One of the things that happens? Sometimes authors intentionally get it wrong.
I ran across a good example in More Magazine today, where they talk with costume designer Joan Bergin (regarding the upcoming miniseries Vikings). She had a very pertinent point, saying,
"If you're watching a film and your first reaction to seeing characters from another period is 'Oh, how strange they look,' then that interferes with your experience. So I try to go for a modern take that isn't so distracting....What I do is about 70 percent historically accurate and about 30 percent creative license."
I've found this to be true when writing historical fiction. If authors stick with 100% accuracy, they might risk alienating or distracting their audience. It's hard to relate to the social norms of the past, particularly when we're trying to draw out a specific reaction in our readers. For example, if you're writing in a period where arranged marriages are the norm, but you're writing a Romance....well, you may need to bend history a bit.
When I researched 1200 Russia, reading the excellent book Sex and Society in the World of the Orthodox Slavs: 900-1700 by Dr. Eve Levin, I ran across things I thought my readers wouldn't readily accept. Not if I'm writing short fiction with a romantic element. Apparently, in general, the early Russians didn't believe in love in marriage. Nor did they believe that love had any part in a sexual relationship. (The author refers to a story where an infatuated boyar approached his master's wife, wanting to initiate an affair, and she tells him to go find a loose woman (paraphrased) because if he wanted sex there wasn't any difference, was there? Not exactly romantic, huh?)
So my general rule was to ignore those two tenets of general social behavior. I did try to pick up a lot of the historical details that the author talks about...but others I chose to ignore.
Can you think of times when you specifically chose to ignore history?
Historical Fudgery: Making Readers Comfortable
February 25th, 20:00