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.