Mr & Mrs - all in the family

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Authentic Accuracy in Historical Fiction

Never Forget the Author in Authority, Authenticity

A Newbie just finished her first historical novel, and she asks: Just how authentic does it have to be? How much accuracy is necessary? How do you keep from making horrible gaffs?

My initial response in my head is that if you are going to actually use a jock strap in your Roman Gladiator story, you had better do the minimum to find out first if gladiators used jock straps, and secondly, if they did, you need to know what they were made from--certainly not plastics or some mysterious material dropped on the Romans by aliens (unless you are simply go for goofy, fun, crazy laughs such as A Funny Thing Happened to me on the way to the Colosseum). If it is serious historical novel the authentic Roman jock strap must be determined unless you choose not to use it - the strap.

The entire idea of Historical Fiction is a somewhat schizophrenic label, history meaning somehow ground in fact while fiction is (from the Spanish ficciones) a "pack of lies" even if it is to "prove a truth"... so we historical fictionlists no less than our sister schizoid science fictionalists (science supposedly being fact), we are in a dither, a conundrum as it were, but some keeping our feet firmly aground helps.

What does EB White's Charlotte's Web have in common with historical fiction and indeed all fiction, this wild fantasy we adults read to our children only to find ourselves so drawn in as to be the ones in tears when Charlotte doesn't make it (you won't read that book again because the ending's just too hard to take...). What indeed makes this FANTASY fiction believable and in fact mesmerizingly so, a tale so crazily unbelievable. Come on, a story of a pig and a spider having a full-blown platonic love for one another, a relationship we'd all like to have, one of unconditional and sacrificial love all taking place in our own backyard? What makes it work? What makes Stephen King horror work?

Accuracy, authenticity, the authenticated voice - alongside accuracy and authenticity in background, backdrop, props, and in short DETAILS. The Devil is in the Details. Detailed accuracy makes a believer of us all both in film and in fiction. Setting the stage with the proper accoutrement's is absolutely necessary to make historical fiction truly come to life.

Below are the two from the hip responses the young novitiate got from my good friend Pat Brown and then from me the same day she asked the question (isn't the Internet something?)

On Tue, 3/29/11, Pat Brown, author of Absinthe of Malice (a great read by the way) wrote:

I've started writing historicals recently. The first two I finished were set in 1929 in Los Angeles. I'm writing one right now set in New York in the late 1880s. All you can do in terms of research is the best you can. The
20s, being Prohibition and all it brought is very well documented. Unless you have a major blunder, like put the wrong President in Washington or have the Titanic sink in 1969 (Hi Rob!!) most people won't call you on.

Or if you're like me, you spend a small fortune on books and things like old Sears, Roebuck catalogues. I was also lucky enough to go to L.A. to get some research there. Not knowing where your novel is set I can't say much more. But really, story and characters trump research.

> To which I then wrote to support what Pat said on the same day:

I agree with all that Pat says here, esp. about story over research; research is part of the back-drop and like setting belongs back of characters and action as backdrop. Look at Gone With the Wind for an example. Scarlet's 'soap opera' is far more compelling and important than the lil ol Civil War, now isn't it? As for the best way to get CAUGHT in a blunder before it goes public, I have found my best avenue of defense are good early readers and editors - whom I love, one and all. I generally acknowledge them one and all on my ack page, and yes ebooks have ack pgs and dedication pgs if they so choose same as some having a eAutographed title page.

Like Pat, for props, I rely heavily on Sears and Roebuck but also Wards' Catalogues of the day along with all the many books consulted. If you have your character pick up a gun that does not yet exist, whoa, you will hear about it....sometimes you will hear about it and the person who flagged it is DEAD WRONG. But even if you do a contemporary novel as I did with my Edge Series and set it in a venue you have NEVER been to as in Houston, will rile some folks up if you fail to call the Canals running through the city Channels....or visa-verse as I forget which was correct now but I sure HEARD about it from ONE disgruntled reader who did acknowledge that it was the only problem bothering him in FOUR novels of 80-90,000 words, and he loved my main character, a Texas bred Cherokee Indian named Lucas Stonecoat.

So you do your best, you be as diligent about the research as humanly possible, and then you do like ten rewrites as your early readers pick it apart, going back to the well and your sources many times over. My problem with research is I always leap into the story and have to stop and start to go back to the research to be be sure....

PLEASE DO LEAVE a comment if nothing else to let me know you dropped by!

Rob Walker
Titanic 2012 - a hundred year old mystery with a horrific twist
Children of Salem - an ecumenical spy w/vendetta falls in love with the witch's daughter instead


  1. Hi Rob, love your work. Very clear advice. Thanks...Lee Scott~just so you might recognize my posts.......

  2. thanks Lee for dropping by and the kind remarks. You need find me at Kindle Comm. forums - my exciting new Incredible Hulk size forum "What Sends Kindle bks off Shelves" is nearing 13,000 views!!