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Historical Fiction: Accuracy and Detail Guidelines
Writing historical fiction can be a difficult and rewarding experience for an author. It may require a fair if not a great deal of research and attention to detail, but it also brings interesting new information and can be a way to educate readers in both an informative and highly entertaining format. . Many readers become students of history as a result of a historical novel. But the writer has to get the details right for the historical experience to work.
Creating a realistic historical atmosphere requires research into the time period and the historical characters involved. At the same time, the author must be careful not to let details get in the way of telling a good story. Research and historical details should not be the focus of the novel; instead, a convincing plot and realistic characters are the main requirements. Historical details can serve to create a believable atmosphere, and historical events can be used to motivate the main character in decisions such as fighting a war or running away from his lover. History then serves as an impetus for the growth of the characters and a stimulus for the plot.
Attention to Detail
While the characters and story should focus on details in writing historical fiction, however, authors should pay attention to details to make the story realistic and not to introduce any anachronisms. The writer should ask everyone for the details of its history before discussing it in the novel. The following is a short list of some details that require focus:
· Flora and Fauna: If you live in Wisconsin but your novel is set in California, be careful when you mention trees or plants—some of the plants you’re familiar with may not grow in California. That is only a geographical detail, but it is also true of the historical life of the plant. A plant growing in Wisconsin in 2012 may not have been there in 1848. Many historical inaccuracies are introduced in novels based only on assumptions we can make. For example, the Irish are famous for eating potatoes, but a medieval novel set in Ireland has no characters who eat potatoes because the potato came from North America and was not introduced to Europeans until the late tenth century. -six centuries of the Spanish. Flowers are also an issue. Most of the flowers we grow in our North American gardens today were brought here from Europe, Africa, or South America so research the flower’s history. In colonial America, they probably didn’t have marigolds, geraniums, or petunias. And don’t think that the Dutch had tulips in the Middle Ages—the tulip was actually an import from Turkey and came to the Netherlands in the sixteenth century.
· Food and Drink: When people went to parties in the 1940s, did they bring six packs of beer? I don’t think so. The six-pack plastic ring holder wasn’t introduced until the 1960s by a famous soda maker. How to bake a cake? Could you buy a package of cake mix at the grocery store in the 1940s? You can, but it wasn’t common until General Mills introduced the first one in 1947 where you could add water to the mix.
· Inventions: If you’re a relatively young novelist (age thirty or younger), you probably don’t remember a world before television, computers, or cell phones, and even if you do, your memory may be flawed. Be careful with modern technology and even old household appliances. Don’t assume that because the automobile was invented around 1900 that your characters owned one in 1910 if they were farmers. What about a flush toilet? It depends on location and income. While a character may have had a portable phone in the 1980s, it certainly wasn’t a cell phone, let alone a Smartphone. And even with landlines, until the 1960s, people didn’t have a seven-digit phone number and had to call the operator for a connection.
· Dates and Times: The attention to detail even includes the dates. Do you know what day of the week July 4, 1776 was? It was Thursday. Did it snow in Boston on March 3, 1888? If it is important to your story, you can consult a weather report from an old weather newspaper. Did Theodore Roosevelt look at his wristwatch? Most people “in the know” will tell you that the wristwatch was invented during World War I and didn’t become popular until the 1920s. But even that is a generalization with room for error. There were pocket watch holders before World War I that allowed a pocket watch to be worn like a wristwatch. Do a little research and you might find a quote from Roosevelt about wearing a watch.
Remember that this is a short list, and the author should have questioned everyone for its historical accuracy before including it.
You don’t need to understand everything about the time period to write a historical novel. In fact, how much do we know and understand even in our own time period? If researching and reading about some historical event, fact, or detail bores you, you’ll be bored writing about it, and if you’re bored, your readers will likely be bored too. So focus on your interest and use broad brush strokes so the details don’t get boring. While the characters should feel real and timely, you don’t need to prove to the reader what you know. People read historical fiction less for information than for entertainment. People care less about details like what kind of alcohol Alexander the Great drank or how his weapons were made than why he was so passionate and driven in his determination to conquer the world.
Give Yourself Room for Error
Sometimes even the best historical novelist can’t pinpoint a date or detail and must make a decision that is historically inaccurate or settle for what is likely but cannot be fully proven. Those decisions are difficult, but they are easier if you inform the readers about your difficulties and why you decided to represent things as you did. Readers will often forgive a little poetic license in the interest of making an interesting story, but they will not readily forgive historical errors resulting from an author not doing his research.
A good rule of thumb is to provide at the back of the book a list of important sources you use for those readers who are interested. A better idea is to add an afterword where you mention the time period and some of the research you did. You may think that most of your readers know less about the historical period than you, and they want to know what is really true, in which case, you can answer them in this section by telling them what you know. the facts and explanations. where and why did you deviate from the facts to make a good story. Recently, mini-author interviews have become popular in the back of books where the authors answer a series of questions about the writing of the novel and the history and facts behind its creation. Such interviews give the reader a greater sense of engagement with a book and its author.
Writing historical fiction requires a fine line between balancing historical details and creating interesting characters and an interesting plot. Attention to detail with a little poetic license creates balance and provides a suspended disbelief for the reader who wants to enjoy a journey back in time.
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