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Brooke Shaffer

Author, Ski Patroller, and Pasta-Eater Extraordinaire

Writing Historical Fiction: Mistakes (Redo)

There is little worse in the world for an author than to spend months or years laboring over a work of art, going line-by-line, removing every fleck of metaphorical dust, giving everything the white glove inspection, only for some douchebag on some no-account forum somewhere to point out a mistake in your once-flawless child.  And it doesn't matter whether the person was some snob who just wants to embarrass you or a well-meaning reviewer who simply wants to bring something to your attention.  Point is, it's out there now, and now you're afraid that everyone is going to think you did zero research, didn't care about getting anything right, and just shoved some half-ass novel through the works.  Oh, and your editor is an idiot, too. (It's even more embarrassing when you're self-published.)

Once you're done crying and drafting your suicide note, take a deep breath and realize the world isn't ending.  It is okay.  You will be okay.  There may even be a way to mitigate the damage.  Consider the following:

What is the nature of the mistake?

Maybe someone just got a stick up their butt over the fashions of the day. (*sniff* Ruffled collars were not the fashion of the 1840's.  It was all about flat collars. *sniff*)  Well, unless you're writing specifically about the fashion of the 1840's, or unless it is utterly imperative that your character be wearing a ruffled collar and everything would go straight to hell if he were wearing a flat collar, I would honestly say to leave it alone.

OH NO SHE DI-IDN'T

WHAAAT?  Did I seriously just tell you to ignore a mistake?!  But some reader just pointed out this glaring flaw in your masterpiece!  It is now tainted for generations to come!  You and your works will be mocked!  You will surely be known as the HF author who never cared to double-check their history!  This HF author knew nothing about history, they will say!  I must correct everything!

Mm...no.  As they say, history is written by the victor, and history is made up of many different personal perspectives.  That is what gives things flavor, when characters in a historical fiction have personalities, preferences, when they come to life as individual people and not just cardboard cutout, token-period-specific NPCs.

That's not to say that you should never fix any mistakes, but if it is something so minor that it could be used on Final Jeopardy, you don't need to give yourself an ulcer.  Passing mentions, implications, things of that nature, unless they're scattered throughout your novel and as numerous as the sprinkles I put on my ice cream, take a deep breath, and don't worry.

On the other hand, if you have people driving automobiles when they should not have been driving automobiles, unless it is an intentional, time-bending thought pieces, that might be more of a problem.  Historical figures being alive when they should not be alive is also a big problem.

Anything that interferes with the story at large should be fixed.  If your story depends on something that, if fixed, throws everything off, you have a serious problem.  If your story depends on your main character being hit by a car in the first chapter, but he's living in 1770, you've got a problem.  It's not a huge, plot-bending thing (just substitute "carriage" for "car"), but that is something that must get done.  If your story depends on your main characters collaborating some evil plot via the brand new telephone invention, but it's 1810 and you're going for the War of 1812...yeah, that's a problem. (First telephone wasn't invented until 1850.)  But, before you take another dose of anti-anxiety meds, consider this now:

What is the disparity?

In the previous paragraph, I stated that the first telephone wasn't invented until 1850.  If you type "when was the telephone invented" into Google, you're going to get a few different answers.

 

While Italian innovator Antonio Meucci (pictured at left) is credited with inventing the first basic phone in 1849, and Frenchman Charles Bourseul devised a phone in 1854, Alexander Graham Bell won the first U.S. patent for the device in 1876.

 

So what do you do?  First, you're going to go on a tangent to figure out what was so special about the first two phones, and why they didn't get the same credit Alexander Graham Bell did, besides being too slow to the patent office.

You'll also notice that I stated 1850, but Google says 1849.  Am I wrong?  Maybe on a specific technicality, but generally speaking, maybe not.  Consider any new invention.  There's the date it's first released to the public, and then there's when it becomes widespread.  Sometimes you have a little wiggle room with dates, especially the further back you go.  Another example might be the Great Depression.  New York City was the epicenter, then the big cities felt it, and then it made its way out to the rural areas.  It didn't happen in a vacuum, and it was not immediately widespread.  Depending on where your main character is living or working at the time, they may not experience the Depression at the same time as their relatives in NYC, nor in the same way.

Let's go way far back to the Roman Empire, when they started their campaigns across Europe.  Back in the day, wars moved slowly.  Armies had to march everywhere, from village to village to village, conquering them one at a time, unless a particular leader of a wider group surrendered their whole territory.  In the case of huge military or political conquests, records may be vast and fair accurate and in tact, or they may be general.  Maybe you can get the dates down to the month, such as when Julius Caesar went to war against the Celts in August of 55BC.  Maybe you can only get years, such as Ancient Egyptian conquests.  But regardless, it's not a vacuum, and it's not instantaneous.  The southern Celtic tribes are going to fight Julius Caesar before the northern ones.  You have a little wiggle room.

Why did you (the author) and/or your editor miss the mistake?

This will tell you a lot about how urgently you need to submit a new manuscript to your editor or printer.  If you are taking great care to write a historical fiction novel, then chances are good that you have done an extensive amount of research.  What possibilities exist as to why you missed this mistake?

1. Conflicting Information

This is a big one.  Again, if you don't know who won the Civil War, you have a problem.  But there are always at least two sides to every story, and every single person has their own story and experiences to tell.  Maybe you're comparing diaries of four women who lived through World War II and you find yourself wondering if they even knew what era it was because they're all different.  How do you figure out who to believe?  Consider that just because they are different does not mean that they are wrong or inaccurate.

When looking at information that is in conflict, and this would be more on a historian/researcher level, you have to also consider: is the conflicting information of any real consequence?  What circumstances might lead to the conflict?  What is the agenda of the people who are writing the conflicting information?  Are they trying to correct bad information?  Are they trying to make someone look better/worse than they would without this information?  Are they trying to cover up or bury other information?  Do they portray themselves in any way, and how?

There is no good answer to sifting through conflicting information, other than to use wise judgment.

2. Simple Ignorance

Ignorance in this case means that you just don't know, though not for lack of trying.  Maybe there is a gap in your knowledge that you can sort of chip away at through context in other areas, but for that specific element, you really just have to guess.  Maybe it's an educated guess.  Maybe it's plausible.  But then someone somewhere says it's incorrect.  Consider how much of an impact it really has on your story, and move on.  Maybe you need to change it, maybe you can just let it go.

3. Poor Time Management

Maybe it's just a case of Blurry Editing Syndrome, where you finally get five minutes to yourself at 2am and you can only look at a few pages before you fall asleep at the kitchen table.  Your brain is fuzzy, you've read your manuscript eight times already, you already know what happens, you dream about your story in fact, and you just want it to be over.  It happens.  And while I may cover editing strategies in the future, in this case, you have to go back to the basics of, What is the mistake?  Is it critical?  If it is, fix it.  There's just no way around it.

But in the future, maybe make better time.

Conclusion

And that's that, a much more solid redo of WHF: Mistakes, which also concludes the WHF series.

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