I Need Your Help—Again!

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?

  • http://www.planetpeschel.com Bill Peschel

    I ran into this while researching “Writers Gone Wild.”  There was the spurious story about Dorothy Parker, when she was thrown out of Hearst Castle, writing in the guest book: Upon my honor, I saw a Madonna 
    Standing in a niche, 
    Above the door 
    Of the famous whore 
    Of a prominent son of a bitch.

    That was debunked by my contact there, who knows what was written in the guest books. (Parker, BTW, denied ever writing it, because she would never rhyme “honor” with “Madonna.”)

    So, in general, the story has to sound too much like fiction. It’s too smoothly put together. If it can be told in a couple of sentences, unless it’s a statement/riposte kind of story. It’s probably fake. (Here’s what I mean. Beatrice Kaufman wrote about the time a beautiful blonde held the door open for Parker saying, “Age before beauty.” Dottie sailed through, replying, “And pearls before swine.”)

    What’s really amusing is to find the same story told several different ways. There was the time Poe, as editor of the Broadway Journal, got into a contretemps over some love letters that might or might not have existed. He visited a friend seeking a gun with which to protect himself, and was told not only no, but that he thought Poe’s story was bunk. Poe attacked him, and there are at least three stories about what happened next. Poe says he thrashed the man; the man said that he cut Poe’s face defending himself; and a witness says he saw a drunk Poe underneath the couch being struck in the face (and when, being pulled apart, shouted, “Let me go! I’ve got him where I want him!”).

    What really happened? I haven’t a clue.

    • Tracy Barrett

       Agreed, Bill–any time a story is too good I get suspicious. For instance, the story of Christopher Columbus and the egg (see http://tinyurl.com/7wrpfmy) is obviously too good to be true. But what about the oft-repeated falsehood that Columbus couldn’t find funding because everyone was sure he’d sail off the edge of the earth? When I told the librarians at this conference that not only the shape but the size of the earth had been known for thousands of years, they were astonished. Who knew they had to verify that one? EVERYbody knows (they said) that everyone in the 15th century thought the world was flat!

  • Whit Stokes

    I’ve never written anything fictional (at least on purpose), but I would assume writing “historical” fiction would require the same approach as any other topic. You have to do as much research as possible and get as much information as you can. Obviously there is a difference in writing about the death of Napoleon and the death of Lincoln as to what is available. However, newspapers  are always a good place to start. That “first draft of history” will contain a lot of information that was gathered through hard work and edited by a trained person in most instances. The problem with newspapers is they are often on microfilm and if you don’t have a specific place to start, like a date, it can be a frustrating process. The internet is always a good shortcut, and while Wikipedia has a lot of suspicious information it will often lead you to a valid source. I am amaazed at the number of websites there are with detailed information about topics that might be describe3d as obscure. The least trustworthy sources are the eyewitness accounts of something that happened in the past when the 95 year old describes the day he saw “Babe Ruth hit a home run.” He may have the Babe batting right handed and playing for a team other than the Yankees.

    Final thought- try as much as possible to approach the subject with as little preconception as possible. This is not always easy.  

    • Tracy Barrett

       That’s the problem, Whit–you can’t look up every single “fact.” It’s just not possible. Of course accuracy is crucial; of course you use original sources whenever you can. Of course you try to leave preconceptions at the door.

      The question is where do you draw the line? At what point do you say, “I need to look this up”? If everybody knows that Marco Polo brought back pasta from China, why should I check it out? (Because Italy already had pasta, that’s why!) If I have a gladiator scene and the crowd wants the loser to die, why should I look up whether they gave a thumbs-down? (Because thumbs-up meant kill him!) But you can find both of those errors in textbooks, encyclopedias, etc. Do I have to look up whether Lincoln was assassinated? No. So somewhere in between, there’s a line. Where is it?

      • Whit Stokes

        I would draw the line between fact and fiction. If you’re writing about a famous person like Julius Caesar you have an obligation to debunk old myths and not spread new untruths. If you’re writing about a character you created like Luigi who sold Brutus a knife you can say just about anything you want to. Facts like time of day, day of the week, month of the year are often relevant and sometimes they are not. The attack on Pearl Harbor occurred on Sunday for a reason. Washington crossed the Delaware on Christmas night, but it’s not all that important what day of the week that was.

        One of the things I like about your books is they are educational as well as entertaining. I’ve never been to London so I  make an asumption that when you explain the adventures of Xena and Xander the geographical references are accurate. That’s a reputation that is earned and not something to be thrown away because you think you can sell more books by claiming “Daniel Boone had a dog who could do card tricks.”

        This may be no help to you, but I am better off for knowing that Marco Polo didn’t bring back pasta from China, and butterfly was not flutterby, and cop wasn’t……

  • http://twitter.com/chrys Chris Waigl

    I’m neither a fiction writer nor a historian, still I often find myself playing the wet blanket when my friends come with whimsical etymologies. In many cases, if a story about the origin of a word sounds too good, it needs checking. Acronyms weren’t in use in English, pretty much, before the 20th century, and started out in military environments or similar (colonial administration, shipping etc.). But even for 20th century words (“nerd”…), acronym-based explanations often turn out to be ethymythologies. My partner grew up in a Yiddish-speaking family, and as often as not when she comes up with a story, told over generations, about how this or that comes from Yiddish, it’s not quite right or outright wrong. The latest example: “beyond the pale” — yes, it’s the same “pale” as in “Pale of Settlement”, but one is not the origin of the other. 

    In general, though, I’d expect of a historical fiction writer to be or become deeply immersed into how people like their protagonists actually lived, what their days looked like. The big stuff isn’t whether Tower Bridge already existed in year X — everyone should be savvy enough to know this needs confirming — but the everyday stuff: Did people of the social class in question use object Y to achieve Z? How would women/children/servants/laborers/old people/young people/clerics/whatver have interacted when meeting in a given social setting? 
    The main thing, I guess, is a general keen sense of vigilance. Maybe a little like tending to your adverbs and adjectives.I do agree that if something stands out as a plot point, it should be checked. Also, it’s permissible to be vague, speak of yellow wildflowers instead of naming a species (that may be a modern invasive one…) and to avoid overdescribing just to show off your detail knowledge. I’ve put down more than one book of historical or speculative fiction because the author lost me in endless description of garments and crafting techniques the plot point of which wasn’t obvious to me. 

  • Tracy Barrett

     I guess I wasn’t clear in my original post; apologies. Here’s an example of what I mean: If I write, in reference to something long-ago, “He peeled his apple with his knife” I probably would make sure that there were apples wherever and whenever it is I’m talking about; I might even check to see if peeling them was common. I wouldn’t check whether they had knives, because of course everybody knows there have been knives for a long, long time.

    Similarly, everybody knows that spices were highly prized in the Middle Ages because they preserved food and covered up its rotten taste, so someone writing a story set in the European Middle Ages might make reference to those facts without bothering to verify them. But they’re both wrong: spices do a poor job of preserving food, and they were almost invariably more costly than the food whose rotten flavor they were supposed to conceal (see Paul Freedman’s excellent Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination for more on this).
    I know to verify the statements about spices, and I also know that I don’t need to verify the existence of knives. But how do I know? And how do I tell writers which things they have to look up and which they don’t? How do I and they know where the dividing-line is?

  • http://twitter.com/PerformHumanity Miranda Nesler

    Hi, Holly! I’ll admit that my material culture obsession leads me to love detail about costuming.  But when texts emphasize the inner desires and motivations of a figure, I get suspicious. Did they leave a journal?  A letter? How can we know?

  • StephanieCowell

     I have been hiding my head in the new historical novel I’m writing and have missed all sorts of good things on line! I skip over most descriptions of clothes (my poor mother, who was a great fashion illustrator, despaired of my disinterest!) and I am also rather wary of writers who do not understand how people thought in another era…the common belief in God, etc.) I would say the most important goal for a historical novelist is to make another period and its people as real as your life and neighbors. Novels have to have plots and ascending tension lines, so you have to carve this which may bend history a little. And yet some thoughts and behavior considered normal in another century (the inferiority of certain races) are hard to take in a protagonist today if he does not stand against them. It would be difficulty to have a 19th century woman protagonist in a current novel who accepted women’s limits as they were then.

    • Tracy Barrett

       Agreed, Stephanie–there’s  a real balancing act between trying to make your character true to her/his time, and making a sympathetic protagonist.