Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Never Forget the Author in Authority, Authenticity

A Newbie just finished her first historical novel, and she asks: Just how authentic does it have to be? How much accuracy is necessary? How do you keep from making horrible gaffs?

My initial response in my head is that if you are going to actually use a jock strap in your Roman Gladiator story, you had better do the minimum to find out first if gladiators used jock straps, and secondly, if they did, you need to know what they were made from--certainly not plastics or some mysterious material dropped on the Romans by aliens (unless you are simply go for goofy, fun, crazy laughs such as A Funny Thing Happened to me on the way to the Colosseum). If it is serious historical novel the authentic Roman jock strap must be determined unless you choose not to use it - the strap.

The entire idea of Historical Fiction is a somewhat schizophrenic label, history meaning somehow ground in fact while fiction is (from the Spanish ficciones) a "pack of lies" even if it is to "prove a truth"... so we historical fictionlists no less than our sister schizoid science fictionalists (science supposedly being fact), we are in a dither, a conundrum as it were, but some keeping our feet firmly aground helps.

What does EB White's Charlotte's Web have in common with historical fiction and indeed all fiction, this wild fantasy we adults read to our children only to find ourselves so drawn in as to be the ones in tears when Charlotte doesn't make it (you won't read that book again because the ending's just too hard to take...). What indeed makes this FANTASY fiction believable and in fact mesmerizingly so, a tale so crazily unbelievable. Come on, a story of a pig and a spider having a full-blown platonic love for one another, a relationship we'd all like to have, one of unconditional and sacrificial love all taking place in our own backyard? What makes it work? What makes Stephen King horror work?

Accuracy, authenticity, the authenticated voice - alongside accuracy and authenticity in background, backdrop, props, and in short DETAILS. The Devil is in the Details. Detailed accuracy makes a believer of us all both in film and in fiction. Setting the stage with the proper accoutrement's is absolutely necessary to make historical fiction truly come to life.

Below are the two from the hip responses the young novitiate got from my good friend Pat Brown and then from me the same day she asked the question (isn't the Internet something?)

On Tue, 3/29/11, Pat Brown, author of Absinthe of Malice (a great read by the way) wrote:

I've started writing historicals recently. The first two I finished were set in 1929 in Los Angeles. I'm writing one right now set in New York in the late 1880s. All you can do in terms of research is the best you can. The

20s, being Prohibition and all it brought is very well documented. Unless you have a major blunder, like put the wrong President in Washington or have the Titanic sink in 1969 (Hi Rob!!) most people won't call you on.

Or if you're like me, you spend a small fortune on books and things like old Sears, Roebuck catalogues. I was also lucky enough to go to L.A. to get some research there. Not knowing where your novel is set I can't say much more.

But really, story and characters trump research.

> To which I then wrote to support what Pat said on the same day:

I agree with all that Pat says here, esp. about story over research; research is part of the back-drop and like setting belongs back of characters and action as backdrop. Look at Gone With the Wind for an example. Scarlet's 'soap opera' is far more compelling and important than the lil ol Civil War, now isn't it? As for the best way to get CAUGHT in a blunder before it goes public, I have found my best avenue of defense are good early readers and editors - whom I love, one and all. I generally acknowledge them one and all on my ack page, and yes ebooks have ack pgs and dedication pgs if they so choose same as some having a eAutographed title page.

Like Pat, for props, I rely heavily on Sears and Roebuck but also Wards' Catalogues of the day along with all the many books consulted. If you have your character pick up a gun that does not yet exist, whoa, you will hear about it....sometimes you will hear about it and the person who flagged it is DEAD WRONG. But even if you do a contemporary novel as I did with my Edge Series and set it in a venue you have NEVER been to as in Houston, TX.....you will rile some folks up if you fail to call the Canals running through the city Channels....or visa-verse as I forget which was correct now but I sure HEARD about it from ONE disgruntled reader who did acknowledge that it was the only problem bothering him in FOUR novels of 80-90,000 words, and he loved my main character, a Texas bred Cherokee Indian named Lucas Stonecoat.

So you see....you do your best, you be as diligent about the research as humanly possible, and then you do like ten rewrites as your early readers pick it apart, going back to the well and your sources many times over. My problem with research is I always leap into the story and have to stop and start to go back to the research to be sure....to be sure....

PLEASE DO LEAVE a comment if nothing else to let me know you dropped by!

Rob Walker
Titanic 2012 - a hundred year old mystery with a horrific twist
Children of Salem - an ecumenical spy w/vendetta falls in love with the witch's daughter instead


Charmaine Clancy said...

Great post, I keep putting away a pirate story because of all the research. At least I know now that, yes, it is necessary. Sigh.

Patty said...

Few things draw me out of a story. One historical romance writer had Europeans in western South Dakota in the early 1800's. The area of the Black Hills wasn't settled until after Custer visited (!) in 1875, but I just laughed and kept reading. Why? Because she is a masterful storyteller and her characters come alive under her pen. Do I wish she had gotten that right? Yes, of course, but it hasn't stopped me from reading her books.

What does pull me out of a story is verbal tics. One author I read just recently used the word "hiccough", not once but multiple times, sometimes as many as six or seven times on the same page. I loved the story, liked the characters and don't know if I will ever be able to read anything she writes again, it was that irritating.

Alex MacKenzie said...

That "young" newbie was me -- and I'm actually in my 50s. My historical mystery, "Seattle Sleuth" (set in 1921) will come out next spring (from Rhemalda Publishing).

I've done a ton of research for the novel but I do worry about missing something. I can't afford to pay an expert to review it and am hoping my editor will be sharp enough to catch stuff that sounds off. I do tend to be more forgiving myself when reading fiction unless the error is glaring.

I actually love doing research -- I read a lot of nonfiction for fun and have a degree in Art History. For the mystery novel, I spent hours poring over every issue of the 1921 Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and lots more fun stuff. Sometimes the research is more enjoyable than the writing -- which is another topic in itself.

Thanks for taking the time to write about your own take on this topic!

Alexandra MacKenzie

Elspeth Futcher said...

I'm finishing a mystery that takes place in 1935 in England. I knew a great deal about this period before I ever started to write, but I did a huge amount of research to get the details right. Magazines of the time were a great resource.

Unknown said...

Oops, one error. I didn't write Absinthe of Malice. I'm the author of the L.A. series, which includes L.A. Heat.

Absinthe was written by Pat Browning.

Robt. W. Walker said...

pAT - my apologies, my bad. Thanks for correcting that.
Alexandria -- I assumed keeping things general and not naming names to be safer, but apparently NOT. My abject apologies.


Alex MacKenzie said...

No reason to apologize! I don't mind being called a newbie -- while I've been writing for decades, I am most certainly a newbie when it comes to being published.

I knew it was about me because after I posted the query on DorothyL one of your co-bloggers directed me to your post. I doubt anyone else would have noticed it was me if I hadn't replied. No worries. I like your site and plan to keep visiting!


Helen Ginger said...

Charlotte dies in the end? Awww man.

A lot of writers visit museums or places where they can have access to diaries or letters written in that time period. Those will give you the feel of the time and are usually accurate. But forget the fiction written and set in that time period.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I spent two years behind a microfilm machine in the 1980s to research a centennial book. I had so many notes left over that I wrote a couple of historical novels from them. That's a bit much, but the more historical background, the more interesting and authentic the novel.

Angela Ackerman said...

Sometimes it's just the smallest thing that can tug a reader out of the story, so we need to do our best to make sure we have our facts straight, at least to the very best of our ability.

Nie post!

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Indian Pharmacy said...

Do I wish she had gotten that right? Yes, of course, but it hasn't stopped me from reading her books.

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