Historical Accuracy vs. Sci-Fi; Finding a Happy Medium

Anyone who’s read my ‘about’ page will know I’m a sci-fi/fantasy writer. I love me some unrealistic worlds and societies. But I also like writing something I like to call ‘Historical Sci-Fi.’ I’m pretty sure I just made it up, but I can think of the The Clockwork Century (5 Book Series) series, by Cherie Priest (actually the series that inspired me) that would also fit any criteria of the series.

I’m a steampunk writer, at the moment. My debut series is set in a giant, steam-powered city, where Victorian ladies and gentlemen live and converse. Let’s just say that it took a lot of research on 19th century British mannerisms and etiquette to get here. I made the mistake of giving my heroine a (completely platonic) male best friend in my earliest, earliest draft. Except, that sort of thing just didn’t happen back then. If they’d been caught, it would have been a huge scandal. It didn’t matter that they weren’t sleeping together, the simple fact that it could have happened during any one of the talks they had together in an otherwise empty room would have completely destroyed my heroine’s reputation, and she was supposed to be a proper lady who actually cared about that reputation.

So I got rid of the platonic best friend and gave most of his role to my heroine’s brother instead, who until then had mostly nothing to do with himself. Plus that meant they could have private discussions without rumors running wild.

The point I’m making is that my story may be steampunk, but it’s still clearly based on and around the politics and morality of 19th century England, aside from maybe a bit more freedom for women, and maybe a bit less persecution of other races. But I’m wondering, why bother setting your story in the past at all if you’re going to completely ignore everything that made the past the past? You just want a pretty-looking date to stick on the first page?

I think there has to be a certain level of reasonable realism, or it just looks like the actors/characters are running around in the modern world in fancy costumes. Suspension of disbelief only stretches so far.

I remember seeing this one book, and I think I actually bought it back when I was first beginning to write, and it was set in a steampunk-ish setting, with the main heroine being an investigator for the police. Fine. Except, if you’re going to make me believe this is actually happening in the 19th century, the people have to act like it. There has to be actual surprise/difficulty regarding her career, and getting her colleagues/the public to take her seriously, because women just didn’t do that back then.

I never actually read the book. I got distracted with other books and it got buried to the back of my closet. When I finally uncovered it again, at least a year of historical fiction-writing later, I was shocked by the cover.

The main heroine, was dressed in a way no respectable woman would ever dress! Chest, shoulders, and arms bare, except for her hands. The front of her skirt had been cut out, though the back fell to the floor. It looked more like a long coat than a Victorian gown. She was wearing make-up, too. Red lipstick, which was a major no-no for the time. No woman in the world except for cheap prostitutes would have ever dressed like that back then! And considering how she was supposed to be a police investigator, I don’t think prostitution was a major part of the story.

Now, if she had been a prostitute, I wouldn’t have minded. That’s what they wore. If she were dressed properly and lacking make-up, I wouldn’t have minded. But seeing that cover turned me off ever reading that story.

I know some people probably think I’m being silly. I write steampunk, and monsters, set in a 19th century city that isn’t even real, and I’m upset about some model’s dress on the front cover of another book. And I agree. It feels hypocritical.

But what’s the point of just giving your books a steampunk paint-job if you’re not going to really commit to the setting? Make it believable, if not realistic. Just like you would never have a story set in pre-Civil War America about a white plantation owner and a black slave having an equal, romantic, and publicly accepted relationship. It just didn’t happen, at least not publicly. Now, a hidden relationship, I could understand. Or an alternate history where for whatever reason, blacks were never brought to America as slaves but rather as equals, then the plantation story would be believable. But in real history, and real context, that’s just not possible.

It’s a small detail, but one that can frustrate any readers familiar with the setting and situation, and might turn them off from reading the book. I already bought it, meaning my dislike of the book didn’t do anything to the author financially, but I hope to catch similar issues in books in the future, so I can avoid other situations that just raise my weird factor.

That’s part of the fun of writing in history, isn’t it? Unless there’s a very special situation, most people know exactly how the story goes. The German man must keep both the Jewish woman and their relationship secret in Nazi-town. Maybe the plantation owner and the slave do genuinely love each other, but they sure as hell wouldn’t broadcast that love publicly. The suspected communist sympathizer wouldn’t be allowed to go free at the height of the Cold War. He’d be locked up and persecuted

See what I mean?

Any different opinions? I’d like to know readers’ limits on historical artistic license.

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