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Brooke Shaffer

Author, Ski Patroller, and Pasta-Eater Extraordinaire

Writing Historical Fiction: Mistakes

Now we get to the part of the WHF series no one likes to admit: mistakes.  No matter how thorough you research, no matter how many times you go back and assure yourself that all the dates, all the names, all the details are right, sometimes you get the final product and discover a glaring error.  You wonder how you could have missed it.  You could have sworn that you deliberately checked that thing right there and you double-checked it to make sure it was right.  But there it is.  Then you wonder if anyone is really going to notice or care.  Hopefully not.

So, what do you do when you do notice a mistake?  Your first instinct is probably to scrap the whole thing, reupload, resubmit, re-whatever, and hope no one notices.  Maybe you can sell the first thousand prints as limited edition when you become rich and famous.

Stay calm.

Take a deep breath.

Let's evaluate the situation first.

What is the nature of the mistake?

Major Problems

If you don't know who won the Civil War, yeah, that might be a problem.  Unless you are intentionally writing alternative history or other thought experiment, this is a bit of a problem.

Unfortunately, for something like this, there probably isn't a good way to weasel your way out of a situation like this, and a serious re-edit is needed.

Other major problems include wrong leaders to wrong countries and extreme differences in dates.

Moderate Problems

Moderate problems are major problems that are more passive than active in relation to your story.  For example, a novel that is entirely about the Civil War would have a problem if you said it started in 1858.  On the other hand, a novel where the Civil War is only mentioned could get away with such a statement if it was padded with statements that basically make the point that wars rarely happen in a vacuum, that there are always circumstances leading up to it, and the first shots fired may not be the "beginning" of the war for everyone involved.

Minor Problems

Minor problems are those that may not even be noticed by those who don't know more than basic knowledge about a subject.  Sometimes you can turn these mistakes into intentional elements of your novel later on.

Tripwire Problems

These are typos and misuse of certain homophones that visually trip up the reader.

What To Do

Once again, you can spend hours and days and weeks going over your story and still end up with some mistake somewhere.  Sometimes you just have to roll with it.  Do you really want to go through the major hassle of resubmitting your entire novel because there is a typo on page 61 of 643?  Maybe.  Probably not.  Whether you are self-published or traditionally published, that would be a huge hassle.

You could try to explain it away, brush it off.  Once again, the active or passive part of saying the Civil War started in 1858.  One is a problem, the other could be a philosophical debate.

And that brings up the point of the nature of the mistake or the complaint that brought it to your attention.  Sometimes, a mistake is less of a mistake and more of a debate point.  These are usually based on cultural aspects: fashion, sports, political views.  While it might be incorrect to date the Industrial Revolution before 1500, debates on farming techniques are open to interpretation (and ongoing).  If your "mistake" is actually a debate, leave it alone.

A general rule of thumb to follow would be: If it takes another novel to explain a major mistake, another chapter to explain a moderate/minor mistake, it's probably worth considering a resubmit.  Sometimes, you can get away with making a mistake a new element in your story, but it's a situational thing.

Conclusion

There are different types of mistakes, and different ways of dealing with them.  Mistakes can be scary, but they are not the end of the world.

There will be one or two more installments of WHF.  I hope it is helping you somewhat.

Cheers

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