Premum non nocere: first of all, do no harm. It’s the oath every doctor takes.
I think authors of historicals ought to take one, too: first of all, don’t mislead.
The ability to manipulate words is dangerous. When it comes to setting stories in different eras, it ought to be controlled because often the reader knows much less than the author about the period. Her impressions come from the book in her hand. I research meticulously for my historicals because I feel I have that responsibility and because I don’t want to let my readers down.
When “A Detestable Name” first appeared, a very kind lady – an editor with thorough knowledge of the Regency era – contacted me to say she liked the writing but that she didn’t feel she could recommend the book without some alterations.
Well, I panicked. I posted a warning telling everybody not to buy the book until the revised version was ready in a couple of weeks – as soon as I knew what mistakes this lady had found.
I didn’t have to hold my breath long. She was quick, but had found only two! Everything else, it turned out, boiled down to her wish to see a lot more detail, so much that if I had agreed, I felt it would not only have slowed down the action, it would have made the book the size of War and Peace.
An Important Book wasn’t really in my sights. I’m afraid I let down this lovely lady – all her comments were for my own good, remember, and though she normally charges, she gave me her advice for free! – and it was an impressive compliment that she was so willing to take the time to suggest improvements – but I was aiming for a pleasant, entertaining read, something to curl up with on a long winter evening. So all I did was correct the two errors.
(Oh, all right. Before you start screaming, I’ll tell you what the two mistakes were. One was that I forgot that a young lady travelling needed to take her maid along – and then I had to get her home again, which meant moving a private conversation to a different setting. The other – and my wonderful lady picked it up because she knows costuming – was not allowing enough time to sew an elaborate dress. Nothing to sink the book – but I’d have traduced my principles if I hadn’t dealt with them, wouldn’t I?)