Hi everyone. Welcome to GWN’s blog. Relax, get a cup of whatever you have in the morning to wake you up and get ready for some tips on historical accuracy in historical fiction from Erin Farwell.
An author’s job is to tell a story and to tell it well. Like a juggler with several balls in the air, a writer must keep their story balanced with regard to plot, characters, setting, and pacing. Regardless of the genre, the story must be grounded in a specific time and place. This is especially true for historical fiction, where one false move can wrench a reader from the world you’ve created. Keeping a reader engaged is both the goal and the challenge.
With historical fiction it is easy to make a misstep, creating a rift between reader and the story. Here are some of the common errors historical fiction writers make and how to avoid them:
- Sharing your research and forgetting to tell a story. Most writers have more facts and details at their disposal than they will ever use in a book. I find this helpful when I write because I am able to understand the life of my characters even if I don’t include everything in the story. The problem occurs when a writer comes across a detail or series of facts that he or she finds fascinating and wants to share with the world. The moment your research takes precedence over plot or character development, you risk alienating the reader. If you rearrange a scene or create a convoluted set of circumstance just to share a fact that you find interesting, stop. If the detail doesn’t naturally fit in the story, it doesn’t belong there. You might use it in another project but don’t force it into this one. Keep the story your priority.
- Highlighting a process that was different at the time the story is set than it would be today. Writing about the small details of your world will ground the story for readers and help them empathize with the characters. However sharing details is not the same as sharing processes. Unless the information is necessary to the plot, a reader doesn’t need to know the specifics of how to start a wood burning stove, milk a cow, forge a horseshoe, cook over an open fire, or weave cloth. You need to trust that your readers to have their own knowledge that they bring to the story. As a general rule of thumb, if someone living in the time the story is set would find a process unworthy of comment, so should your characters unless it is critical to your plot or character development.
- Using modern concepts or verbiage in your story. In my novel I have a scene in which a young boy leads an adult to a house. The boy runs ahead, then back to the adult, then ahead again. As I wrote the scene I wanted to describe the boy’s behavior as being like a yoyo. A quick internet search informed me that while yoyos did exist in 1927, they had just come on the market and were only sold California. The phrase I wanted to use was not a part of society’s lexicon in 1927 so I had to find a different description. The same was true when I said someone was going to babysit a child. In 1927 you minded a child, not babysat. These may seem like small issues, unworthy of notice, but many readers will catch them and it will draw them out of the story.
- Acknowledging a future event. Another name for this problem is author intrusion. There are times when an author might be tempted to write something like: “Little did Jeb know that the swamp he hunted in would one day be transformed into the city of Miami.” This type of phrase yanks a reader out of the world you’ve created and they may not wish to come back. The characters can only know what the typical person would know at the time the story is set and to include anything else is a disservice both to the reader and to your work. Sometimes this situation can occur more subtly then you might be aware. One of my personal pet peeves is when a book set in the 1920s or 1930s has the phrase “World War I” rather than “the Great War.” The Great War didn’t become WWI until the Second World War started. The nuances are small but significant.
- Placing accuracy over story. While accuracy is of great importance in historical fiction, you don’t need to be fanatical when certain issues arise. For example, if a shift in the location of a building, especially one that is not generally known to the typical reader, is a better fit for your story, do it. Just don’t put the Parthenon in France. In my novel a hotel that I use as a landmark was closed for renovations in 1927. I am probably one of five people who know this and no one else is likely to care. Originally I had written the situation accurately but later realized I had spent too much time on what was to have been a passing comment. I decided to trade pacing over fact, which was the right choice for the story.
As writers of historical fiction we face a heavy burden. Readers expect to be taken into the past with an entertaining plot, interesting characters and historical accuracy. We are truly jugglers, balancing these expectations within the construct of our plot, pacing, characters and the story as a whole, but that is the key. As long as your research supports the story rather than becomes the story, you will avoid one of the biggest mistakes made by emerging historical novelists.
Cindy here again!
Some great points here, Erin! When I’m going back to revise my historicals I will keep these tips in mind.