Friday, July 6, 2018

Historical Accuracy

I am currently working with a first-time author who is writing a historical novel about a time and subject about which I know very little. This, in fact, is why I was excited to edit her story. I enjoy learning new things.

However, a very short way into the book, some red flags arose. She had her character traveling on a railroad traveling north to south just prior to the Civil War. I looked up the name of the line she had used and discovered it didn’t exist—ever.

\When I questioned her about it, she said, “I just used literary license and made it up.”

Uh no.

Readers of historical fiction—especially those who read about the particular time in which she is writing, would have her head for such an invention. Readers are passionate about accuracy when it comes to their favorite periods and locations, and authors must research everything they write.

I have been known to close a book and throw it away (or remove it from my Kindle library) for blatant inaccuracies. I know devotees to particular eras do the same. Even when writing contemporary fiction, research is still important.

The more reality you include in your fiction, the more believable it becomes. So, where can you use literary license, and where should you strive for absolute accuracy? Larry wrote a blog for me a few years ago where he describes it better than I could. The following is from his blog.

In our second mystery, Murder in Paradise, our protagonist, Agapé Jones, retired NYPD detective, was supposed to drive from Honolulu to Hale’iwa. While doing research on Oahu, I drove the same route, noticed the outrigger canoes parked along the Ala Wai Canal, and shopped at the Foodland in Hale’iwa. Then Agapé did the same things in the book. We know our readers will never forgive us if we mess up their town. And if our hero drives the wrong way on a one-way street, we’ll never hear the end of it. [One reader, who had lived on Oahu, said he knew exactly where he was every minute—a testament to the value of the research.]

While I write a story in a real place, I surround myself with photos, clippings, and maps of the area I intend to write about. Anything to keep me grounded in reality.

Sometimes a picture will inspire a scene. In Murder in Paradise, I had the grandmother character tell the story of growing up as a child on the North Shore and visiting the Hale’iwa Hotel, a beautiful Victorian-style inn featuring a two-story lanai and luxurious dining room. Opened in 1898, the building was torn down in 1952. As inspiration, I purchased several early photos of the old hotel from North Shore Photo Hawaii and hung them on the wall over my computer. The pictures themselves never appeared in the book, but my descriptions became more accurate because I could visualize being there. Hopefully, I passed my vision on to the reader.

Lorna and four friends created the fictitious town of Aspen Grove, Colorado, as the location for their romance anthologies, Snowflake Secrets, Seasons of Love, Directions of Love, The Art of Love, An Aspen Grove Christmas, and …And a Silver Sixpence in Her Shoe. This allowed the authors to invent shops, restaurants, churches, B&Bs, etc. to fit their novellas. They placed Aspen Grove in the mountains west of Denver on the road leading to the ski resorts. Even though it is fictitious, it needed to have the real look and character of the area. Aspen Grove became a composite of several real towns.

Walk down the main street of Idaho Springs and you expect to see Daisy’s Diner and the Book Nook. Wander along the lakefront in Georgetown to find Drew’s log cabin, and on through town a stone building houses the Presbyterian Church. Several readers have remarked they would love to visit Aspen Grove. So would we. [But we have come close in these two small Colorado towns. Idaho Springs is shown below.]

Not only do the locations need to be correct, but also the specific time period. The events, language, customs, clothing, and props must all fit the era.

In historical fiction, it is even more important to do accurate research. Our historical novel, The Memory Keeper, concerns life at the San Juan Capistrano Mission between 1820 and 1890 as seen through the eyes of a Juaneño Indian.

For inspiration, an original etching by Rob Shaw, published in 1890 by H L Everett, showing the mission grounds, hangs over my computer and did so during the writing of the book.

Our bibliography ran eleven pages. We also enlisted the aid of the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society, mission docents, the local San Juan historian, and a Juaneño native storyteller as beta readers for historical information. We weren’t satisfied until they were satisfied with the accuracy of our details.

That said, I have to remind myself. Never let the facts get in the way of the story. Too many details can turn a good story into a boring history lesson. In the end, the research should support and enhance, but not overwhelm. We must choose which facts to include, leave out, and make up. If we’ve done our job, our readers will become so involved with the plot and compelling characters, the facts will blend in. They’ll never know how much research went into it. But we will.


  1. I never considered the difference between accuracy in historical vs. contemporary fiction but this post spotlights the importance of detailed research.

    1. Far too many authors think they can "make it up." Readers know the difference, and they aren't very tolerant when you get it wrong.

  2. When I wrote my two historical family sagas I spent more time doing research than writing.

    1. So did we. Two-and-a-half years on THE MEMORY KEEPER, and now over two years on the sequel.