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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  1. Your post, Elaine, is a good reminder for all of us who write fiction and want to be authentic and credible. Your humility and wisdom are appreciated.

  2. Thank you, Janet. There is nothing more humbling than being a writer—and hopefully I have become wiser with experience. I appreciate you stopping by!

  3. I'm one of those picky people - but I love history, so whenever I question something I get a big kick out of looking it up, whether the writer is correct or not, I've still learned something and kept my gray matter from stiffening up.

  4. Nothing worse than stiff gray matter. ;-) I love it when you question! It's readers like you that keep the writers on their toes!

  5. Janet, great information. I wrote a MG fantasy set in 16th century China and did tons of research. I didn't have experts to bounce information off of, but did use whatever sources were available. And, didn't think of museums.

    1. Hi Karen! That was very courageous of you to take on the challenge of 16th century China. I admire you! That would prove especially difficult contacting local museums as there was a language barrier (unless of course, you are fluent in Chinese). Sounds like you were able to access the info you needed with other sources. Good for you! Thanks for stopping by. Elaine

  6. Hi April! I agree that one can become so obsessed with intricate details that it becomes mentally crippling to a writer. And it's not like we don't have enough other worries troubling us (correct grammar, word usage.....on and on). I think we have to have a balanced approach—I know I could lay awake at night wondering if everything was written accurately! I LOVE your idea of an experts' Database. That is a perfect solution to getting those historical details easily confirmed. And the fact that you ask your experts if they can be contacted must endear you to their historical hearts. Courtesy is the name of the game! Thanks so much for sharing. :)

  7. Excellent post, and so necessary to keep in mind when writing historicals--be they romance or any other. I love having my dad and mom at my fingertips (phone) because of their broad knowledge about myriad subjects. Especially when I would much rather learn the historic facts through a conversation than reading a somewhat dry article. :) If I am able to ask questions, I am more able to retain the information, and in a more personal fashion.

  8. How lovely to have your parents available as historic resources! That is the most personal touch I can think of.

    I love hearing interesting facts about long ago from my own mom, although, at this point in time, her memory is undependable. I so wish our brains could be a safe harbor for information up until we are gone, but sometimes, the memories begin to fade. That is when I appreciate those articles that, although dry, can give important facts.

    Thanks so much for stopping by, Nona!