AUTHENTICITY VS ACCURACY by Jeri Westerson
I remember being on a panel in one of my first Bouchercons with authors Sharon Newman and Laurie King, and since we all wrote historical mysteries, the discussion naturally rolled over to “authenticity vs accuracy.” When you write historically, history is king. You never change the history to serve the plot, it’s always the other way around. If your plot doesn’t work with the history, then it’s back to the drawing board for that plot. It’s the contract the author has with the reader that the author will try to get the novel as historically accurate as they can. That’s why readers tune in to historicals. They like history with their mystery.
But what do we mean when we say “authenticity vs accuracy”? Well, for one my books are set in late fourteenth century London. And there isn’t a publisher in the world that would publish my books if I wrote them in the more accurate Middle English instead of modern English. Some accuracy must be sacrificed for readers to be able to, well…read it. So the flavor of the language is re-interpreted. It’s plain to see by the way my characters use their words and phrases, that we are in a different time period. That’s job one.
World-building is a phrase usually employed when talking about sci fi or fantasy books, where entire world’s must be established for the reader to be immersed. In George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (that became TV’s Game of Thrones), he has to build from the ground up the land of Westeros, the dynasties, foreign languages, the authentic presence of dragons, built loosely on medieval history as its backbone. But even if you aren’t writing fantasy and you’re writing in a time period where readers may not be entirely familiar with, there is a certain level of world-building for the reader; they may not know, for instance, anything about the monarch or the intrigue going on in the background, or how the everyday person lived, or what they believed. All of this must slowly roll out for the reader to absorb and believe.
Now, is it accurate for a knight who committed treason to be tried, found guilty, and live? Not necessarily. The common outcome was a very nasty execution. But by using the history of the time—and that the Duke of Lancaster, the king’s uncle, did have rumors whispered about him, that he would attempt to take the throne from his ten-year-old nephew—this accurate history opened the door for my protagonist, Crispin Guest, to have been living as a knight in Lancaster’s household and get caught up in this treasonous conspiracy. And authentic and logical even, for the duke to plead for his favorite protégé’s life.
And it may not necessarily be accurate for this disgraced knight to take up a career as a private detective (I call him the “Tracker”) finding lost objects for a fee, when there was no such thing as a detective, but the fact that it’s possible for the time period lends it enough authenticity for the premise.
Los Angeles native JERI WESTERSON is the author of twelve Crispin Guest Medieval Noir Mystery novels, a series nominated for thirteen national awards from the Agatha to the Shamus. Jeri also writes the urban fantasy series, BOOKE OF THE HIDDEN. She has served two terms as president of the Southern California Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, twice president of the Orange County Chapter of Sisters in Crime, and as vice president and California Crime Writers Conference co-chair for the Los Angeles Chapter of Sisters in Crime. See more about Jeri at JeriWesterson.com or visit BOOKEoftheHIDDEN.com
Disgraced knight turned detective Crispin Guest is caught in a deadly conspiracy within the Church to suppress what they consider a dangerous relic from falling into the hands of the reformist Lollards. But murder and betrayal are the coin of the realm amid the turmoil stirred up by a mysterious nemesis. Crispin struggles to find a killer and might have to bring a painful truth to light while avoiding falling into the lethal hands of a shadow organization within the Church.
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