Possible … Not Probable

Some years ago in a weak moment I fell victim to some mediocre book marketing—“follow-up to the international best-selling Pillars of the Earth!”—and purchased Ken Follett’s World Without End, a one thousand–page historical novel. I’d read and enjoyed his early work*Eye of the Needle (1978), Triple (1979), The Key to Rebecca (1980), The Man from St. Petersburg (1982), Lie Down with Lions (1985)—and yes, I knew I was purchasing a historical novel by an author known for his spy thrillers.

But World Without End was quite possibly the worst book I’ve ever read half of. Why? Because it was so full of anachronisms (and ridiculous purple prose), that’s why. Nothing about it was real (probable). Set in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the characters have twenty-first–century attitudes and use twenty-first–century language. The women are independent and treated as equals; serfs and peasants act as if they have human rights. Yet these concepts were unknown to people of that era. And in a time when even kings were illiterate, average people read books—and own them.

A few years later I was hired to edit a historical novel set in a European country in the fifteenth century. Everything about it felt off, and I spent hours researching my hunch that the author had done no research whatsoever. It felt a bit like the Disney version of medieval Europe, with a handful of Princess Bride (or Southern Gothic) thrown in. In my notes I told the author, “Accuracy is nice, although I’ll settle for plausibility.”

There were problems with every part of the milieu, from religious observation to social class concerns to occupations of the villagers. But the thing that bothered me most was the image of a villager, a laborer, knowing how to read—and actually possessing books (and the time to read them). At this point in history, the printing press had only been available for some thirty-odd years. Books were expensive treasures available only to the nobility. In this manuscript the villagers went to the market and bought new books (and shared them around). No way.

I wrote up more than twenty pages of notes and emailed them off to the managing editor. Exclamation points may have been used. Later, that editor—a much more experienced editor than me—took me to lunch, and that’s when I first heard the phrase Possible, not probable. Not every detail in a historical has to be probable, the editor said. Just ask yourself if it’s possible.

It’s changed the way I think about editing. I’m a little easier now. Possible, not probable.

That said, I prefer probable, always. Details that “ring true” are what make fiction live and breathe for me, and when I edit, I still nudge the manuscript in that direction.

Sure, we can’t know, exactly, what the realities were for a particular community in a particular decade of a particular century, but we can research and extrapolate. Take this stock character, for example: the headstrong young woman. The headstrong young woman who … you name it, in any era before the 1900s. She’s an outlier, y’all. Ahead of her time. And yet we see her over and over again in historical fiction.

Take the headstrong young woman who marries for love in 1496. I’m always unsettled by love relationships in historical fiction: the concept of marrying for love alone is a relatively recent development. Men married women (and make no mistake: men were in charge of this) for a lot of reasons—convenience, proximity, money, parental arrangement, to have children, to get a business partner or a housekeeper or a babysitter—but well into the Victorian era, most couples didn’t expect love from their spouses. (And even then, women virtually belonged to their husbands.**)

Is the historical headstrong young woman probable? No. She wasn’t a common figure in the community. But is she possible? Yes. And so I’ll let her go, though I may suggest tweaks around her, to make her milieu more authentic, say. I like to keep things simple and in the realm of the very possible.

And yet … sometimes you just have to run with it. Take Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. I read it, and I didn’t believe it. I didn’t believe a large corporation would send someone into the jungle who was completely unequipped for it. And there were quite a few other fantastical elements in this story that I had trouble accepting at face value.

But—it’s fiction. So in spite of my initial disbelief—and I don’t know how this happened, really—Patchett somehow sold it to me, me as a reader. The book was so very, very compelling; I lay awake reading long past the time when I would normally have fallen asleep. I can’t explain it. Was it the vivid layers of detail? The strange trees, the culture of the Indians, the dreams the protagonist had from taking the malaria pills? (Not to mention other things I will not spoil for you.) It was almost like fantasy or sci-fi, in which there is a whole other universe created, and it’s so deep and rich you completely believe it.

(It helps that Patchett writes so well. The writing is both unremarkable—and I mean that in the best way—and yet so agile that you see everything, you get everything. It’s completely transparent, like you just look through it as if you’re looking through a window at the scene itself.)

Nothing about World Without End was probable; not much about State of Wonder was probable, either, but the author made me believe it was possible, and that made all the difference. Think about that.

* I have no idea if I’d love them now. I am more discriminating, I think, and, of course, I’m annoyed with Follett and not likely to revisit them.
** I’m not going to use the word chattel. Oh, wait …


Tweet: Accuracy is nice, although I’ll settle for plausibility.
Tweet: Not every detail in a historical has to be probable. Just ask yourself if it’s possible.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


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  1. giffmacshane says:

    Another very interesting article. When it comes to character, if it’s possible in the historical setting, it’s OK by me. But when it comes to the details, I’m still a purist. I do so much research on my own novels that I have a really hard time accepting that some people don’t.