I love history, specifically the history of the American South. My roots go deep into Southern soil, and it’s that lifetime of experiences and stories that are at the heart of my novels. I spend a great deal of time researching my books, down to the names of the newspapers in circulation at the time, the songs that were popular, the types of fabrics used for sewing dresses, the routes people traveled from one point to another. I’m just back from a trip to the old rice plantations of the South Carolina Lowcountry for the book I’m writing for publication next year. I read tons of books, journals, and newspapers in an effort to get it right. So it irks me more than a little bit when I read historical novels riddled with careless mistakes. I’m referring not only to mistakes in the historical record, but mistakes in portraying the social mores, attitudes, and behaviors of people in a particular time period.
In inspirational fiction particularly, some writers seem reluctant to show characters and situations as they really were. Let’s face it. Many Southerners were hostile to black people before, during, and after the Civil War. Some were cruel to the point of murder. As were the Union soldiers who decimated the South during the war. General Sherman especially, stated that his purpose was not just to crush the Southern rebellion, but to wipe the people off the face of the earth. He told one of his aides that the spectacle of women and children lying dead in the streets of Atlanta was “a beautiful thing.”
Writers of true historical fiction find ways to portray conditions as they were, not as we wish they were. Regardless of setting, be brave enough to show your characters warts and all. And be sure to get their language right. Recently I read a novel set in the West in the 1870’s in which a character laments the lack of “a role model.” A quick check of my sources on language revealed that this term came into use in the 1970’s as the women’s movement was heating up. A character in the 1870’s would never have used that term. This same novel contained a few other mistakes as well. When I complained to a writer friend, she said, “Historicals that are not well researched are not really historicals, they’re just costume novels.”
Because history is messy and obscure, enigmatic and incomplete, it’s impossible to know every detail, to get every single nuance correct. But writers who intend to produce works of historical fiction owe it to readers to get as much of it right as is humanly possible. Don’t depend on Wikipedia. It’s a good starting place, but dig deeper. Historical societies, museums,and university collections offer a wealth of resources if it’s impossible to visit the setting in person. If you need to bend the facts, stretch a time line, to make the story work, that’s okay; just be sure to tell your readers about it.
Be true to the times, dig for the facts, weed out anachronistic language, and the result will be a wonderful window on the past for readers, not simply a modern-day story dressed in historical costume.