Accuracy – Getting it Right

The historical mystery looked promising on the library shelves. I checked it out and started reading. A few chapters in, a glaring historical inaccuracy pulled me right out of the narrative.

The book takes place in 1855, in a New England town. In one scene, the protagonist goes to the post office—which has a sign reading “United States Postal Service.”

No. No. No. Definitely no.

The United States Postal Service didn’t exist until 1971, after former President Richard Nixon signed the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970. Before that, it was known as the Post Office Department, or simply the Post Office.

I had a similar experience when reading another historical mystery set in 1950. The protagonist mentioned having read a world-famous novel in the early 1940s. That would have been nearly 20 years before the novel was published.

I found myself thinking that a good editor—or copyeditor—should have caught that. Of course, editors these days were probably born after the Postal Reorganization Act went into effect.

I realize I’m writing fiction, a delicate balancing act between plot, characters and setting. It’s that framework we call willing suspension of disbelief. I write a good story and readers accept that reality and those characters who move around my plot and setting. I want readers to believe that a private eye named Jeri Howard and a Zephyrette named Jill McLeod can solve crimes and catch killers.

When writing my novels, whether set in the present (with historical references) or set in the past, I strive for accuracy. To be fair, I may get it wrong. But I’m careful.

I knew that was important for the Jill McLeod California Zephyr series, set in the early 1950s. There are train buffs call railfans, a natural audience for the books, since my protagonist is a Zephyrette, a train hostess and a member of the onboard crew. I knew that if I made any mistakes, I would hear about it from the railfans.

I was quite chuffed, as the British say, when I did a book event for the first in the series, Death Rides the Zephyr, at the Western Pacific Railroad Museum in Portola, California. One of the volunteers, an older man, approached me. He said he’d read the book and he wanted me to know that I got it right, both the train stuff and the history.

Music to my ears. I want readers to get caught up in my stories. I don’t want to make errors, however small, that that pull readers out of the story. They might not return.