The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Female-centered historical novels are dogged by questions of accuracy. Hence the author’s note.

(Berkley; William Morrow; Avon)
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Female-centered historical novels are having a moment, particularly when uncovering little-known histories. Resistance to these narratives, which cast heroines with agency, hidden talents and extraordinary achievements, has declined, but only after a hard-fought battle. Perhaps women have won the war and we can pen stories of our ancestors without the dreaded attack of the old guard — a patriarchy accustomed to controlling the narrative and wielding the term “historical accuracy” like a weapon.

Not long ago, I released my first historical romance that centered marginalized characters as Regency heroes. Despite the accuracy of my history, I was skewered by questions of historical accuracy. Critics seemed genuinely unaware that women in any age did not act as a monolith. Others were ignorant of the diversity of England’s history or its deep colonial ties to Africa and the West Indies. Some hinted that the mere existence of this work was a way to assign guilt to society for ignoring the wealth derived from enslavement.

The ferocity of the reactions was unexpected. The rage was raw. Some quibbled at my sheer audacity — how dare I give colored women agency, ball gowns and the privilege of marrying peers? I also heard a lot of variations on “never” (“never would love visit people of color when their liberty was at risk”) and “can’t,” as in “I can’t believe this version of history,” though the subtext was clear: “I can’t cede to you the license to write it.”

A pep talk from my mentor brightened my outlook. Beverly Jenkins, the author of “Wild Rain,” among nearly 50 other novels, metaphorically wiped my tears and suggested adding a more detailed author’s note to my books, as she did with her first, “Night Song,” and every book since. This notation goes beyond story motivations and plot-required anachronisms to include definitions, book recommendations, online archives and an occasional bibliography.

For a long time, history has been told through the lens of White men and judged important by the same. Jenkins understands a more detailed accounting will change this and allow for “a deeper dive into our subject matter, with documentation for those who deny the vast contributions made by women and marginalized people.”

Ten historical romances later, including the newly arrived “An Earl, the Girl, and a Toddler,” with its Bridgerton-esque author’s note, complete with facts about powerful Black men who were championed by the Prince Regent (Queen Charlotte’s son), I find the reception of my novels very different, the meet-and-greets via Zoom easier. Questions are less about fantasy and more about what techniques I used to amass my research. I want to believe the historical accuracy cudgel has been ripped apart, never to be felt again. I talked to some of my friends, fellow historical writers, to hear their thoughts.

Eloisa James, an author of more than 35 historical romances and the new love story, “Lizzy and Dante,” always writes a historical author’s note and has “discovered that some readers treat the author’s notes as the beginning of a conversation.” Kate Quinn, author of more than a dozen historical novels, including “The Rose Code,” has a different take. She feels “honor-bound to tell the reader any changes made from the historical record in service of the story.” Quinn finds wonderful women doing amazing, atypical things. The accuracy of her research is never questioned.

Chanel Cleeton, author of four historical fictions and 10 romances, is more nuanced. In “The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba,” Cleeton says, “Some of the outlandish events might seem fictional, but I wanted readers to know that they were from the historical record and how history shaped my writing process.”

Debut author of “Wild Women and the Blues,” Denny S. Bryce, holds a similar view. She wanted to share “source materials for some of my research, as it will stave off questions about facts versus fiction.” Another first-time historical fiction writer, Sadeqa Johnson, author of “Yellow Wife,” was looking for the opportunity “to spill my guts on why I’ve been drawn to write the story.”

If there was one writer whose experiences mirrored my own, it was Piper Huguley, an author of 10 historical romances and the upcoming historical fiction “By Design: The Story of Ann Lowe, Society’s Best Kept Secret.” By not putting a detailed note in her first novel, she had to “answer superfluous questions” about the history she used. “I’ve always put one in ever since,” she says, and “the easy questions went away.” Her notes answer the nevers, the cant’s. Huguley can move on to weightier topics such as plot choices.

Sabrina Jeffries, an author of more than 50 historical romances and the newly released “Undercover Duke,” takes a progressive posture. She describes her work as “historical fantasies, akin to fairy tales” because she’s writing about the exceptions as if they were commonplace. “Many people were ableist, sexist, and racist in the [Regency] period, but there were still ones who weren’t. While women were expected to marry, plenty didn’t. My heroes and heroines aren’t everyday people, that is what makes them heroic.”

Jeffries’s assessment gobsmacked me. I commend her for seizing the patriarchal diss of fantasy, slapping it with an empowering spin and writing the story she wants to tell.

Though I now understand the playing field and feel the progress, my habit of including an extremely detailed author’s note, with definitions and sources, has never stopped. My upcoming historical fiction, “Island Queen,” includes an essay and bibliography. This should enhance the discussions about an enslaved woman’s journey to becoming one of the wealthiest women in the Caribbean and her winning fight against colonial authority.

Is my lengthy note ammunition, hubris, overkill? Maybe a little of all three. It’s definitely a vestige of old battles, and I’m no longer shy about bringing all my armor to the field.

Vanessa Riley is the author of 10 historical romance novels. Her historical fiction, “Island Queen,” is forthcoming July 6.

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