The Research Monster – or – Down the Rabbit Hole

by Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson

Hello, my name is Janis Susan and I am a research geek.

I have always believed that historical accuracy in our fiction is of paramount importance – equal to that of a good story, in fact, and the further back in time we go the more important it becomes. Why? Because it is sad but true that a lot of readers get most of their knowledge of history through fiction and as writers we have the responsibility to make sure that the history in our books is as correct as we can make it. And by correct, I mean as it really was, warts, unpopular language and beliefs, politically incorrect (according to current standards) behavior and all. A lot of what happened in the past is unacceptable in today’s climate, but that doesn’t matter… it’s the past! As someone said, they do things differently there.

There are those who say that close adherence to history doesn’t matter, that only the story is important. I say that’s dishonest and lazy. It’s just as easy – as if writing anything were easy – to make a story historically accurate as it is to slap something together and call it historical. If an author is going to disregard history then he/she should at least be honest and call it alternative fiction.

I remember a mystery I read a couple of years ago that sent my blood pressure soaring. It wasn’t a bad story – the characters were fleshed out, the clues were there, the descriptions of physical objects and places were fairly good (if a little on the loose side, but hey – if they weren’t enough to set a history geek like me screaming, they were pretty much okay) and the mystery itself was involving and well-resolved. What sent me over the edge was that while the storyline was acceptable, the main characters dashed impossibly quickly back and forth over the Atlantic to Europe chasing clues. You see, the story was set in the mid-1920s, and transatlantic air passenger flights didn’t begin until 1938-1939 (depending on the parameters of different research sites) so there is no way the characters in this book could have zipped back and forth across the Atlantic – after all, Lindbergh didn’t make his history-making solo transatlantic flight until 1927.

The first sort-of-real transatlantic flight was indeed made in May, 1919, in a seaplane called the NC4. However, because it had no reliable navigation equipment, the plane would fly at night shooting their position from the stars. Then in the day, they would land on the water and sleep, and take off again when the stars came out. They were also followed by a Navy warship of some kind in case they crashed. As a side note, I have seen this plane in the Naval Aviation Museum (fascinating – do go if you can!) in Pensacola. It is huge! I mean, really really huge, so big you can’t get a picture of the entire thing in one shot. It is also so incredibly flimsy that I marvel any man would risk his life by flying in it.

Back to the discrepancies in this book – the first passenger transatlantic flights were Zeppelins, flying from Germany to New York, and they took four days. Commercial heavier-than-air transatlantic flight didn’t begin until 1938-1939 (again depending on the parameters of different research sites) so there is no way the characters in this book could have gone back and forth across the Atlantic in mere hours like they were on some modern jet.

See what I mean? Looking up one little fact like the date commercial transatlantic flights began and off I go down the rabbit hole of research.

Another example – some time ago I was judging a Regency romance contest. One of the entries was okay – fairly decent writing, good-ish story… nothing to rave about, but okay. Until the hero reached into the pocket of his Bath-cloth coat and pulled out a fountain pen to sign something. Wow! Talk about hitting a wall! FYI – fountain pens were not invented until 1827, when a very primitive one using a goose-quill nib was patented in France, or if you prefer, the modern steel-nibbed version which was patented in 1884. (See – I’ve spent the last 20 minutes or so reading about the history of fountain pens – never knew they could be so fascinating!) In either case, though, there is no way our Regency hero could have used one!

I gave the book the average scores it deserved on plot, writing, etc., but in the ‘anything else’ category I gave her a zero on period accuracy (I would have given her a minus score, but there was no way to do it) and explained why in a kindly tone. Wow! I got a letter back from her so hot that the flaming pixels almost burned through the screen, demanding to know why I had marked her down for ‘such a little thing.’ “After all,” she screeched, “it’s an old-fashioned pen – who will know the difference?” Ticked, I replied back “Anyone with a brain and the slightest knowledge of history.”

It is unfortunate that far too many readers learn about history from our books instead of academic sources and for that reason alone we need to be as accurate as possible. There are eras about which we have to extrapolate from scant knowledge – the Ice Age, for example, or third century sub-Saharan Africa – but in most historical ages (especially the popular ones like Ancient Egypt or Regency England or medieval Europe) there are lots of research materials to choose from and explore. It is part of our responsibility as writers to do so. Again, far too many readers get a great deal of their knowledge of history from fiction, and we can and should never forget that those who do not remember history – good, bad and indifferent – are condemned to repeat it.

8 thoughts on “The Research Monster – or – Down the Rabbit Hole

  1. People also get their ideas about history from movies and TV shows, which can also be flat out wrong. In my new book, I looked up every product mentioned to make sure it was actually around in spring 1967. I moved the dating of chapter one from Sunday to Saturday because the TV program I mentioned aired on Saturday nights early that year and didn’t move to Sunday nights until the fall season. I also bumped up the story from March to April because some music I wanted to use wasn’t released until April 1967. Would anyone else notice? Maybe not–but I would.


  2. I too am a research geek (in fact top in my class in reference in library school) and agree totally with you about ensuring accuracy in our fiction. Your first example–of transatlantic flight–reminded me of the research I did for Lapses of Memory, in which hero & heroine meet every few years on an international flight aboard whatever the newest model airplane is. Seems to me that direct passenger transatlantic flights (on planes) didn’t come until later than 1939? I flew on one of the earliest commercial flights from the US to Europe in 1955 & even then we had to puddle jump across. Another comment relates to my first novel, now in process of re-issuing. It’s set in 1991 and I had to do a lot of research on what technology was available then, particularly as it was changing so rapidly. I had my heroine checking a travel “website” until I realized there were no such things then. Laptops were just beginning to be generally used, and the mobile phone had downsized only that year! Fascinating.


    1. According to my research, the first transatlantic passenger flight was in either 1938 or 1939 – though it was most definitely a puddle-jumper (Gander to Shannon, if I remember correctly, or perhaps some other place on the west coast of Ireland.) It was not, though, a regular scheduled passenger flight like we have today. Seems like I remember it being a very special once-in-a-great-while flight, done more to prove that it could be done than to provide regular service. There were a few more, but the threat of war and then actual war intervened and the project was shelved. Seems like regular, book-able transatlantic passage didn’t begin until 1951 or 1952 or thereabouts – after the war and the worst of the recuperation was over. I do know those first flights were incredibly luxurious for the time and technology available, and hideously expensive, thus restricting passage to the wealthiest only. Sorry to be so vague – I’m fighting the deadline crazies and don’t have time to go seek out my original research. A Google search should yield some information, though… Thanks for writing.


      1. I have all the research on flight travel somewhere on a flash drive but can’t find it. The flight I took at age 4 (Boeing 377 Stratocruiser) still had berths where the luggage compartment is, and table linens and silver and crystal. We were not at all wealthy though–my father at the time was in the foreign service & somehow wangled the flight!


  3. It is not just history stuff that slaps the reader in the face when it is wrong. J.A. Jance did that to me a few years ago with one of her books where she had a person dress like they were a cancer patient because supposedly folks never noticed cancer patients. I read several offending passages of this nonsense to my wife, who was constantly stopped by strangers when she was out who wanted to touch her, hug her, pray for her, etc., and Sandi kept saying she never talked to any of us cancer patients. If she had, she never would have written such absolute garbage. Having seen with my own eyes the reality of that kind of situation, I can’t read anything by that author the way I used to before she made such a monumental error. I always wonder now what else is flat out massively wrong in her books.


  4. Janis, I agree that readers learn most of their history and other cultures from the fiction they read. That’s why I do my utmost to make sure I am accurate. I have a reader who wasn’t a reader until my dad gave her one of my books. She wrote to me and said now I read all your books and other books. I didn’t realize how much I learned while enjoying what I’m reading.We fiction authors do “teach” as much as we give enjoyment. Good post!


  5. Regency readers in particular are knowledgeable regarding era history. Mistakes are not forgiven. I wrote only one Regency and was fortunate in getting it vetted by Mary Balogh. She did pick up several mistakes prior to publication which I gratefully corrected. And yes, I had done considerable research because I do love historical romance and am a reader of it as well as a writer. The only danger with the research is that you can get carried away and include too much info in the novel. It’s easy to info dump. That’s why editors are so important.


  6. Susan, it never occurred to me that “many readers get a great deal of their knowledge of history from fiction.” It makes good sense, though. It’s easier to read a novel or watch a movie than to wade through a reference book or turn to Google. By the way, next time you go down that rabbit hole, tell Alice to get her butt home and that she’s grounded..


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