Monday, February 11, 2013

Research Ideas - Historical Accuracy Part 2


The review was a scathing commentary on a historical romance by an author with a big name publisher. The couple featured in this novel were actual historical figures and the reviewer’s complaint was this: The author should have checked with local historical societies to better characterize the protagonists.

I felt embarrassed for the writer. Despite the numerous four and five star reviews for this novel, I can only imagine the author’s consternation with such a criticism.

While it’s true that you can’t please everyone, most writers that I know want to be as accurate in their research as possible. And none of us wants that kind of criticism that says, “You weren’t careful with your facts.”

So how does a writer go about the practical aspects of research? Sophie Dawson’s recent post spurred my interest in carrying on this important discussion, because being accurate in both contemporary and historical venues is important. It gives our work credibility. And ultimately, if a reader trusts our research as well as appreciates our writing, they’ll often come back for more.

I confess to being far from perfect. In my second novel, The Promise of Deer Run, I inadvertently described a gunpowder horn as being a “deer antler.” One of my historian contacts pointed out that gunpowder was kept in cow’s horns. Duh! I knew that, yet I still wrote, read, and re-read this mistake. My editor even didn’t even catch it. But as Sophie so accurately pointed out, the responsibility lies with the writer, not the editor. It may seem small, but it was still an error.

When I wrote my latest manuscript, I had a question about oxen. Could oxen in a yoke reach the ground to graze? I had no idea. So I contacted my oxen expert (yes, I have one!). He assured me that it is possible for them to graze, even in a yoke, if left unattended. Voila. I had my answer. And it relieved me to know that no one would read that small excerpt and say, “Oxen couldn’t do that!”

I treasure my historian contacts that can verify or nullify my ideas. I have developed a network of experts in Massachusetts at several museums including the Springfield Armory, Storrowton Village, and the Springfield Museum itself that are an invaluable resource for details in my writing. With a quick e-mail or phone call, I can get all kinds of answers to questions that I might not find in my limited supply of books. The historians at museums are wonderful and usually more than willing to share their knowledge. Sometimes there are library archivists in larger museums that are also a font of knowledge.

A quick search of online museums in your desired location should produce one or more to check out. You want to find a museum that specializes in your era and in the locale that you are researching.

As far as books go, I have dozens. I tried using my local library as a resource but one very valuable volume that I found was limited to the numbers of times I could renew. I searched on Amazon for the out-of-print book and found a used copy. I have used it steadily ever since, proving it to be a wise investment.

Besides the books on my shelves, I regularly go online to check facts. In one of my searches for information on taverns (the motels of Colonial America), I found a group of descendants of tavern keepers from the 18th century!  

I also belong to a network of Colonial American Christian writers. We pick each other’s brains about details, hoping someone else might know the answer from their research.

Google is a gift, but I try to double-check my facts to be assured of authenticity. There are numerous Google books that are free to peruse that have historical facts. Some of them allow a download, which is extremely helpful.

But nothing beats the up close and personal visit to a site that is represented in a story that I am writing. The visual impressions that stir my imagination nourish the facts that I have learned, hopefully creating a novel worthy of anyone’s scrutiny.

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