Some Thoughts on Historical Research

When historical fiction is done right, it's like taking a magical vacation to a different time, another land. Whether it's Victorian London, the Australian Outback, or the American West, quality historical fiction has the ability to bring a story to life in ways nonfiction never will. But no doubt about it, if you want to write good historical fiction, you're going to have to research. GIVEAWAY: Michael is excited to give away a free copy of his book to a random commenter. Comment within one week; you MUST leave your e-mail in the comment somewhere or else we will not be able to contact you; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. Update: Airpig won.
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Man, I flat love good historical fiction. When it's done right, it's like taking a magical vacation to a different time, another land. Whether it's Victorian London, the Australian Outback, or the American West, quality historical fiction has the ability to bring a story to life in ways nonfiction never will. But no doubt about it, if you want to write good historical fiction, you're going to have to research.

Michael is excited to give away a free copy of his book to a random commenter. Comment within one week; you MUST leave your e-mail in the comment somewhere or else we will not be able to contact you; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Airpig won.)

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Guest column by Michael Zimmer, author of THE LONG HITCH,
a Five Star Western (August 2011), as well as seven other Western
and historical fiction novels. Publishers Weekly called THE LONG HITCH,
"...a clever story that packs some nice twists. Best, however, is Zimmer's
carefully drawn, historically accurate portrayal of the characters..."
Visit Michael's author website here.


GOOD RESEARCH REQUIRES VIGILANCE

That's not necessarily a bad thing if you're already fascinated with a certain era, and it can be a lot of fun, but good research requires vigilance. No matter how knowledgeable you may be on a certain subject, in all likelihood your story is going to include a large cast of young and old, male and female, saint and sinner -- individuals who will stray regularly outside your field of expertise. Which means, whether your character is a blacksmith, a shopkeeper, a detective, or a college professor, it's going to be up to you to gain at least a working knowledge of their respective fields so that they can be accurately portrayed. That rings doubly true if your readers are also familiar with the subject. It's an unfortunate fact of fiction that nothing distracts from a story quite so glaringly as a plot filled with simple mistakes.

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DETAILS BRING A STORY TO LIFE

At the same time, nothing nudges a story above the norm like those tiny little gems of details that add vividness to the scene. Most readers can probably already guess that a general store in 1910 Alabama might have a pickle barrel, or an old hound or two dozing in the shade under the front porch. But describe a just-beginning-to-rust stamped tin ceiling, or the clattery sound of a crank-handled cash register closing a sale, and you've added a spot of unexpected color to what might otherwise have been an old, familiar black and white portrait in a reader's mind.

BEWARE INACCURACIES

Sometimes, even what seems obvious can be incorrect. Want to give a wagon train scout an 1873 Colt Peacemaker on his journey to the Montana gold fields? The odds are that if you date your story any earlier than 1875 or '76, you're going to be perpetuating a myth already heavily solidified by decades of Hollywood films that would have you believe the only firearms that existed at any time in the Old West were .45 Colts and Winchester rifles. In case you're curious, the 1873 Colt was first produced for military contract, and wasn't offered to the civilian market until nearly two years after its 1873 debut. Similar discrepancies exist for a wide variety of other patented applications in which the familiar date and the actually year of production can differ greatly.

Other fallacies that have crept into the collective conscious? A stagecoach pulled by horses is certainly possible, especially in the East, but west of the Mississippi, a hitch of sturdy Missouri mules would more likely be correct -- although there are maddening exceptions to to just about every rule. How about having your hero or heroine exit an 1850s hotel, race down the steps, and enter a car? Actually, you'd probably be okay. The term car, a shortened version of carriage, has showed up at least as early as the 1840s. On the flip side of that, hailing a "cab" can be dated even earlier. A cab is a shortened form of the word cabriolet, a type of horse-drawn carriage popular in 19th century Europe. But be careful. The word "taxi," from the French taximetre, doesn't seem to have come into vogue until late in the 19th century.

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OCCASIONALLY, YOU CAN NUDGE THE FACTS

These tidbits of information and insight into the past, if interwoven carefully into the plot so as to not distract from the flow of the narrative, can set a novel apart from its competitors – always a good thing when you're looking for an agent. But finding this information can be painfully difficult. Nonfiction sources are always your safest bet. No matter how highly regarded a fiction writer is for his or her attention to detail, it's never a good idea to count on him or her for total historical accuracy. The very nature of the game – fiction -- dictates that we all have to nudge the facts occasionally. The one possible exception I can think of might be Margaret Mitchell, who is credited with having one of the most historically accurate novels ever written in Gone With the Wind. But GWTW took years to research and write, and not many of us have that kind of time to devote to a single story.

Even first-person reminiscences and journals should be viewed with suspicion. Recollections written too long after the fact are prone to memory lapses, and journals can reflect a person's prejudices as much as the subject matter. On the other hand, some things can't be found anywhere else. The price of a peck of corn in Cincinnati in 1890 will have more than one source ... somewhere. What a person thinks about the cost of that corn probably won't.

Analytical reviews on just about any subject (including the price of corn in Cincinnati) aren't difficult to find, even if they can be a little mind-numbing to get through. University Presses are great sources for this kind of information, although it's important that an author who wants to portray a historically correct perspective be aware that the biases that can slant a period journal can also exist in academic writing. There's a reason they call it Revisionist History, and it doesn't have anything to do with fresh information coming to light. Is there anything wrong with that? Maybe, maybe not, but it would be inaccurate, not to mention a discredit to both the past and your story, to base a historical character's views solely upon modern-day revisionist theories.

As much as possible, facts should be checked, then double-checked. I wince every time I find a mistake in one of my earlier novels, then I wince again when I think of the mistakes I've yet to discover -- not to mention all those waiting to be made. But it happens, and I guess about all any of us can do is to keep on trying our best, and hope that our efforts are recognized, and appreciated, by our readers

Keep writing, keep submitting, and good luck to all of us!

Michael is excited to give away a free copy of his book to a random commenter. Comment within one week; you MUST leave your e-mail in the comment somewhere or else we will not be able to contact you; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Airpig won.)

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