Gentle reader, please welcome Amy Bauer, one of my fellow Roaring Writers. She kindly offered to write a guest post about historical accuracy for my blog. Enjoy!
Face First Down the Rabbit Hole
It seemed like a good idea at the time. I would write my first fantasy novel and set it in Key West in the 1840s. I love history. I’m an experienced researcher, who has spent considerable time in Key West, an exotic and fascinating place. It would be fun.
Oh my poor deluded, slightly younger self.
New to fiction writing, I needed to learn how to write story, plot, draw characters, set pacing, and intertwine all those elements together. All of that was difficult enough. But I didn’t take into account the time and energy that would be required to research historical details with accuracy.
Certain expectations accompany historical novels. If a novel is set in ancient Rome, characters shouldn’t be using sewing machines and cars. Alternate history aside, if you take too many historical liberties, your readers will legitimately ask why you are pretending to describe ancient Rome. Write a fantasy world with emperors and legions if that makes you happy, but don’t pretend it’s set in Rome.
Readers need help to reach a certain level of suspension of disbelief, and authors help their audience reach that state of willing immersion in the plot by attention to detail, incorporating actual historical events and people, using word choice that reflects the time period, and sprinkling their stories with descriptions of bygone technology.
The theory is fairly easy to grasp. The execution, on the other hand, is complicated.
Two and a half years ago I was at my first Roaring Writers retreat struggling to master various writing techniques. Each day our teacher would lecture on craft and we would critique each other’s works. I had written a first chapter for the Key West novel and rewrote it each day incorporating elements from the lecture and critiques I had listened to earlier.
Each time I started to rewrite the chapter, I’d stumble over historical accuracy. My character pulled out money. What kind of money was used in antebellum Florida? Different states had different money types in different decades. My character pulled on a jacket. What did sailors wear in 1840s Key West? Obviously, the jackets in semi-tropical Key West had to be different than those worn in New England. A character walks to the pier. What does a dock look like, smell like, sound like in the 1840s in southern Florida?
Every now and then I’d swear with heartfelt angst and decide that I would focus on writing techniques and ignore the historical accuracy, just to get words down, but that didn’t work either. My story wilted on the page. I couldn’t separate the techniques and the history.
So I wrote in slow motion, sweating blood over each paragraph, fighting the technical aspects I was trying to master and researching every sentence I put on the page, knowing in the back of my mind I’d surely throw it out later.
I had the Internet, thank goodness. But how does one know which sources are accurate? I found websites on southern dress, but was that applicable to Key West, a frontier town and a seaport? I used etymological resources that told me whether a word had originated by the 1840s but did that mean that people actually used the word? Obfuscate is a perfectly acceptable word in widespread usage today, but not something you hear in most casual conversations.
My fellow Roaring Writers and I spent some time talking about these problems. Over the next year, I attended convention panels addressing these very issues. Gradually I grew a smidge more confident and developed some rules to guide my research.
First and foremost, I was no longer in academia. I want my historical fiction to be as accurate as possible, yes, but story should be the driving motivation. If you need to drop a detail, so that your story can move forward, do it. Just be careful that the detail is not so major that its absence pulls your readers from the story. Visualize Stephen King here jumping up and down yelling, “Story! Story! Story!”
You want to learn about the time period. Surf the Internet to pick up ideas. Read books. Check out a museum. You’ll pick up plot ideas.
Investigate primary sources to verify the details of any interesting history that you want to use. While you are reading newspapers, diaries, and autobiographies to check details, you will also pick up syntax and the rhythm of the language of the time period, verbiage that you may want to incorporate into your own writing.
Just remember you are writing about a past era for this time period’s audience. If you use language and concepts that don’t translate to a modern audience, your readers may find it easier to drop your novel and move to a less daunting prospect. We are supposed to be entertainers, not professors.
The less documented a time period is, the more leeway you will have. Writing about the Civil War requires more attention to detail than writing about ninth century England does. However, in some ways it might be harder for you as a writer to use a less known time period. For example, in a Civil War novel no one needs to explain who Lincoln was. If your story is set in ninth century England, on the other hand, you can be fairly certain most people have never heard of Aethelbald of Wessex.
Invest in quality resources. I picked up a couple of books written about daily life in the 1800s. One I can’t recommend enough is “The Writer’s Guide to…” series. I bought The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the 1800s and you will pry it out of my cold, dead hands for it includes common slang, curses, clothing descriptions, household items, usual modes of transportation, among other things, and most important tons of references. I took it with me to the writer’s retreat this summer and it saved me much wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Two points: in the beginning, don’t worry too much about accuracy and give yourself a set period to research. The first cost me time as I bogged down trying to make sure everything I read was true, including things I didn’t need to know. The second point I realized, but I underestimated the time needed. I found myself stopping to research things I hadn’t anticipated. I would start the research and then come up for air eight hours and a wasted writing day later, what I call my “falling down the rabbit hole” moments.
I’m still learning, and I’m sure I’ve missed some helpful resources. Recently, I was thinking about one of my fellow Roaring Writers who wanted me to come to a Romance Writers Conference and idly wondered if there was a Historical Writer’s Conference. A random Internet search found the well-established Historical Writers of America (https://historicalwritersofamerica.wildapricot.org).
I’m not sure I’d recommend following my path and writing a historical novel as your first attempt, but even amid all the frustration and lost time that the research for my novel has entailed, I’m enjoying myself. Perhaps you will too if you throw aside sanity and jump down the rabbit hole.