Books Where The Main.Charaxyers Story Is Only.Told Over Christmas Historical Fiction: Accuracy and Detail Guidelines

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Historical Fiction: Accuracy and Detail Guidelines

Writing historical fiction can be both a difficult and rewarding experience for a writer. It may require a fair bit of research and attention to detail, but it leads to interesting new information and can be a gateway to educating readers in a format that is both informative and highly entertaining. Many readers have become students of history as a result of historical novels. But the writer must get the details right to make the historical experience work.

Creating a realistic historical setting requires research into the period and the historical characters involved. At the same time, the writer must be careful that details don’t get in the way of telling a good story. Research and historical detail should not be the focus of the novel; Instead, a believable plot and realistic characters are the primary requirements. Historical details can then serve to create a believable atmosphere, and historical events can be used to motivate the main character towards decisions such as fighting in a war or running away with her lover. History then serves as a motivation for character growth and a catalyst for the plot.

Pay attention to detail

Although the focus should be on character and story details when writing historical fiction, writers must pay attention to the details to make the story realistic and not introduce any idiosyncrasies. The author must question everything for its historical detail before mentioning it in the novel. Below is a short list of some details that deserve 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 plants you’re familiar with may not grow in California. This alone is really a geographical detail, but it is also true of historical plant life. A plant growing in Wisconsin in 2012 may not have existed there in 1848. Many historical inaccuracies are presented in the novel based on our assumptions. For example, the Irish are famous for eating potatoes, but a medieval novel set in Ireland would not have characters who eat potatoes because potatoes came from North America and were not introduced to Europeans until the late sixteenth century by the Spanish. Flowers are also a problem. Most of the flowers we grow in our North American gardens today were brought here from Europe, Africa or South America so research the history of flowers. In colonial America, they may not have had marigolds, geraniums, or petunias yet. And don’t assume that the Dutch had tulips in the Middle Ages – tulips were really imported from Turkey and arrived in the Netherlands in the 16th century.

· Food Drinks: 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 well-known soda manufacturer. How about baking a cake? Could you go to the grocery store to buy a package of cake mix in the 1940s? You can, but they weren’t common until General Mills introduced the first one in 1947 where you could add water to the mix.

· Innovation: If you’re a fairly young novelist (age thirty or younger), you may not remember a world before televisions, computers, or cell phones, and if you do, your memory may be faulty. Be careful with modern technology and even old home appliances. Don’t assume because the automobile was invented around 1900 that your characters owned one in 1910 if they were farmers. How about a flush toilet? It will depend on location and income. While a character might have had a portable phone in the 1980s, it certainly wasn’t a cell phone, much less a smartphone. Even with landlines, until the 1960s, people did not have a seven-digit phone number and had to call an operator to connect.

· Date and Time: The attention to detail even includes the date. Do you know what day of the week July 4th was in 1776? It was a Thursday. Did it snow in Boston on March 3, 1888? If this is important to your story, you may want to consult an old newspaper weather report from the period. Did Theodore Roosevelt look at his watch? 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. Before World War I there were pocket watch holders that allowed pocket watches to be worn like a wristwatch. Do a little research and you may find a quote from Roosevelt about wearing a wristwatch.

Remember this is a short list, and the author should question everything for its historical accuracy before including it.

How detailed do you need to be?

You don’t need to understand everything about the period to write a historical novel. After all, how much do we really know and understand about our own time period? If researching and reading about a historical event, event, or detail bores you, you will bore writing about it, and if you bore, your readers will bore. So focus on your interest and use broad brush strokes to avoid disturbing details. While characters need to feel real and time-appropriate, you don’t need to prove to the reader how much you know. People don’t read historical fiction for information so much as for entertainment. People care less about details like what kind of alcohol Alexander the Great consumed or how his armor was made, why he was so passionate and driven in his determination to conquer the world.

Allow yourself room for mistakes

Sometimes even the best historical novelist can’t pinpoint a date or detail and has to settle for being historically inaccurate or for what seems likely but can’t be fully verified. These decisions are difficult, but they’re made easier if you let readers know your difficulties and why you decided to present things the way you did. Readers will usually forgive a little poetic license in the interest of creating a compelling story, but they will not easily forgive historical inaccuracies caused by the author’s lack of research.

A good rule of thumb is to provide a list of important sources used for your interested readers at the back of the book. A better idea is to add an afterword in which you discuss the period and some of the research you did. You can assume that most of your readers are less knowledgeable than you about historical time, and they will want to know how much is actually true, so you can answer them by telling and explaining the facts they know in this section. Where and why did you deviate from the facts in the interest of making a better story? Recently, mini-author interviews have become popular in the back of books where authors answer a series of questions about the history and facts behind writing the novel and its creation. This type of interview gives the reader an added sense of engagement with a book and its author.

Writing historical fiction requires a fine line between balancing historical detail and creating entertaining characters and a compelling plot. Attention to detail with a little poetic license can create balance and provide suspension of disbelief for readers who want to enjoy a journey through time.

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