Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Agonized Confession of Miranda Neville

I awoke in the middle of the night screaming. The Trial of Queen Caroline was in the summer! 

That seminal event of 1820 may have given some people nightmares: the peers who had to spend August listening to scurrilous testimony in the stuffy Lords chamber, instead of relaxing on their country estates. But why did I care? Why did I rush with trembling hands to my history books praying that I’d remembered the date wrong, or the date in my book was wrong, or somebody else was wrong.

The Trial of Queen Caroline by Sir George Hayter. All my characters missed it.

Alas, no. I was wrong. The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton is set in summer 1820 and a good part of the action takes place at a very grand political house party. In July/August 1820. When the entire English political establishment was stuck in London.

 How did I come to make such a mistake? I’d written the book, revised the book, gone through copy edits and galleys. And it never occurred to me. Ouch.

To be fair, national events don’t impinge on the plot. The story could equally well have been set a year or two sooner, or later. The opening bears the date 1820 because it follows on from two books in the same series, the first of which was set in 1819 for a reason I cannot now remember.

I passed from shock to resentment. Why do we have to put dates in our books anyway? Jane Austen didn’t. Georgette Heyer didn’t. Unless one includes a real event, like the Battle of Waterloo, the exact year doesn’t matter.

I was already working on the next book which has a political setting. Looking at the events of that year I came up with “the great cabinet reshuffle of 1822,” not words to thrill anyone but the most dedicated political history geek. Also, I’d invented a family (loosely based on the dukes of Portland) at the very center of English politics. So I decided to liberate myself from the day to day reality of history and select a few broad themes around which to weave my romance. I didn’t even name the family's political party, though the savvy reader will spot them for Whigs. 

In Anthony Trollope I have an illustrious example. His novels feature a couple of politicians whom contemporary readers certainly identified as Disraeli and Gladstone. No, the Duke of Omnium was never Prime Minister. Heck, Trollope even invented the entire county of Barsetshire.
I’m thinking of omitting dates from future books. Meanwhile, my mistake really irks me.

P.S. The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton was published over three months ago and not a single person has pointed out my mistake.


  1. Miranda, please, don't be so hard on yourself. Most likely if you hadn't told us, we wouldn't have known the mistake and even if it came up later, we wouldn't have associated with TAECS ... I loved the book and since my knowledge of English history isn't anywhere near yours, I didn't notice. If I had, I probably would have dropped a note to tell you but kept my lips sealed. I love that you research your books so thoroughly and even the brightest of us make a boo-boo at times. I'm sure your readers will agree with me when I say, we love you and THE AMOROUS EDUCATION OF CELIA SEATON anyway. : )

  2. You've made an excellent point (neither your first nor your last) -- why do we date books and chapters of books when the date isn't particularly plot-relevant?

    Obviously if a major historical event is featured in our books it needs to be “in the right place at the right time” (or if we move a battle of less than Waterloo importance we'd better fess up) but this mania for specific "dating" of books or sections of them seems a bit over the top. More than that, it can 1) lead readers to focus on something (a date) that's not all that relevant and 2) thereby put authors in line for nitpicking on points that just don't matter.

  3. Austen would be proud of you for ignoring it.

  4. Even the most dedicated researchers (and I can tell you're one) make mistakes. I work hard to get it right and I've made mistakes that have been caught and a few that haven't (that I know of.) There's not much to do except cringe, sigh, and move forward. :)

    Dating adds to the realistic feel of a historical. Don't give it up!

  5. Thanks, Amy! I'm glad you enjoyed the book. I'm also glad the mistake I made didn't really affect the plot.

  6. Sophie: Absolute adherence to historical timing is a vexed (and continuing) argument. It's more important for you - as a historical fiction writer dealing with real historical figures - than it is for me. I do sometimes introduce real people into my books and when I do, I make sure it's plausible. Not accurate because how can one be "accurate" when one writes a scene with an invented character?

  7. @Isobel Kisses

    @Mara Yes, mistakes happen. As you say, sometimes we get away with them. I agree about dating in that one wants to place the reader squarely in period context. But the exact month/year? In older fiction I've sometimes seen dates given as (for example) 178_. In other words, placing the action in a certain decade. I've pondered doing that in the future.

  8. Well Miranda, I haven't read the book but, I'm sure that if I had, I wouldn't have noticed your mistake. Nobody is perfect, and everybody makes mistakes. Don't upset yourself any longer over this. I know that most of you authors spend a lot of time on research, so you're not going to be judged on one small discrepancy.

  9. Miranda,
    I loved The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton so much I didn't even notice the date was wrong until you pointed it out! To me it's goes along with calling my sons when they were growing up by one of our pets names. It's the conclusion that counts and not how you got there.

  10. Kudos to you Miranda for pointing out your mistake. So what does it tell us that no one else caught the mistake but you brought it to our attention? Is it comparable to a wrong answer on a test that was counted correctly? If it is, then you are the rare student in class who tells the teacher that a mistake was made. You are a person with integrity. May I say thank you-now, please get back to writing-we want another book. LOL. P.S. The A.E.of C.S. is still my favorite book of yours whether Caroline is in it or not.

  11. Please don't omit mentioning dates - it helps me have a sense of the time period the story is taking place in & put the story in historical context. You could say "sometime in the 1820's", but I think a specific year just sounds better. And it always helps when some time , even moths but particularly years, goes by during the story.
    I don't think any of your readers will hold you to a state of perfection on historical fact, we're much more interested in the story & the characters.

  12. Please continue to put dates in your books. I like to know what period of time I am reading about. I know a little about history, but I never noticed their was a time error in the book. It was a very good story and I enjoyed it a lot. If you hadn't mentioned it no one would have noticed. Thanks for your honesty.

  13. I didn't notice Miranda, I am aware of the trial but would not have known exactly when it happened.

    I usually only notice dates with regard to where the book comes in a series. For example, are the events of the current book, prior, concurrent or following previous books.

    I enjoyed the story and am currently waiting for 'Marquis' and 'Viscount' to arrive.

  14. Keep with the dates Miranda, it was an honest mistake and I'm quite sure you are not the first one to ever miss a date...the book was fabulous regardless, and I find you truly professional to let us know about it. Fret not, my dear!! It's all good!!!

  15. Diane, Jeanne, Janice, Di, Deb, Beebs and Brigett. I'm very touched by your comments and your support. That so many of you have read and enjoyed The Amorous Education means a lot to me.

    I guess the verdict is in favor of dates! I hear you.