What can I count on readers not knowing?

Here I am poking around in the last half of the fifteenth century again, making another attempt to cobble an actual plot out of the interesting bits and pieces I keep collecting, and constantly banging my head against History. Because my favorite interesting bits, which might come together into a story, obstinately refuse to have happened in the right order. They’re too early, or too late, or something that wants to be near the end of the story precedes the opening scenes, or… well, you all know the sort of thing. And ok, it’s a fantasy novel, and I’m not opposed to inventing characters and even fortified cities as need be, but the real people and happenings of Florence and Venice and the Ottomans in the 1470’s and 80’s are so interesting that I keep getting drawn back to them.

I know that plenty of novelists and scriptwriters take a pretty free hand with history. Heck, the First Reader and I just watched the three seasons of The Medici and if I hadn’t had my head stuck in 15th century Florence for months, I wouldn’t have been bouncing up and down and yelling, “But that’s not how it happened!” nearly so much. They start with a poisoning that almost certainly never happened, but what the heck; everybody was poisoning everybody else throughout Italy in this century. They show Lorenzo arranging his sister Bianca’s marriage – well, he was ten years old when she married; I don’t think anybody asked his opinion! And so forth and so on.

So I’m wondering just what I can get away with in the course of wrestling History to the ground in the interests of Story, and I’d like to get the opinions of the sort of sophisticated, educated readers who frequent this blog. How do you feel about the following propositions?

  1. The Neroni family were exiled from Florence for their part in the conspiracy against Piero the Gouty in 1466.
  2. Bartolomeo Colleone died in 1475 and his army of condottieri dispersed to take service with other masters.
  3. After the Pazzi Conspiracy, Lorenzo de’ Medici made several attempts to get Girolamo Riario assassinated for his part in the conspiracy.
  4. Girolamo de Riario was assassinated in 1480, not by the Medici but by local citizens for his mismanagement of Forli, leaving behind a minor son and a widow.
  5. Sultan Mehmet II conquered Otranto in 1480 and proceeded to menace the entire peninsula.
  6. Mehmet II was poisoned by a Venetian prisoner of war in 1482.

Let me know how those assertions go over with an educated audience. How many of you were jumping up and down and screaming by the time I finished?

33 thoughts on “What can I count on readers not knowing?

  1. …Uh, No, Mehmet the Conqueror didn’t live that long. I mean, too bad Vlad Dracul didn’t actually get him in 1462, but… wasn’t he aiming for Egypt when his final “illness” happened?
    *claps hand over mouth*

    If you can pull it off entertainingly, I’ll read it happily!

    1. Aw, can’t you give me a year? He did make it until 1481. I just need a few extra months… And yes, he was looking at Egypt, but the Italians didn’t know that.

      1. I can absolutely totally give you a year. And I have a degree in history, so I’m not you average fan… and I swear, the degree is useless for dates after about 5 years. And to be utterly honest, you’re doing a part of history that I studied…almost 25 years ago… and don’t remember a darned thing about, and wouldn’t have remembered Mehmet if I hadn’t been reading on Vlad Dracul and Wallachia trying to make sense of a digression by Alma Boykin about the complicated history of the actual Vlad Dracul and the power struggle for Wallachia and environs at the time.

        (And wow, was that a power struggle with more competing factions than people…)

        She’s winning me over to her theory that the Holy Roman Empire was a good and useful thing, if you look from the other end of Europe compared to the sources I was taught for my degree. I am having to learn a lot of new things, though, and sometimes I end up looking awfully confused instead of enlightened. The deeper down the rabbit hole you go…

    1. Me neither.

      Then, immortal in my memory is a writing group critique of “The Maze, the Manor, and the Unicorn” which was astounded that main character thought that only virgins were safe in the woods with the unicorn.

  2. I got zero of that.

    …however, I would actively select against reading something in that setting; I know nothing in part because I have no interest in that time/area.

  3. Honestly, the safest way seems to be lifting the stuff whole sale, plant it in obviously fantasy setting, and change wahtever you want. (including the names)

    1. Nod.

      David Drake’s “Books Of The Elements” series was set in an Empire that was strongly based on the early Roman Empire.

  4. The fifth one was the only one that raised any red flags for me (“the Ottomans conquered Otranto?”) I don’t know much about the period, I just admire their fancy houses and their descendents’ cooking 🙂

    “It’s fantasy, events didn’t quite happen the way they did in our world” is a pretty standard way of handling this kind of dilemma. Good luck!

    1. Oh yes, they absolutely did take Otranto. Killed thousands of people. Pope Francis canonized 800 of them a few years ago.

  5. Alternate history/fantasy is fair game.

    But yeah I think I have a general educated reader’s knowledge of Florence et al, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard of most of those less-famous people.

    I know about the Medici brother who got knifed in the back at Mass during the Elevation, which is about as sacrilegious as you can get.

    1. I liked the conspirator who backed out at the last minute because he didn’t want to kill anybody in church where God could see him.

  6. Take some liberties, but confess them in the author’s note, the way Bernard Cornwell does.

  7. Have you read any Tim Powers? He is scrupulous about his historical accuracy, but blends in Fantasy elements as a way of explaining why certain things happened the way that they did. For example, The Drawing Of The Dark is set during the Turkish siege of Vienna in 1529, but Powers manages to bring in a rebirth of King Arthur and Merlin who are summoned to protect the city due to the magical beer that is brewed there.

    1. Anyone who hasn’t read his a The Anubis Gates needs to do so. Best time travel story I’ve ever encountered.

      As to the original question, the only thing I tripped over was the death of Mehmet 2. But not in any sort of “ point and screech” fashion. (Besides, if it had happened that way, it would have been covered up.)

      Catalog deviations in an afterword, and you’re pretty golden.
      Way too many authors don’t even try to understand about the society or events they’re supposedly writing about. Show you’ve done your homework, and most of the people who will even notice will be happy.

  8. I’ve read a lot of Guy Gavriel Kay’s stuff (up to the Chinese tome). If you know the history, you can spot what he’s fiddling with and how, but his world is nebulous enough and odd enough that it didn’t bug me too much. And it gave me ideas for futzing with history without breaking the world-building.

    And I own him for introducing me to Carlos Ginsberg and some really odd books about odder faiths and misunderstandings of Catholicism. (The Night Battles is the classic work.)

  9. As a history major it pains me to say this, but when you’re basing a fantasy setting off reality you can take some liberties with the timeline and no one’s really going to complain–I won’t, anyway. It’s when people claim that their timeline is how it really happened that most folks get peeved.

  10. Alternate History is popular. Everything from ‘Himmler’s War’ in which an off-course B-17 mistakenly bombed Hitler and most of the Nazi High Command in `1944, to the ‘Worldwar’ series in which aliens invaded in the spring of 1942. Different historical events in the 15th century? No problem.

    1. I found two major and four minor places I could tweak the real history of Central Europe in order to get the world I wanted for the Powers trilogy. One took place in the 30 years war (and was what the Holy Roman Emperor had been seriously considering before his confessor leaned on him). One came within three minutes of happening in real life (battle of Sadowa being won by Austria), one was a near thing (Gen. Windischgraetz wife NOT dying in Prague in 1848), one was Gen. Conrad being kicked out of the Austrian general staff when he should have been, and two other minor tweaks. Everything else flowed from that, and adding TrueDragons, HalfDragons, and so on was less of an adjustment.

  11. Thanks, guys! I have a better idea of how to handle this mass of historical material now. The book obstinately insists that it wants to be (mostly) set in a real place and time except for the magical bits which obviously didn’t really work but everybody at the time believed they did. My two main characters, a handful of minor ones, and one fortified city will be fictional but they’ll be in real cities and interacting with real characters and affected by real events.

    I now realize that the main problem was that I wanted to use incidents from the life of Caterina Sforza Riario without actually using her as a character, because not only are the times out of joint but I want my heroine to have a happy ending with her second marriage and things absolutely did not work out that well for the real Caterina. An afterword will give me a chance to explain that if certain incidents strongly remind the reader of Caterina Sforza, that’s because I shamelessly stole them.

    As for the shifting alliances and politics of the Italian city-states during this period, I’ve been reading up on this era for over a year and that stuff still makes my head hurt. I figure I can get away which whatever alliances are convenient for the plot on the grounds that (a) every state had a treaty with every other state at some point, and (b) every state broke its treaty with every other state at some point.

    1. I’m glad you got your dilemma figured out. I’m looking at totally re-writing World War 2 from about March 1940 onward for my current WIP, inserting a completely fictional country into the events (Republic of Texas). Isn’t alternate history fun, boys & girls?

        1. The ‘What if’s’ and ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if’s’ keep piling up 🙂

        1. I’ve got almost 18,000 words down, and I’m up to late January 1940.

          Since you’re asking about book 2 I hope that means you liked book 1?

  12. This is like asking me how the Thracian chariots routed the Etruscan Archers at Lepanto. Before anyone starts to REEEEE! my point is I have less than a passing knowledge of the era. (Yes, I know. Sea battle. Looked it up.) As previously mentioned, this is why I like Sci Fi: I can make Sh!t up and no body can gainsay. My universe, my rules.

  13. Incidentally, I wanted to cross-post this from another MGC thread, for Margaret’s edfication:
    Find and replace is your friend. I drove Margaret Ball insane doing an edit on a book where I had an alien character curse his enemies with the term Corghice! …or something like that. as the book progressed they used the curse again, but I couldn’t remember how to spell it, so I entered Corg–! meaning to go back and fix it later. As you can guess, later never made it. Her comments on what the heck is with the dashes, were almost amusing, except for worries that she would never speak to me again.
    I had to do the same with some character names. Cygnwck was one such.
    Ah! the toils and troubles of the Author class…

  14. I would note that I am also in the ‘zero grasp of the actual history there’ camp.

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