If you visit various online review sites, you’re probably familiar with the comparison of history to wallpaper in historical novels. That’s where the setting does take place at some historical point, but the author doesn’t really immerse his/her story into the history. The characters might use modern language and often have modern attitudes; the history part is really just part of the background — the wallpaper.
I’ve read a couple of historical romances recently where the history was really more like Silly Putty — molded, pulled, stretched and manipulated to fit the story. When an author feels the need to insert a note at the end of the book, saying, “Well, this event didn’t really happen, and that one actually happened ten years earlier, and though I used real people, they didn’t do/say the things I said they did/said,” to me, that’s a big red flag. Yes, I’m about at the point where I’m going to have to read author notes/afterwords before I buy the books.
Maybe I’m just cranky, but part of the job of an author is working with hard, cold facts. If the Great Chicago Fire happened in October 1871, you don’t get to move it to March 1871 or July 1895 because that would work better with your story. You don’t get to turn a well-known historical figure with a sterling reputation into a murderer. (Honest, I read a book that did this, with an author’s note saying, “Making him a murderer was a little artistic license; there’s nothing to indicate he ever committed any crime, but I knew everyone would be familiar with his name so it helped ground the reader in the time period.”)
There are a ton of historical authors who work around those cold hard facts in every book. They don’t use history as wallpaper, and they certainly don’t play with it like Silly Putty, and they write wonderful books. I appreciate them tremendously. But the ones who do tweak it and twist it . . . their books fall as flat with me as a Silly Putty ball.
(Two of WordPress’s wonderful recommended tags for this post: Leonardo DiCaprio and Magnetism. Don’t you love it?)