Monday, March 29, 2021

Accuracy in Historical Fiction: Does It Matter? by Ashley E. Sweeney

 In children’s literature, if a frog and a monkey wear striped pajamas and go on vacation to the moon, we think nothing of it. But give Wyatt Earp a cellphone or Calamity Jane a sports car and poof! Our credibility as an author is shot. 

Back when I was a reporter at a rural weekly newspaper in Washington State in the 1980s and 1990s, the Five W’s ruled first paragraphs. The thinking behind this formulaic style of journalistic writing is that if stories must be shortened due to space limitations, all the facts still appear in the story: Who/What/When/Where/Why. 

And our editor drilled into our heads: Check your facts. Get them right. Period. 

 You might ask: What’s the big deal? No ones cares. Or: Why attempt to “get it right”? I don’t have the time for that. 

I subscribe to the camp that authors have both a burden and a responsibility for being as historically accurate as possible, unless it gets in the way of the story (and, in that case, mention any discrepancies in the afterword). As authors, we want readers to trust us (and come back for more), which is why we can’t risk making reckless mistakes. 

 It’s important here to delineate the difference between material facts and immaterial facts. With material facts, i.e. what date was Abraham Lincoln sworn into office, there is no margin of error. What he ate for breakfast, what color socks he wore, or what time he retired that night are immaterial facts, and we, as authors, can color our manuscripts with our imaginations when writing in this type of detail. 

 How to do this? For each of my manuscripts, I begin collecting resources as soon as an idea surfaces. In the early stages of any manuscript, I amass 50-100 books on various subjects pertinent to the era and turn to librarians, historians, museum curators, authors, storytellers—and the Internet—to fill in holes. 

 Here are some other tips for sourcing data: *Visit locale/setting of novel, if possible, to flesh out all sensory elements *Read/research anything and everything about the era you are writing about: Literature Newspapers and Magazines Advertisements Maps Art Encyclopedias Photos/Film Diaries/Journals Music Census Data School, Church, and Land Records Calendars/Phases of the Moon/Tide Charts Almanacs and Catalogues Birth, Marriage, and Death Announcements Recipes *Visit museums/historical societies (actual or virtual) *Use print, digital, audio, and crowd-sourced material

In writing Answer Creek and Eliza Waite (and in my current work in progress), I fact-check myself constantly. Did matchsticks exist in the late 19th century? Who was president of the U.S. in the 1840s and 1890s? What were accepted practices for births and deaths in remote settlements? Where did pioneers access herbal remedies commonly used for constipation and ulcer? When did women get the vote in each of the states? Why were oxen and mules preferable to horses? How did men and women cook and bathe without any modern conveniences, especially on overland trails or in rural areas? 

When writing, I place a triple XXX as a placeholder to remind me to return to fact check that piece of information as I don’t want to disrupt the flow of writing to check every detail when creative juices flow. It’s easy to find this marker (or TK, i.e. “to come”) in document searches. On days when I don’t feel particularly inclined to churn out a thousand words or two, I use that time for historical research. It’s one of my favorite parts of the writing process, but it can become very time consuming. 

Some authors fear they’ll get it all wrong and that fear stops them cold—this line of thinking is writer’s prison. If you’re scared before you put anything down on paper or computer, you’re compromised every time you sit at your desk. Days and weeks turn into months of procrastination. Your story dies on the vine because you’re worried that some aficionado/reviewer is going to tank your manuscript once it’s published. You’re not any closer to getting published if fear is crippling you. 

Instead, try turning that fear around and calling it confidence—confidence in your skills as a researcher and a writer, confidence that you’re aligning yourself with history and paying attention to detail, confidence that you will endeavor to get everything right (not just facts, but characters and settings and plot), but not at the expense of never getting anything down on paper or computer at all. Through this lens of confidence, you’ll turn prison into permission. You’ve got lots of time to check and re-check facts. 

 That’s why in my new manuscript, set in 1905 rural Arizona Territory, you won’t find my protagonist driving a Jeep, reading a book or magazine that wasn’t published yet, or saying something that wasn’t in vogue at the time. Every day, I find myself going down proverbial rabbit holes doing historical research—but that’s a topic for another newsletter! 

Remember what Thomas Edison said: “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” 

 So get to work! In the meantime, I’m back at it, too. Perched on my shoulder, my old editor keeps whispering in my ear. Check your facts. Get them right. Period. 

Find Ashley and her books HERE

Ashley E. Sweeney is the winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for her debut novel, Eliza Waite. A native New Yorker, she is a graduate of Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, and resides in Tucson. Answer Creek, released in May 2020, is her second novel, and winner of the 2020 Arizona Authors Association Literary Award. She is at work on a third novel set in 1905 rural Arizona. Find Ashley’s books by clicking these links: Answer Creek and Eliza Waite Visit Ashley’s website HERE. Winner: 2020 Arizona Authors Association Literary Award Winner: 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award Finalist: 2016 Sarton Women’s Book Award Finalist: 2017 WILLA Literary Award

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