Thursday, June 1, 2017

Recreating the Past: How to achieve accuracy in historical fiction that will win the nod of approval from even the nit-pickiest historian

Certainly the best way to learn to write is to read.  Specifically what to read can be the snag.  Particularly when your goal is to write historical fiction.  This can involve creating a setting which is far removed from the world we live in now.  Unfortunately, we can’t visit another time to see what it was actually like.  So, how do we go about studying the past for the purpose of recreating it in fiction?  When writing about the past, how do we know that we won’t make a mistake?

I admit that I am a nitpicky historian.  In fact, I tend to just stick to stuff written during the time period in question, rather than stuff written later that takes place back then.  When I read historical fiction, particularly fiction that takes place during times I am extremely familiar with, I tend to look for every little place I can find where the author goofed (and I usually find a few). Probably a bad habit, as it does distract from the enjoyment of the book. 

Am I the only one that does that?

A recent example:  I recently acquired a few 1930s historical mysteries by Jill Churchill, specifically Anything Goes, In the Still of the Night, and Who’s Sorry Now.  I like mysteries.  I also really like the 1930s.  And the author won an Agatha Award.  And the back covers contained praise like “rich in period color.”  So I attempted to overcome my skepticism of historical fiction and gave them a try.  I found plenty of opportunities to nitpick. 

(Disclaimer: As much as I might nitpick, I wouldn’t have finished reading the books if they didn’t have redeeming qualities.  There were plenty of places where the author really did do her research very well.)

Using these books as examples, I will give a short outline of several common problems I run across in historical fiction.  When recreating the past, even little things can jolt the historically-minded reader out of any illusion of “period color.”  For me, even the tiniest detail that is out of place for the time period feels like getting hit in the face with a great big sign that says "THIS IS NOT REAL!"  If your goal as an author of historical fiction is to transport the reader to another time, a place that feels real and solid, like the reader is actually there, then even the tiniest details are extremely important.

Usually the problems that I find in historical fiction fit into one of these four categories.  Afterwards, I will discuss a few ways to study the past when preparing to recreate it in fiction, and hopefully avoid these problems.   

Including stuff that should not be there

The historian's word for this is anachronism.  This is one of the most common problems.   While it sometimes involves physical objects, it is more often abstract things like vocabulary or even scientific knowledge not specific to the time.  For example, in one of Jill Churchill’s books, a veteran compared the appearance of a battlefield to the surface of Mars.  This annoyed me simply because no one knew yet what the surface of Mars looked like.  In the 1930s, Mars was only a topic for wild science fiction and would never have been used in a serious comparison like that. (In the 1930s, most people  thought Mars had canals!)

Not including stuff that could/should be there

This problem is almost harder to spot than the first one.  Sometimes it is just an impression that may not even surface until after finishing the book.  What felt like it was missing?  Telegrams, telephone exchange names, radio programs other than music… Other times the missing things are a little more obvious.  When a character was fretting about making an expensive long-distance phone call from a hospital in another city, which was against the hospital’s rules, I really wondered why he didn’t simply ask the operator to reverse the charges.  Especially since the recipient could have considered the call a business expense.  It would have been a very easy and historically accurate solution to the problem, and yet no one thought of it.

While it may seem minor, this problem can really be a serious one.  Imagine someone a hundred years from now writing historical fiction about the 2010s and not mentioning smartphones or internet.  An absolutely vital piece of the setting would be missing.  This is why it is important to have a thorough understanding of everyday life in your chosen time period. 

 Making no big deal of stuff that would have been

Modern convinces have spoiled us.  Sometimes we forget how complicated or hard things were in the past that are very easy now.  Even the simple comment that a radio was moved from one room to another for the evening somehow managed to annoy me.  By contrast, another book I’ve read that was actually written in the early 1930s (I’ve forgotten which book as I’ve read literally over a hundred 1930s dime novels) described the process of purchasing a radio.  It was delivered to the house on a truck, carried into the house by two men, and then installed by a professional radio technician.  Radios in the early 1930s were huge, heavy, fragile, somewhat stationary pieces of furniture.  You didn’t typically move them around from one room to another on a whim.  If you did decide it was absolutely necessary to move it, the enormous amount of effort involved would likely have taken more than one quick sentence to describe. 

Making a big deal of stuff that was not

In this case, the presence of alcohol.

Ok, so my first three examples were tiny little nitpicky things that a non-historian would likely have never noticed.  My next example would also go completely unnoticed by someone who hasn’t specifically studied the 1920s-30s, but it is big.  Really big.  Like, I wanted to throw the book across the room and shout “FAIL!” 

Specifically, this was the comment that Prohibition made the possession of alcohol illegal.  Contrary to popular belief, it did not.  The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, more commonly known as Prohibition, only made illegal the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol.  Possession is never mentioned.  You could possess and drink all of it you wanted without breaking the law.  The Eighteenth Amendment was passed in 1919, but did not go into effect until 1920.  More than a few people spent that year stockpiling.  (The Eighteenth Amendment was nullified by the Twenty-First, which was passed in 1933). 

The context for that terribly inaccurate comment involved owning a private wine cellar and serving alcohol to a few guests.  There was a concern that the police might do something about it, since alcohol was “illegal to possess.”  In reality, as long as the alcohol had been acquired legally before 1920, did not leave the premises, and no money changed hands, there was nothing illegal about it and the police would have had no actual reason to become involved. 

While little slips are annoying but forgivable, incorrectly defining Prohibition is really inexcusable.  (It might have been excusable if the 18th Amendment was an eight hundred page long, super-complex legal document, but it is less than half a page.)  This is also a type of mistake that is super easy to avoid when writing historical fiction.  Just double-check everything.  Even things you think you know.  You might be surprised to find out just how much “common knowledge” is really “common misconception.” 

So those are four common mistakes, with examples.  Now comes the fun part, discussing how to avoid them and create historical settings that feel as real is if you were really there. 

Immerse yourself in actual period literature.

This is by far my favorite method! 

And I don’t mean just read old books.  Study them like your professor told you there would be a sudden pop quiz worth half your final grade.  How are people, places, and events described?  How do people interact with one another?  What are the prevalent attitudes towards politics, religion, employment, class, gender, and other issues?  What do people do for fun?  What do people talk about at the dinner table? 

Keep in mind the author’s purpose.  Is it from the 19th century, when literature was often supposed to convey a moral?  Or is it a 1930s dime novel intended purely for entertainment?  Along with purpose, consider the author’s bias.  The author always has one.  The book generally reflects his or her views.  How do the author’s views compare with generalizations concerning the time period?  Does the author reflect the values of the times, or go against them?

Keep in mind that even historical works might not always be “historically accurate.”  For example, out of all those dime novels I’ve read, they rarely even referenced the Great Depression.  1930s dime novels are generally about mad scientists with fantastic and deadly inventions, evil geniuses plotting world domination, master criminals with terrifying plans, and the occasional Red supervillain bent on destroying the US government by some entirely impractical method.  And lots of high speed car chases. (50 miles an hour! My, how terribly fast!)  And tommy-gun shoot-outs in the middle of the street.  And the hero always wins against even the most overwhelming odds.  Fantastic fun, but certainly not textbook history. 

Or is it?  Always pay attention to the author’s purpose, as well as the original audience.  These books were cheap entertainment meant for the masses.  The fantastic plots and lack of Great Depression scenery were precisely because people read them to get away from an entirely depressing everyday life.  This is “escapist” fiction.  But for all the wild plots, it is not entirely unrealistic.  For example, the stories with Red supervillains did illustrate a real fear of Communism, an actual historical concern.  Even when the plot of the book is unrealistic, it can still provide information about the way ordinary people lived and saw the world at the time. 

Another fun note to be aware of.  Pay attention to strange objects or situations that are not clearly described.  Perhaps this could be considered a drawback: the book might be “too close” to the time period in which it is written.  Sometimes the range of “common knowledge” shifts, and unclear moments are indicators of this.  For an example of this, a certain 1930s dime novel mentioned an autogiro without any explanation.  I, of course, not being an aviation expert, had to look this up.  (Turns out it’s something like the forerunner of the helicopter.)  However, the lack of in-text explanation demonstrates that this would have been relatively familiar to a 1930s audience. 

Finally, it must be acknowledged that times have changed.  Different times lived by different values.  A great deal of historical literature is full of what would now be called “political incorrectness.”   Perhaps using this term is an anachronism (applying the concept of “political correctness” to a time when such a concept did not exist).  Maybe it would be better to call it “historical perspective.”  Still, that certainly does not make it right.  The negative points of the past should not be condoned just because society thought it was normal at the time.  Perhaps one of the benefits of modern historical fiction is the ability to add strong female or minority voices to times when such groups were often marginalized.  As Benjamin Franklin said of his own (intentionally inaccurate) autobiography, “Defects can be corrected in the second draft.”  Perhaps historical fiction can be a bit like that too. 

Update:  While sharing a lesson on historical fiction at a local writers' group, this research method met with a surprising amount of, well, surprise.  One author even asked, "How much can I really learn about history from reading fiction?"  And so it seems that I must emphasize and clarify this point:

The value of period literature as a research tool for historical fiction should not be underestimated!

When most people think about doing research, they think about reading textbooks.  But think about textbooks for a moment.  They tell you who the president was, what wars were going on, and what the economy looked like.  If that is all you know about history, how boring is your historical fiction going to be?

Think about 1930s dime novels again for a moment.  Evil super-villains aside, the other characters typically dressed, spoke, thought, and acted like it was the 1930s.  They rode in taxis, read newspapers, listened to the radio, sent telegrams, smoked cigarettes, checked into hotels, ate at restaurants, and used the phone booth in the corner drugstore.  These are scenes from everyday life in the 1930s.  I have learned far more about what ordinary life was like in the 1930s from reading dime novels than I ever could from reading textbooks. 

Also note that the crazy pulp fiction books that I find so entertaining were not the only books written in the 1930s.  There were many more serious books, "Literature with a capital L," written too.  These might be more realistic and helpful for research (but not half as fun!)

The purpose of studying period literature is to soak up the atmosphere.  This is something you will NOT find in textbooks.  When writing historical fiction, you will find an understanding of the atmosphere to be incredibly helpful!

Read what has been written about that period literature.

After you’ve selected and studied literature from your chosen time period, it can be helpful find out what other people have to say about those particular works of literature or the authors who wrote them.  And I don’t mean the Amazon reviews or random people’s blogs.  I mean stuff by experts in the field.  Go to the library and browse the literary criticism section.  Give "Google Scholar" a try.  Maybe even glance at a biography of the author.  Books and articles like these are likely to be fairly reliable. 

It is still incredibly important to consider the author’s purpose and bias in creating the work.  (I would strongly urge you to do that for everything you read.) 

Please also note that “critical lenses” used by different types of scholars can vary widely.  If your purpose is historical research, something by a literary historian is likely to be the most interesting and helpful.  Something that examines the work in a post-modernist, deconstructionalist sort of way is not likely to be as useful in understanding historical context.

While this may not seem like the most interesting method of research, it really can be extremely helpful for understanding historical context.  See my last five blog posts for an example.  (That was a college British Literature assignment on Charles Dickens’ Hard Times.)  

Looking at good articles analyzing the period literature you have just studied will help you to better understand how that literature relates to your time period, and therefore really enhances the usefulness of studying history through period literature.  Furthermore, literary criticism is often "peer reviewed," meaning that it was not only written by an expert, but other experts read it and put their stamp of approval on it.    Note:  Not all scholars agree on interpretations or analysis of literature, but they are generally all working from a group of accepted or verifiable facts.  This type of research is typically reliable.  The same cannot be said about all materials used for research. 

 Study your time period.

This goes along with the above, but is a little more general.  Read other things besides fiction written during the time period.  If you have a specific time and location picked out for your setting, look for things from or about that place.  Old newspapers, perhaps.  Things like that can sometimes be found online, or perhaps a library there has old local newspapers on microfilm.  (I know my local library does.)  One drawback here, if you are a lover of history, is the possibility of “getting lost” in this type of historical research.  If you are like me, even the advertisements in really old newspapers can be so much fun to read that suddenly the library is about to close and you accidentally didn’t get any “real” work done! 

If you are writing about a famous person, read things they wrote, as well as what their contemporaries wrote about them.  Maybe they wrote an autobiography or speeches or legal documents.  If your historical figure is a preacher, read their sermons.  If your figure is an author, by all means read their books.  Maybe they kept a journal or diary.  Keep in mind, though, that even primary sources like diaries are not always accurate.  A person can write that they intend to do something tomorrow, and then end up doing something completely different instead and never record the change in plans.

Do secondary research also.  This could include textbooks and documentaries about the time period.  These can give you a pretty good general overview about the time you are studying.  But there are drawbacks.  Textbooks rarely tell you about how ordinary people lived, and that is usually a bigger part of historical fiction.  You also don’t want your fiction to sound like a textbook.  That would be boring.  Historical fiction is not supposed to be boring. 

You might also be surprised to find that not all textbooks or documentaries are accurate.  *GASP* You can’t believe everything you see on TV?  Nope.  My college history professor absolutely banned anything to do with the History Channel.  By my senior year I could see why.  In an art history class, the art professor showed us an old History Channel documentary about Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.  Some enthusiastic retired general went on and on about how the battle scenes were so realistic that Homer himself was probably a witness to the events.  (The two history majors sitting next to me were also groaning.)  My next report in that class was literally about everything that was wrong with that documentary.  Homer might not have actually existed.  If he did, he was probably blind and lived in a different part of the world a few centuries after the Trojan War supposedly took place.  And why on earth were they talking to a retired general instead of a reputable historian? 

Just goes to show, when doing historical research, you do have to be careful about where you get your information.  

Read historical fiction.

After all of my nit-pickiness, why would I make such a recommendation?  Well, not so much for the historical accuracy as for the importance of staying on top of modern trends in historical fiction.  What do readers and publishers want?  Study the writing as well.  And do look for historical inaccuracies.  If you can spot any, that’s a good sign for your research skills.  It means you are well on your way to becoming an expert in your chosen time period. 

Overall, this is not a comprehensive list and there is no single correct way to do research.  Multiple approaches can complement each other well. The bottom line is that getting to know the past well enough to recreate it in fiction does indeed take a lot of research. 

While writing, visualize the scene.  Imagine yourself walking down the street. How are people dressed?  What kind of cars are people driving? What tune does the mailman whistle as he walks down the street?  What does the architecture look like? What’s on display in the shop windows?  Walk into a shop.  What is on sale?  How much do the items cost?  What does the shopkeeper gossip about with his customers?  Now visit your character’s home.  What kind of furniture is in the living room?  The bedroom? What does the pattern on the wallpaper look like?  What does the carpet on the floor look like?  What does the family talk about at the dinner table?  Go in the kitchen and open a few cabinet drawers.  What do you find?  What’s in the basement, the attic, or the garage? 

A very important note: The purpose of all of this research is not to put every single little historical scrap of information into your fiction.  That would be incredibly overwhelming and more than a little boring for your reader.  You might as well right a history textbook then.  The purpose of this research is to make the time period real to you.   If it is not real to you, it will not be real to your readers either.  

As a reader of historical fiction, I personally prefer it when historical information is woven into the background without having a lot of attention drawn to it.  It feels more natural that way.  As for picking out information to include, look for things that perhaps aren't common knowledge.  If there is anything particularly surprising that you found during your research, it would probably surprise your readers too. 

Other questions for discussion: 
Times have changed. A great deal of what is “historically accurate” is not “politically correct,” and may even be downright offensive.  Should history be changed, even in fiction?  Or rather, should the more problematic aspects of the time be emphasized in a negative light? 

(In the study of history, while culturally accepted negative points of the past are generally not condoned, evaluating the past by the standards of the present is referred to as “presentism.”  Words like “Presentism,” “Bias,” “Anachronism,” and “Essentialism,” are historian’s insults.)

Even historical fiction can influence or change readers’ perceptions of history.  To what extent should historical fiction be used to this effect?

What is the purpose of historical fiction?  To entertain?  To educate?  What does historical fiction do that fiction with a contemporary setting does not?

If you found this article helpful, please leave a comment.   :)  I love comments!


  1. Hi Sarah! What a great, informative post this is. We love historical fiction because it "puts us" in that time period. It makes sense then, that if that time period is not accurate, we're misled or misinformed. Bravo! Great job!

  2. Well done! I'm looking forward to your teaching on Monday too! Thank you so much Sarah! I appreciate all the work and expertise you have to write this! :)