As most of you know, my fiction work is primarily historical. At times, this makes for difficulties and potential embarrassments. Although it’s fiction, in order to give the author credibility, it can’t alter historical facts.
If you write science fiction or fantasy, you can pretty much make up the rules as you go. If, in your fantasy land, gravity pulls up instead of down, so be it. In your sci fi, if a spaceship flies faster than the speed of light, so be it. Well, those may be slightly extreme examples, but you get the point. You have a lot of latitude to make up your own world.
If you’re writing contemporary fiction, you pretty much know what’s going on in the world. For those things you don’t know, there’s a plethora of information available to keep you within the bounds of reality.
With historical fiction, one must be a bit more careful. Would a woman in the Old West carry a pistol? Where would she carry it? Did all women in that day wear long dresses with multitudes of petticoats, or did some wear jeans? These are a few of the things the historical fiction author must consider.
Most of us have a certain degree of general knowledge of various eras of history. At times, however, our general knowledge—or our belief we have such knowledge—can be a trap. Let me give you a couple of examples.
Before I wrote my novella series, Fancy, I wrote basically the same story several times as a novel. In all of these novels, I had Fancy growing up in Birmingham, Alabama. Imagine my chagrin when I discovered Birmingham was not there in the pre-Civil War days when she grew up. It was founded in 1871, and I had her born there in 1847. How embarrassing it would have been if I’d published it that way. I had to move her to Florence, Alabama, for historical accuracy.
At present, I’m working on the second volume of a three-novella series. In this story, I have my protagonist moving from Gum Pond (now Tupelo), Mississippi, to South Pass, Wyoming, in 1864. I had her join up with a California-bound wagon train just outside of St. Louis. Then I happened to stumble across the information that the wagon trains to the west coast were pretty much a thing of the past by that time. Another potential embarrassment.
Certainly, I’m writing a work of fiction. I can make up strange or ruthless characters. I can have Indian attacks. But I can’t move a 10,000 foot mountain to the middle of Nebraska or have ocean waves beating against the road in Kansas. Nor can I have an airplane land in front of the wagon. As a historical fiction writer, I can take a lot of license, but it must be within the realm of possibility. I must be careful with what I say took place.
What sort of near-misses or pitfalls have you experienced in your writing that would have embarrassed you if you hadn’t caught them?
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Contact him at dnwalkertx (at) gmail (dot) com or tweet him at @davidnwalkertx.