Immersive fiction: history and other worlds


An on-going exchange about writing historical novels intersected with my reading of an ARC which the research into houses and weapons and clothing is impeccable . . . but everyone in early 1900s Great Britain sounds American. Occasionally modern American.

I was talking this over with a couple friends with whom I share some historical favorites. One had already decided to avoid the author based on previous work, claiming a ‘tin ear for period,’ to which the other claimed that period verisimilitude doesn’t matter—unlikely any American reader would even notice, and that might even go for British readers who only read work published in their lifetimes, and it wasn’t any different, really, from YA novels in which the teenagers sound like they’re fifty years old. You accept the limitations up front, for the sake of the story.

“In that case, the story should have been set in 2016 Denver, or wherever the writer lives,” the first person argued back. “If the writer can’t give me a setting and characters I can believe in, then I can’t believe in the story.”

One is willing to immerse, the other can’t.

This is a topic I’ve explored before because I like both period writing and historical novels that immerse me into a different time and place, but when asked how to define my own immersion point, I can’t, really. It’s easier to talk about my reaction.

How many historical inaccuracies can you find here?

How many historical inaccuracies can you find here?

Person B is the type who prefers historical fiction to read like modern people dressed up in period clothes. The good guys sport present day values, the bad guys express period prejudices. Everybody says “Okay,” and use current expressions like “I’m bored of that,” and “You’re not the boss of me,” mixed with familiar old-fashioned expressions like “bloody” and “blighty”—both sexes using them in every social situation, along with first names.

If that’s what somebody wants to write and somebody else likes to read, writer meet audience. As another person put it in a later discussion, “These kinds of books seem to be less of a shift to another paradigm and more like being at a costume ball in story form—which is equally entertaining.”

The important phrase being equally entertaining.

To which the original complainer responded, “I ask again, why not just set it today, in present day London, or Los Angeles, if everyone is going to think and talk like us?”

“Well, you don’t get the great clothes,” someone said, delivering a Parthian shot before dropping out of the discussion—and the discussion continued between a few of us by e-mail after we all left the con where it started.

Defining Immersion, or How Willing is your Suspension of Belief?

In another forum, a while back, I asked participants to define their immersion parameters for historical fiction (the context was world-building, so could be extended to what immersed them in SF and F). Not surprisingly I got a range of answers, sometimes overlapping, but never repeating the same points. A useful definition seemed impossible, though we could all point to examples that had immersed us as individuals.


One reader praised a book for its realistic portrayal of the time, but then someone cited that same book for being difficult to get into because of all the custom howlers, inaccuracies in setting and language. The first speaker was a little put out, admitting that they hadn’t read much Middle Eastern history during the Caliphate period.

Some readers accept historical inaccuracies because they don’t know any better. When I look back over my lifetime of reading, I recollect assuming veritas in novels that later turned out to be rife with error, some of them deliberately chosen to fit the story, others because of the lack of availability of period sources when the work was first written. Like Annemarie Selinko’s Desiree, which I discovered and fell in love with before I turned fourteen.

But discovering those errors isn’t a guaranteed touch of rust by the Suck Fairy; I might still remember Desiree fondly because the story pulled me in and extended my interest to the time, so immersing in it on subsequent reads is like visiting an alternate universe, my negotiation with belief-suspension happening beforehand because I knew and liked the story and characters when I was a kid.

medieval prague

Another thing we talked about was how certain time periods and places seem to draw more writers. For a while, everyone seemed to want to write about Christopher Marlowe or John Dee, while overlooking a pantheon of truly colorful figures on the continent. But a lot of the best sources on these are not written in English.

When people ask, “Why are there so many books about London in 1600? Why not, say, in Prague of the 1350s?” My first response is, maybe some writer could carry off a novel about the spread of the plague but I’m probably not going to read it, second, there might very well be some great works about late medieval Prague out there, but they haven’t been translated into English.

The Shakespearean era is popular for English speaking writers because Shakespeare is still popular (including the fictions about Shakespeare’s work being written by someone else), and Christopher Marlowe has been irresistible to a lot of writers for being gay, doomed, and iconoclastic.

Then there is also the accessibility factor, like, a novel successfully written in Anglo-Saxon pastiche might be hailed as brilliant and daring, but the audience is probably going to be small.

medieval city

I find it easier to talk about the experience of immersion than to define what I require in the text. Immersion feels like I’m taking a trip in a time machine—that is, I am aware of being modern me as I dip into the pages, with my modern language and outlooks, but I want enough of the past’s language and outlook to make me feel like I’m invisibly walking among the people in the past.

I don’t think it’s possible to make me feel like one of those people; when I read a period source, the farther back I go, sometimes the more alien I find customs, outlooks, expectations. There are words difficult to define because they refer to concepts we don’t have anymore, but everyone did at that time. But I also find it thrilling when the past writer and I share reactions and emotions: the alienness is as thrilling as the moments our minds meet.

roman road

When I travel, I love to visit period houses, and envision life there. I like to look out windows and try to see what people once saw, but I can’t reclaim their true experience—what was really out there, the smells, the sounds, how one’s body feels in the clothes of the period, with period food inside it. How one believed the world one saw worked.

I think it’s fascinating to talk about the details that make or break an immersive read. Most of the time, readers seem to agree that writers who most successfully evoke another time and place pay close attention to the simple things—but not everyone agrees on what minor errors will break the immersion.

I recall one reader saying that for them, they’re thrown right out of the story when the narrative voice assumes that people in the past view time the way city dwellers with electricity do. As soon as this reader read “A few seconds later, they ran . . .” the immersion broke. Ditto, “They agreed to meet ten minutes later . . .”–as that reader put it, he was suddenly seeing characters in homespun and leather synchronizing their solar-powered watches.

That sparked a discussion about time keeping in history, and in pre-industrial fantasy. How does this world keep time? Is urban time-keeping the same as rural, which historically functioned according to season and to sun’s travel?

roman chariot

Farmers didn’t need clocks, because their crops and animals didn’t need clocks. In cities, time keeping relied on sundials and water clocks and candles for centuries before the gradual turn to the ecclesiastical calendar and its bells. Then finally, huge clock faces oriented the city dweller, before carrying pocket watches became something ordinary folks could afford.

Who laid roads where and how they were maintained—what kinds of foods were grown, and how they were brought in—ship design, the (re)invention of the wheel—the printing press—the mechanical loom all changed life fundamentally; many of us are old enough to remember life before cell phones, GPS, and the internet. So many little aspects of life were very different–and likewise so many of the tools of living we had grown up with, and thought would always be there, vanished.

At the end, about all we agreed on was that novels that explore the furniture of daily life can help immerse the reader as much as bending a story around great events or famous people.



Immersive fiction: history and other worlds — 31 Comments

  1. The break point for me is the latest proliferation of “magic” or “glamour” in early modern English or European history. I get that the inspiration is mainly from romances set in that period, which are a fantasy of their own. But if there really had been magic, life would have been radically different. (It doesn’t help that the writing in most of these, except for Susanna Clarke, is indifferent at best.)

    If I want to read fantasy, give me a world in which fantasy is as integral to life as physics.

    • I think magic set in history is one of those things you have to accept up front, before opening the book. Then there are different ways to handle it. Not all such works are wand-waving mages. There are some books with secret magic, like secret histories, that have influence without most being aware.

    • Best treated as alternate history. Though, yes, they tend to ignore the consequences. (As bad as superhero fiction.)

  2. Those ‘great clothes’ were supremely uncomfortable, and the greater they were the more impossible to get in and out of — and above all, imagine, wearing them while preggers, while having one’s period in these days long before kotex and tampex — and imagine too, how difficult it was to perform the basic functions of excretion wearing those clothes into, if one were fortunate, a chamber pot. Also, think of how much fun it was emptying and cleaning those pots while wearing the servants’ version of those clothes, which most likely the reader would be wearing, not the mistress’s version of the clothes. Think of cleaning the hems of those clothes too, which would need to be done daily. And no deoderant.

    Those are among the things I think about when reading such things, whether fiction or memoir or primary source.

    • The person I was talking to was speaking about the Directoire/Empire/Regency period, whose dresses weren’t quite as horrendous as earlier fields, but yep. Those are definitely details ,of daily life then, all right, and Person B doesn’t want any part of that much realism, while Person A did.

    • Those ‘great clothes’ were supremely uncomfortable,

      All the better to read about and not wear.

  3. On the other hand, how do you make the character talk if you set it in, say, ancient Rome? Since the Latin would be unintelligible to most readers. . . .

    The best effect, I think, is produced by an English as timeless as possible — the farther back you can imagine a person reading it and understanding (Charles Dickens? Jane Austen? Shakespeare?) the better.

    But some allowances have to be made for “translation.” Especially given that an author might object that the effect of actual Regency talk on us is not the impression that it would have given its speakers.

    OTOH, if it’s to express modern views, that’s another problem.

    • Yeah, that gets into the “okay” debate, some maintaining it’s invisible, that people of the time had similar expressions. Others disagree, finding the word intrusive.

    • I think the trick is to give the _impression_ of period talk without being too authentic. (There are just as many settings that would be too vulgar for the modern ear as there are too formal ones). The more period-specific a modern expression is, the worse it will stand out (as contemporary or as modern-but-wrong), so I’d stay away from them.
      I basically don’t want the reader to stop and look sharply at any given word or phrase because once they do, the magic begins to crumble and they’ll start examining every word. And once they do THAT, they’ll pick nits with a lot of stuff that would otherwise have slipped under their radar, and they’ll start second-guessing everything.

      The non-blandness in the best books, I find, comes from multiple sources: some colourful vocabulary, some clever phrasing, a little rhythm, a lot of nuances that echo the period feel the author is striving for… all in a harmonious whole.

  4. On the clocks — you’re really up the creek without a paddle on this one, because a large number of readers have their own specialties, and can catch your errors.

    I once was in a discussion of a certain book where one reader pointed out that the characters never worried about ammunition, another objected to the women who adopted the blue jeans with so much as a blink instead of repealing them as too shockingly immodest even for a prostitute, a third minded the characters (fighting a religious war, no less) had only to hear of the notion of religious tolerance to adopt it, and a fourth pointed out that their adoption of democracy in an era of absolute monarchs was equally silly.

    All of us had had different historical interests.

  5. There are such things as laziness and ignorance, y’know. “I only read for the story” is a grand excuse for both of them.

  6. This review of Julian Fellows 1840’s Belgravia novel is quite appropriate to the discussion — but it’s on the NY Times, which has a limit to view 10 stories per month without a subscription so one might prefer to plug the url into your browser’s icognito option:

    This describes why those who disdain so much so-called historical fiction, do:

    [ ” Reading Belgravia is rather like visiting a modern re-creation of a Victorian hhouse — every cornice molding is perfect — but it’s a Victorian house with 21st-­century plumbing and Wi-Fi. ” ]

    It’s contrivance and foux, in mood and action. Not all historical fiction comes through this way, but a huge amount does, alas. Or, one could say that all the brick laying is so obvious there’s no immersion there.

    • Cornwell’s Saxon Tales with characters such a Uhtred and King Alfred does a pretty good job of putting us in a different time — as does the television adaptation of the first two books, The Last Kingdom. Nicola Griffith’s Hild was splendid in that way. Sharon Kay Penman’s novels are also immersive into a different time and place, without making the characters feel like they’re 20th – 21st century folks all dressed up. Of course too, generally the protagonists and antagonists tend to be from the top status ranks of their times and places. It’s much more difficult it seems to make engaging immersive historical fiction out of the lives of the vast majority of the poor laboring and serving classes.

    • Yeah, that’s why I never watched that show Manor House, where they got ordinary people to live in a manor for a while. These people weren’t raised with the world view or taught anything about day to day existence.

      (“Foux” is that French slang, or do you mean faux–fake?)

  7. One reason I made my Sarah Tolerance books alternate history was because I wanted to do some interesting-but-not-true-to-period things that would have thrown me out of the book if I’d encountered them in straight historical fiction. The series was, to some extent, inspired by some historical fiction that ignored the social differences between now and then.

    There are other ways to have your suspension of disbelief shattered: my husband, aka Mr Ears, can be stopped by the wrong dial tone on an old phone. You know what you know.

    • That is true re knowing what you know. (I remember someone complaining bitterly about a blockbuster movie that everyone loved, which hinged on characters being able to find parking on certain really busy LA streets. Yes, all twenty million of the rest of us just laughed, but that person couldn’t get past the fantasy of driving right up, parking in front of the building, and running in without circling around for an hour or two, then paying thirty bucks for the privilege of a space.)

      Alternate fantasies that signal themselves up front: great idea.

      • I have long since grown inured to movies set in NYC where a car turns on one corner and is suddenly on a photogenic street 80 blocks away. Without a doubt, I forgive some things more readily than others.

          • I can only imagine what a Parisian must think while watching Before Sunset. I had to look at a map in order to see just how geographically impossible the sequence of events is. As is it, re-watching that movie is going to be difficult.

  8. As willing as I am to be immersed and to suspend disbelief, it does not take much to toss me out. A misused word. An anachronism. In the last piece of speculative fiction I read and genuinely enjoyed, the fantastic details of transportation etc. did not bother me at all. What stopped me cold on several occasions was inappropriate age characterization of a child character. Maybe the author meant to portray stunted emotional development? Anyway it bugged me.

    • True. Sometimes I wonder if the writer of a given piece has actually been around any real kids. But then again, like above, “what you know.”

      • We saw Captain Fantastic last night–a film about a guy raising his six children in the woods of Washington, homeschooling, training them to live rough. Their mother is not around for reasons that become clear. And all these kids are simultaneously insanely well-educated (the fourteen-year-old explaining why Lolita makes her uncomfortable is as good, in brief, as any paper I’ve ever seen on the subject) and completely unsuited to life in the real world. And they’re age appropriate. It’s an amazing feat; never once did I feel like they were adults in grownup suits.

  9. This discussion reminds me of Mark Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” Twain absolutely demolishes Cooper’s writing for precisely the sorts of problems that people are mentioning here–not getting the details of woodcraft or river boating right, not using appropriate language, etc. But of course, Cooper’s novels were hugely popular, because other people just didn’t care–the story was enough for them.

    For me to immerse myself, I need the world the author is creating to be plausible enough that I am willing to ignore it if they get minor details wrong. But too many anachronisms in terms of language is a real deal breaker. Nothing will get me to put a historical novel down faster than if they start using modern words or expressions. The word “OK” should not be in a Regency novel!

      • As I recall, Twain’s attitude made me so angry that my “senior paper” (40-odd years ago) was devoted to evidence that Twain committed every sin of which he accused Fenimore Cooper, in spades.

        I think I still react that way to reviewers who seem to consider only their own dismissive views valid, especially if their views are extended to anyone who might enjoy the book or genre in question. (“Laziness and ignorance”? Ahem.) — even though I may privately wonder how on earth anyone could bear to read XYZ, and have my own personal list of things that throw me out of the story. Tomatoes & potatoes in 10th century Europe, say, or books with such an impoverished vocabulary that the only said-word is said. said. said. (Yes, I know the current teaching is that this is the right and proper and “unobtrusive” thing to do, but it drives me up the wall. As usual, each of us reacts differently.)

        • I’ll bet that senior paper was a corker! Heh! (Yeah, Twain’s ‘Middle Ages’ was rife with error.)

  10. It’s harder for me to become genuinely immersed in a story now than it was when I was young, because now I’m interested in seeing how the writer does it so well (if I’m enjoying the story) or why it’s not working for me (if I’m not)–kind of like the problem of going to a ballet if you’ve taken years of ballet yourself, or listening to a recital if you, too, play a musical instrument. This doesn’t distract from my pleasure in the story; it just means that I’m not totally losing myself in it as I once would have.

    I still do sometimes, though. I think what makes a story most immersive for me *now* is really well rounded characters in a plot I’m really enjoying. In those circumstances, I can forget I’m reading and just transport to the story.

    • Yeah, I think with accumulated life experience, it can get harder. I know it does with me. Oh for the days when I sank down into everything!