Essential writing skills: getting the details right in historical fiction

Back when I was writing New Zealand military non-fiction, our leading local academic military historians often ended up reviewing my books for national magazines or newspapers.

Wright_Military History CoversWhat followed, every time, was a trawl for anything they could construct into a denial of my professional competence in a field where I was being published on merit, and where they wrote and published competing books on full-time salary at my expense as taxpayer. None of these strangers had the guts to approach me personally, and none responded to my approaches. Since then I’ve discovered I can’t get on mailing lists or into the symposia these people organise at public expense, and I’ve been advised that their public representations appear to put me at a disadvantage relative to being fairly assessed for the public-funded work and opportunities their employers offer.

Funnily enough, if I’d been as witlessly incompetent as these local academics insisted, I wouldn’t have had a look in with publishers such as Penguin who produced my military material solely on due judgement of its merits.

That brings me to the point of this post, which is the problem of readers taking umbrage at what they suppose to be an ‘error’. This is also an occupational hazard for fiction writers. Especially historical fiction. The author may not get feedback – but the reader doesn’t get the intended enjoyment out of the novel, and may even abandon it. Why? Because some detail the reader believes to be an error destroys the suspension of disbelief. That’s one of the key hooks that keeps readers engaged. And that can be blown in a flash if the author makes mistakes over the factual background.

Sometimes the error rests with the reader, who thinks they know something – but actually, it is they who are wrong. That, I suspect, is why Alexander Fullerton added a note at the beginning of his First World War nautical novel The Blooding of the Guns, detailing which way the helm was ordered to turn at the time, relative to the direction the ship was turning.

A photo I took of the Louvre. I am 100% certain that the Holy Grail is NOT situated under that pyramid in the centre left of frame. though the reception desk is.
A photo I took of the Louvre. I am 100% certain that the Holy Grail is NOT situated under that pyramid in the centre left of frame. though the reception desk is.

But sometimes the problem is with the author, or their editor. My favourite example is Dan Brown, whose version of Paris in The Of Vinci Code (I know what I said) was very different from the one I knew. He confused railway stations – he conflated two that are actually about 1.5 km apart. He apparently didn’t know what’s under the pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre (the reception desk), or how the museum works and is laid out. He had his heroes drive along streets that aren’t driveable. And so it went on. I suppose Brown hadn’t visited Paris when he wrote the novel.

The point being that if you’re going to present yourself as ‘factual’, as he did, the onus is on to be so. There are, I think, many reasons why the novel was so wildly popular. One of them was Brown’s absolute mastery of pace. But for me, the suspension of disbelief – absolutely essential given the outrageous premise of his plot – was totally blown by his egregious lapses of fidelity. There is a lesson therein for novel writers. More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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5 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: getting the details right in historical fiction

  1. When I write about the P-39 Airacobra, the B-26 Marauder, the P-40 Warhawk, or the B-17, I do it with the pilot’s manual on one hand and a shelf full of reference books at the other. Then there are all sorts of pictures available on the Internet relating to time and place, although some places (like Seven-Mile Drome in the first half of 1942) are harder to find than others.

    Funny thing is, though, sometimes if you have enough historical details, the story writes itself.

    1. And does so with authenticity! This stuff is essential to a novel of that kind. It’s remarkable how much of this kind of material can be found on the web these days – I discovered some astonishing details about dreadnoughts, for instance, when researching my great uncle’s WWI battle duty as a fire-control telephonist, even down to the make and model of phone, layout of the fire control station and so forth.

  2. Sometimes little things irk, whether in historical fiction or non-fiction.

    I’m currently reading a very enjoyable non-fiction book about Napoleon in Egypt. In the part where Napoleon is at sea en route to Egypt, the author often has him standing on the flagship’s ‘bridge’ as he gazes out over his invasion armada. However, ships didn’t have bridges till many years later with the advent of the steamer with its bridge connecting the paddle-boxes. A more likely place for Napoleon to stand would be on the quarter-deck or on the poop.

    The author also refers to the lookout in the ‘crow’s nest’, whereas in warships of that period the highest lookout was usually ‘at the mast-head’, while further down the mast there was the ‘fighting top’ – but no such thing as a crow’s nest, which is more something you would think of on a whaler.

    Whilst these are very minor matters, and have nothing to do with the main thread of the story, they do jar …

    1. Yes, it’s the fidelity of these small details that authors have to get right. True of both fiction and non-fiction. It’s surprisingly hard; period documents often never provide certain sorts of detail, purely because it was part of the ‘invisible background’ that ‘everybody knew’ at the time, so nobody much bothered to write it down.

  3. I can relate most heartily to your post. The research that I did for Hold the Faith and Grow in Grace was sourced not just from one site, but many sites. (They are historical fiction but relating to the Apostle John.) I have several gigs of data. I am sure you know what I mean.
    So, I went with the overwhelming majority of sources that place the Apostle John in Ephesus.
    This did not please one person who had her own pet theory (which I looked into) that he went to the UK.
    Oh the joys LOL
    Susan

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