Outlander, The Raven Cycle, and accuracy in fiction

I try not to be too much of a stickler for accuracy in fiction, because I appreciate that good storytelling transcends fact. At the same time, however, a lack of accuracy pulls me out of the world the author’s created, impairing my ability to enjoy the story. An interesting case is that of the UK version of The Raven Cycle, as Scholastic has elected to translate some of the American words into British words. Quite apart from the confusion this causes for a cross-cultural reader like myself (is the first floor the ground floor or the one above it?), it threw me out of the story to see teenage boys in Virginia talking about mobile phones and petrol, and don’t get me started on the jumpers that were a part of their school uniform. In this case, the author did not introduce factual inaccuracies to further the story, but the publisher did in order to increase clarity – with the ironic effect of making it more difficult for me to understand.

The Raven BoysThis case was particularly irritating in that I not only saw no real benefit to the change (most British teenagers these days watch enough American TV to understand common US terms), but it was repetitive. Every time someone mentioned a cell phone, they called it a mobile meaning that there were repeated assaults on my suspension of disbelief, which is particularly disappointing when Maggie Stiefvater has created such a lush, haunting world. I grew relieved when they simply used the word ‘phone’.

That being said, sometimes being too careful to adhere to the specific facts can impair the story. Nowhere is this more true than in historical fiction. A good example would be religion in Outlander. Both Claire and Jamie are Catholic and, while this is theoretically possible it’s highly unlikely.

It’s true that some Highlanders, amongst them Jacobite supporters, were Catholic, and there were also some Catholics in England in the 1940s, though mostly from Irish backgrounds. Both groups, however, were vastly outnumbered by Episcopalians (known as Anglicans in England). Claire in particular is unlikely to have been Catholic; her surname, though French, has been Anglicised so in reality a family like hers would have almost certainly adopted the English faith. If she was Catholic, this would have had repercussions on her life in 1940s England, though this is never addressed.

Outlander-TV_series-2014There are, however, strong narrative reasons for making the main Jacobite characters Catholic. It simplifies the conflict in a story where said conflict is tangential to the plot, and where discussions of Episcopalian notions of divine right and social hierarchy would bog down the story. As an Anglican Claire would not have been able to marry Jamie and, while the differences in their faiths might have added an interesting dimension to their relationship and the wedding storyline, it may also have simply overcomplicated it without real narrative value. Because it is theoretically possible for both Claire and Jamie to be Catholic, then, for me this falls into the category of acceptable deviations from reality.

On the other hand, however, this is not the only departure from fact in the series. While it is justifiable, there are many other minor issues, like the question of where Frank got the petrol to drive from England up to the Highlands when it was still rationed (or, for that matter, the car, as few people had cars in 1940s Britain), as well as Jamie’s insistence on marrying in the ‘Fraser tartan’ when clan tartans are a 19th century invention. There are further inaccuracies in the books, but it’s been six or seven years since I’ve read them so the TV series is more fresh in my mind.

And that, really, is a key element for me. A single inaccuracy, chosen for particular story reasons, can be overlooked, even appreciated for the depth or nuance it brings to the narrative. Multiple inaccuracies, even made with the same deliberate care and attention, build on top of one another so that rather than having one ‘Wait, what?’ moment, there are several. Like the use of mobile phones in The Raven Cycle, each instance jolts me out of the world and it is a conscious act to return to it.

This is, of course, all based on my personal experiences, and it’s entirely dependent on my own personal store of knowledge. If I were talking about a series set in 18th-century China, for instance, comparable levels of inaccuracy would go straight over my head, while I would be unlikely to notice the use of British words in an Australian novel. Similarly, I know some readers who have no problem whatsoever when they recognise historical inaccuracies – deliberate or not – in fiction, as long as the story’s good.

What about you? Do you find even a small inaccuracy ruins your enjoyment of a story, or can it be completely anachronistic and still grab your attention?

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2 thoughts on “Outlander, The Raven Cycle, and accuracy in fiction

  1. What really bugs me are anachronisms in historical fiction, or historical fantasy when there’s no good reason for the facts to be changed. It makes me think the writer wanted to follow histfic trends that grow out of misunderstandings about history, and that just perpetuates those misunderstandings. I do feel better if the writer includes an author’s note describing why changes were made – that suggests he/she made purposeful changes for reasons that weren’t clear in the book itself.

    But I never thought about the impact of changing terms for foreign versions. I can see how British terms in The Raven Cycle would pull you right out of it, because it’s so firmly set in Virginia. How frustrating!

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    1. Yes! Anachronisms without any apparent reason are the worst. But you raise an interesting point when you mention authors perpetuating misunderstandings: Do authors have an ethical obligation to strive for historical accuracy? Of course, I think they have an artistic obligation to not be needlessly inaccurate, but I think the case could also be made that fiction serves as a major source for people’s perceptions of historical events, and so people portraying those events inadvertently mislead people when they don’t do the research. I certainly don’t think writers should sacrifice story for historicity, but on the flip side I do think they should be aware of the influence they can have over readers’ understanding of history.

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