Historical fantasy?

I’ve wasted years of my life.

Happily I’m in good company.

A US writer – let’s call her M* – whose book for younger readers is just out, has advised a group of young aspiring writers not to bother with such feeble-minded tasks as research when writing historical fiction:

M said she didn’t know enough and had to write about what she didn’t know. ”To write a book about the past [as she has done], there is a saying that you read only two books and then close your eyes,” she said. That was all the research required.

(Quoted in The Age.)
Just like that. Magic.
In fact, that’s what happens in M’s book. Just like I, Coriander, halfway through, everything turns into magic or fairies or elves. Fantasy, as we all know, doesn’t require any research or detailed planning either (just ask anyone who writes fantasy – and then take a few steps back to avoid the explosion).
It’s hard to decide which aspect of M’s advice is most worrying: that an author of historical fiction thinks the historical bit of it doesn’t matter; or that perhaps it just doesn’t matter when you’re an adult author writing their first kids’ book; or that an author has no duty of care to readers of any age or to the past; or that you would leave your editors to do your fact-checking … or that you would actually say that – out loud – to young people who are looking for guidance.
Now, I’m not sure whether it’s true. I suspect that M did much more than read two books, and I’m really hoping she’s been misunderstood.
But I’ve been brooding about this all morning, in part because I read M’s book in manuscript form several months ago and found in it several glaring mistakes which I assumed would have been removed in later versions. Not by the author, obviously, who apparently can’t be arsed looking anything up, but by some long-suffering editor.
This is what almost any other author of historical fiction would have told that crowd: it takes months, sometimes years, of research to accurately portray the past – even just to make as few mistakes as possible. Then you only put about five percent of it into the text. Many of us will tell you that the research is the fun part. It continues up until the point the ink rolls on the presses, and even after that there are breathless moments when you rush to the nearest computer or book to check something you suddenly imagine you got wrong.
That’s just as it should be. Because it matters. History matters. Truth matters, just as much as closing your eyes and imagining, and especially for young readers.
Because your publishers require you to know what you’re writing about.
Because your readers trust you, and they matter – most of all.
[*Later: names deleted to provide benefit of the doubt, because surely it isn’t what she really thinks. Surely.]

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