

  10. 10
    Candy says:

    LLG = Laura Lee Guhrke.

  11. 11
    azteclady says:

    Oh Candy, I wanted so bad to link to that utter idiot!

    Apparently it’s okay to attack people out of the blue, if you perceive that they attacked someone you like elsewhere. Even if the perceived attack had been a discussion ended [by the person this utter idiot liked] with a “I won’t continue this” *stomping foot thrown in for fun* and [by Lydia Joyce] with “I agree to disagree.”

    And after that all you have to do is say, “but I didn’t mean to hurt you” and all is well. WTF???

  12. 12
    Jonquil says:

    I nearly threw “The china Bride” across the room because the sexual attitudes were completely ahistorical.  A respectable British family throwing a party to introduce their dead son’s half-Chinese concubine?  Sorry, I didn’t realize it was a fantasy novel.

    And when I attended RWA National last year, *all* the editors and agents said historicals were nearly impossible to sell at the moment.

  13. 13
    Stef says:

    Thanks, Candy.  It’s dark under this rock, and I remain clueless.  Never heard of her.  I should probably venture forth from the SBs.

    On second thought, why?  I like it here just fine.  You’re my guilty pleasure in the midst of deadline hell.

    Wonder why people get so pissed off on public message boards and blogs?  Maybe it’s like road rage, where perfectly nice people can become demonic behind the wheel…

    Stef, who once chased a young woman in a Jeep down the Las Vegas strip so I could demand she apologize for flipping me off and shouting FUCK YOU! after she nearly ran over me.

  14. 14
    Candy says:

    That whole “you suck because you’re smart, stop using those big words, damn you!” argument has always struck me as very strange, because by implication, you’re trying to argue that you’re too stupid to understand the argument, and stupid people are teh awesome. What the shit?

  15. 15
    Arethusa says:

    I’m too busy laughing at the “Jane Austen must be wallpaper historicals then!” to contribute anything constructive.

    (I’m not a big bitch anymore? Aww man, I need to start commenting more.)

  16. 16

    My favorite part of that post by Lydia Joyce was right at the beginning:

    “Wallpaper” has nothing to do with history lessons. It has to do with a believable and continuous dream.

    You can talk about that dream when it comes to any book. Inaccuracies will disrupt the dream for some readers, not others. As a reader, I want to be convinced and that’s about it. I have certain opinions about what is realistic and what is not. I can be factually wrong about that, but even if I am, it will still disrupt the dream.

    For historicals I have more trouble with the people feeling modern than actual historical detail. Others may not.

    I just finished a series of four Regency mysteries by Kate Ross. I completely believed her world and I know she’s popular with other readers, too. But I have a friend who found the language too modern with too many Heyerisms—she’s very familiar with the time period.

    Anyway, I guess it’s really about creating a world that a decent chunk of readers will believe in. I think historical accuracy is important, but not sufficient. It also depends on how well you can build your world convincingly.

  17. 17

    I’m totally. . . hmm. . . “concerned” isn’t the right word, because I write what I write and I doubt that’s going to change. Maybe “stumped”. I don’t know if I write historical wallpaper or not. Is there a test?

    God knows I don’t write saintly heroines who care for hurt birds and save men from themselves. *shudder* My heroines are very strong, but maybe that makes them too modern. And I once let my heroine not wear a corset because she was trying to seduce the hero, but then I met Tonda and she scared me and I wrote a corset in.

    I know my reading preference is just for a good, fun, sexy story and I don’t pay much attention to mistakes about clothing, etc.. I don’t want to read about a virginal, timid girl who lets her husband berate her all day, maybe even keep her locked in a tower, but she can’t resist the insistent call of his brutal, turgid manhood at night. I don’t want her submissive (unless I’m in The Cave). I just want it to be goood. And steamy. And lovely. (And I used to loves me some Julie Garwood.)

    But as to my writing? I’m stumped.

    Tonda has read the first few chapters of To Tempt a Scotsman. . . What do you think, O’ Historical Bitch? Seriously. Honestly. I’m interested. Did you throw it against the wall? Ha! You couldn’t, because it was a Word file! It may very well be wallpaper, but I hope it’s kick-ass wallpaper anyway.

    I’ve read the first few chapters of Tonda’s book, Lord Sin (show me yours, you know), and she’s a historical goddess! CLEARLY not wallpaper. The story is STEEPED in beautiful Georgian atmosphere. But, enough ass-kissing. . .

  18. 18
    sarasco says:

    True, people don’t want a history lesson in their romance. That is absolutely not an excuse for not knowing a damn thing about the setting where your novels take place, most especially if you write one historical after another.

    There is the internet, as well as any number of widely available history books, to inform you without any serious effort on your part, so as to help you put people in the proper undergarments, etc. Really, does it add anything to have the heroine bitching about corsets? No. People aren’t reading Regencies for your two cents on women’s lib.

    And that your up there is totally not directed at anyone in particular. :-) Jane Austen as wallpaper…grumble grumble. Dumbass.

  19. 19
    azteclady says:

    Lydia Joyce (I believe it was her, at this point I can’t atribute properly—long ass threads) said something about some books being ‘historical fiction’ not having the same degree of historical accuracy (more like a feel for the period) and yet being really good reads—internal consistency, good plot and characterization.

    [I just know Robin will drop by and say it so much better]

    (Amusing non-sequitur: the spambuster word for this comment is ‘actually49’)

  20. 20
    desertwillow says:

    Candy, thank you for helping the rest of us under our rocks keep up. That’s kind of you.

    Now, I’d like to say that one of my favorite authors, Karen Marie Moning, doesn’t exactly scream authenticity. Apparently she had 15th (I think) century Scotland kicking back the caffeine. Read somewhere’s that it came later, much later. I think she had them running around in kilts too. I’m ok with it. While I was a history major in college I don’t know squat about scottish history or kilts and I love her writing so I get by. However, I started reading a futuristic scifi romance (I know, not a historical but I’ve been needing to get this off my chest) that placed Occam’s Razor in the 19th century. I put it down. Will not pick it up ever again. There are some things that you just don’t do.

    Ok???

  21. 21

    Occam’s Razor . . .

    Huh. What’s that?

  22. 22
    Taekduu says:

    I had a really long post that just lost coherency.  I gave up on it for now.

    Basically my attitude is this, historical accuracy is important but it will not stop me from putting down a book that bores me with a bad plot or annoying characters.  I can forgive inaccuracy if I am drawn in by characters or the plot.  Which is why a certain author of historicals was tossed against a wall and I vowed never to waste my time wiht her again.

    I think this extends to multiple genres which is what drove me to ebooks in the first place, print books all had the same underlying plot with most books being virtually interchangeable. It was same alpha, different day, but he didn’t even have the courtesy to change his underwear.

    I personally love alternative settings, attitudes, and characters for what I read.  One of the authors I like right now, Shelly Laurenston sucked me in purely because her women are crazy, loud, and violent bitches but feel far more real than the self-sacrificing heroines of regency, or the self-absorbed girls of chick lit.

    Did anyone ever think that the reason historicals in other locations didn’t sell well are because … wait for it… the author decided to transfer the same story to a slightly different location without adequately doing research and changing attitudes and behavior?

  23. 23
    Camilla says:

    I’m with Tonda on the history BEOTCH part.

    My pet peeve is when readers assume that historical accuracy(I use the phrase “historical relevancy”) equals a passive, repressed heroine and a history lesson. But then I recall that most people have no clue about history and are only knowledgable about vague urban legends such as the myth concerning the Victorian propensity for covering up table and piano legs(this site debunks that myth), or that no one took regular baths and brished their teeth before the 1920s, and a host of other inaccurate assumptions that cause most readers to associate history and historical eras with preconcieved notions.

    And wallpaper historicals fuel the ignorance concerning history because, for the most part, I think that romances are used as primary sources when authors first begin to write(not to mention that the Regency era as created by Georgette Heyer is taken as the gospel truth!) and since readers view what they’ve read as true, the whole whirligig that is the publishing industry sees no need to debunk the myths perpetuated within the genre.

    I can acknowledge this, but I refuse to bow down to it when I know that if I want to write historical romance, the history plays a vital part in the romance as well as the story.

  24. 24

    Occam’s Razor . . .

    Huh. What’s that?

    From the Reader’s Encyclopedia (lest you think I just pulled this out of my ass):

    William of Occam (c1285-1349), “English scholastic philosopher and theologian, known as Doctor Invincibilis and Venerabilis Inceptor [*titter*]…Occam’s razor refers to his famous principle of economy in logic, expressed as ‘Entities (that is, assumptions used to explain phenomena) should not be multiplied beyond what is needed.’”

    Actually I have heard it expressed more clearly as “the simplest explanation is usually correct.” As in, if your Twinkies go missing from the kitchen, your husband probably ate them, rather than a band of aliens riding in on ostriches and taking the Twinkies back to the mothership to convert into fuel for the ride home, with a cherry on top.

    Vicki, please tell me to stop screwing around on SBTB and go to bed.

  25. 25

    Jennifer, stop screwing around on SBTB and GO TO BED!

    Also, “known as Doctor Invincibilis and Venerabilis Inceptor [*titter*]” *snicker*

  26. 26
    Amy E says:

    Hoodamn.  Was about to go to bed, but this made me pop the top on another beer and keep reading.  Favorite bit was from Wendy—“Honey, she’s the owner of the company in question. Jaid Black doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone.”   Beee-yooo-tee-ful!

    Of course, my glee could have a wee bit to do with being an ebook author and sitting on the receiving end of a lot of shitful opinions of my publishers being delivered as facts.  Nice to see someone get the smackdown right proper for it.  Hee hee!

  27. 27
    Amy E says:

    My biggest beef is generally with dialogue.  Men going around saying silly, stupid things no man would ever say, under penalty of death.  I’m talking ANY man, alpha, beta, gamma, whatever.

    AMEN SISTAH.  Knew I wasn’t the only one rolling her eyes when Studly McBuff murmures, “Your eyes are more blue than the summer sky, your skin softer than the finest imported silk,” as he’s slipping his man-snausage to Kitty O’Shagme.  You know any real man would be saying something much more like, “Ungh, ugh, aww yeah baby, unh ungh…”

  28. 28
    Robin says:

    That whole “you suck because you’re smart, stop using those big words, damn you!” argument has always struck me as very strange, because by implication, you’re trying to argue that you’re too stupid to understand the argument, and stupid people are teh awesome. What the shit?

    I have a theory about this (I know, you’re shocked).  I think that there’s already a certain “guilty pleasure” in reading Romance for a lot of women, and when someone comes along and says, “hey, this could be more, it could be richer, we want powerful prose and a respectful treatment of history in historical Romance,” that is interpreted as a smack against the genre AND the reader, an assertion that it’s not good enough as it is, and therefore, by extension, that those who read it, shamefaced and hiding the clinch cover, are less than.  In other words, it’s another variation of the conflation between reader and book, author and reader, author and book. 

    In some cases, though, I think there are some people who don’t like other people, and anti-initellectualism can come across as a virtuous and just plain effective way to say “be quiet; we don’t like you.”  Of course in my case, I hear “speak up; we can’t hear you,” all the while collecting nifty nicknames like “college professor,” “grammar police,” “pedantic sophist,” etc.  My favorite, coined by Lydia Joyce and based on insults presented to her by other authors, is “snobby whore,” which I have extended to “snobby whore feminist” and plan to have an alternative SWF t-shirt made up.  And BTW, it’s not about GRAMMAR, it’s about INTELLIGIBILITY (sorry, just had to get that off my heaving La Mystere-clad DD cups).

    My new frustration is actually Jo Beverly’s sweeping characterization of “academics” on the Potpourri Board (http://www.hwforums.com/2034/messages/36279.html).

    Oh, and BTW, Candy, did you see LLB gave you a shout out in her response to LLG? 

    Lydia Joyce (I believe it was her, at this point I can’t atribute properly—long ass threads) said something about some books being ‘historical fiction’ not having the same degree of historical accuracy (more like a feel for the period) and yet being really good reads—internal consistency, good plot and characterization.

    Actually, I don’t remember whether it was LJ or Sunita or someone else who made that point.  I can’t speak for anyone else, but my own standards of historical authenticity are related to the idea that the characters and the plot of the book emerge from the history rather than vice versa.  I won’t necessarily notice the anachronisms, but I can usually tell whether an author has a real investment in the historical period about which she’s writing, as well as a respect for the history and the story. 

    For me, it’s in the labelling.  Historical Romance, IMO, should be about the history AND the Romance.  If you want to write “historically inspired” Romance, go for it, but in my opinion, it’s not HISTORICAL Romance.  I may enjoy some wallpaper historicals, but as someone else here said, when you read a really great historical Romance, a la Chase or Goodman or Kinsale or Ivory or Gaffney, et al, it’s hard to go back to the others.  There is one very famous Regency lite author I just don’t get at all—she’s mega famous and mega loved, but the first time her heroine started talking about the “stuff” she hated, I knew I was in trouble.

    The really sad thing about LLG’s comments, IMO (and I haven’t yet read any of her books) is that she came across, anyway, as someone who writes solely based on what she sees as the market, not for the love of the genre or out of any passion for specific stories.  I doubt she meant to come off that way, and she’d likely dispute my characterization very strongly, but sadly, that’s what I walked away with after her comments.

  29. 29
    SandyO says:

    I’d say that I was really big on historical accuracy, but then Braveheart is one of my favorite movies so that screws that theory. (Quit screaming Maili, I know it’s all wrong).

    To me, wallpaper historicals are when you can pick up the plot and the characters and put them just about anywhere.  American West, Regency England, Ancient Rome.  Just change the clothes and a few little details.

    This doesn’t mean that everything has to be a history book.  But look at it this way, you read a new contemporary where the heroine breezes through security at the airport without having to remove her shoes and has no problems at all and you’re going to stop and say no way.  Before 9/11, no one would have blinked.  The socio/political/economic events of the day affect how people live and behave.

    To me, the perfect book to illustrate what isn’t a wallpaper is Kinsale’s Shadowheart. It is a romance, but you could not move it out of Renaissance Italy and to Regency England BECAUSE the setting, the politics, etc are part of the book.

  30. 30

    *sigh*  I cannot write for the market.  I can only write the stories in my head. The stories in my head are mostly about pirates, privateers and smugglers and are set in Florida, not England.  I just keep hoping the market will catch up to me.

    Maybe another alligator attack or two will tip the market in my direction.[g]

    In the meantime, put me in the camp of those who demand historical accuracy along with a good story.  I do make exceptions for people like Carla Kelly, who totally misses the mark sometimes. She had a chocolate candy salesman long before such people were out and about, and she had a butler reference moving to Melbourne, Australia, about 20 years before the city was founded.

    Nonetheless, her stories are so entertaining, her characters so vivid, that I’m willing to forgive her almost any sin as long as she entertains me.

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