Last month I asked readers of this blog what irritated them when reading historical fiction, to help me prepare for a talk on “The Ten Commandments of Writing Historical Fiction.” I got some great responses, especially Vrmarvin’s dislike of “the over abundance of language describing costuming. Really, does it matter what color they were wearing? When you read contemporary accounts of historical events, clothing is rarely mentioned until it is important to the event being described. There’s no reason that authors of historical fiction should belabor every ruffle or flounce”—which I plan to expand to include overdescription in general. True, it’s necessary to set the stage, especially when the reader is unfamiliar with the world being depicted, but really, do we need passages such as the “torphut” excerpt I quoted in yet another post?
(Vrmarvin, please write to TracyTBarrett [at] yahoo [dot] com to arrange my sending you a book.)
I recently presented a version of that “Ten Commandments” talk to a group of school librarians, one of whom asked me a question I couldn’t answer, so once again I’m asking for your help.
I had just discussed the “commandment” that recommends, “Thou shalt not repeat falsehoods.” Don’t rely on common knowledge; verify, verify, verify. That’s when I got the question: You can’t check out every detail, so how do you know what piece of received wisdom is true and which is iffy and must be verified? You can’t look up everything, after all.
The best I could do was to tell them that my rule of thumb is the more appealing the story, the more I have to check it out. A “fact” that is both false and boring disappears quickly. If it’s false and interesting, it has a chance of sticking around, and people come to believe it. You see this a lot in spurious word origins: it’s false that “butterfly” used to be “flutterby,” that “posh” stands for “port out, starboard, home,” that “cop” comes from “constable on patrol,” etc.
The problem is that there are lots of facts that are both true and interesting!
So my question for you, whether readers, writers, or both: What raises your antennae? What kind of historical detail makes you suspicious enough that you feel the need to verify it?