Getting Details Right in Historical Fiction

Getting the details write right in historical fiction can be challenging for so many reasons. For a start we often don’t know what life was like exactly in the past – or the facts themselves are up for debate. For instance is it really the case that people in the middle ages had bad teeth? They didn’t have toothpaste, but neither did they have food with as much unrefined sugar as we have today – so maybe tooth decay wasn’t so much of a problem!

However, there are some basic facts which it should be able to fact check and get right. One of my bugbears in historical fiction is where things that couldn’t be present or said appear. For instance I read quite a good murder mystery set in the mid-14th century recently. There was lots of good stuff on social conditions, labour costs etc that made me feel that the author really had done their research and got into the details of the period.

But then the characters started drinking Maderia wine, and Brandy.

What!

When I read that I was puzzled. I didn’t know for sure that this was wrong, but certainly alarm bells were ringing. From my knowledge of the Middle Ages the main drinks would be beer for the lower classes, or day to day drink, and wine for the better off. Now the types of wine might vary, but pretty much characters in 14th century England would be drinking wine, and probably red wine. I’d never come across brandy or Madeira wine being drunk in a book about the Middle Ages, or a work written in the Middle Ages. And with good reason.

The Island of Madeira wasn’t even discovered until Portuguese explorers started sailing south towards Africa in the 15th century.

And brandy also wasn’t produced in large quantities until the late 15th century.

This might be nit-picking, but for me those two errors cast doubts on the rest of the story for me. I still enjoyed the book – the characters and plot were entertaining, but the historical foundations of it feel a bit flimsy and lacking in veracity. The mistakes trivialized the detail of research in the other areas of the story, which was a real shame.

What are your thoughts on getting details right in historical fiction. Does it make your skin crawl when you spot a glaring mistake?

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