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Monday, April 7, 2014

The Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction (Part One)

I am often asked what challenges I face when writing historical fiction. There are many challenges to writing historical fiction and to deal with them all in one post would be too much.

So I will break the challenges down into several parts which I will share with you over the next several blog posts. I hope you find these posts interesting and if you do, PLEASE FEEL FREE TO COMMENT. I would love to know what you think.


This first post deals with one the greatest challenges when it comes to writing historical fiction:  How to balance accuracy and artistic license.

I spent 27 years as a foreign correspondent, national correspondent, metro and national editor for the Chicago Tribune. Working as a journalist taught me some basic skills regarding reporting, which is the journalist's word for research. Journalism is an empirical discipline. That means, like science, it is a search for truth and you use trial and error, observation and analysis to find that truth.

A Dormatory of the Wadsworth Old Soldiers Home
where Billy Battles meets his Great Grandson
For the scientist or scholar or historian, empiricism means arriving at a truth via observation and experimentation.  For the journalist the empirical tools are: Observation and  Interviewing. I believe any successful journalist, author or scholar must master both of those skills--along with the ability to respect the language and write compellingly.

If you are using the empirical tools of observation and interviewing correctly and skillfully, you will find that the information you are gathering is mostly accurate.

Accuracy when writing historical fiction is critical. That may sound like a paradox. It is not. A critical element in historical fiction is the way people communicate with one another. You want to make sure your characters, if they are in the 19th Century (as mine are when the Finding Billy Battles trilogy begins) are using the correct lingua franca.

You don't want your protagonists and antagonists using 21st Century colloquial speech or slang in 1880s Kansas. For one thing that destroys the sense of time and place and for another, it reveals to the reader that the author simply has not researched the era enough or is too lazy to have characters speaking in the vernacular of the time. I see this mistake all the time especially in American films that are set in earlier periods. 

When a character in a book or film set in the 19th Century says something like: "This sucks" or "Are you nuts?" or "Give me a break." I am immediately turned off to the story. Yet it happens all the time--maybe not as obviously as those examples, but you get what I mean. I am sure you have heard or read similar out of time and place comments.

So that is a big issue for me. Another is in making sure places are properly described. For example, in writing Finding Billy Battles I had to describe both Lawrence, Kansas and Denver, Colorado as they looked in the 1880a and 1890s. I used the Kansas Historical Society to find old maps of Lawrence. I did the same with an historical group in describing Denver. I also had to describe the Wadsworth Old Soldiers Home in Leavenworth, Kansas where Billy Battles first meets his great-grandson. 

I think it is important to establish historical credibility with readers. Once that is done, then you can allow fiction to run rampant in your story. I believe readers are willing to suspend belief in things that a character does IF the author has nailed the time and place of an event accurately.

People, for the most part, behaved differently in the 1880s and 1890s. Having them do and say things that people do and say in 2014 is to ignore accuracy and precision. Relationships between men and women were very different (at least in public) in 1890 than they are today. Men--at least most men--demonstrated a certain deference toward women. It was simply the gentlemanly thing to do. Those that didn't observe such conventions were regarded as cads, brutes or beasts--to use the patois of the time.

Women did not wear pants in 1890--at least not on the streets of places like Denver or Lawrence, Kansas. They did not carry handguns and shoot villains on sight--at least not frequently. In fact, most women who wanted to dispatch an abusive man did so with poison--at least that is what my research of 19th Century crime records found--the legend of Lizzie Borden notwithstanding.
Haute Couture in the 1890s

Yet, if you want your heroine or female antagonist to blow the brains out of a brutish man or to give him 40 whacks with an ax, you can certainly write it that way IF you have established historical accuracy and trust with your reader.

In my mind that is how you balance accuracy and artistic license in historical fiction. The reader must trust that the time, the place, and the conduct of your characters are all consistent with the era you are writing about. Can your protagonist or antagonist act out of character within the epoch in which your book is set? Absolutely. But if they do it is seen as an anomaly and not something the reader (or people alive at that time) would expect. 

That is not a bad thing. It can give your story tension, even texture. But you must use it sparingly because you don't want it to become commonplace throughout the story.

Another area that is critical to good historical fiction is the way things smelled, they way things felt and the way things sounded in the period you are writing about. For example, when describing Dodge City, Kansas when Billy Battles arrives there as an 18-year-old newspaper apprentice, I wanted to make sure the reader knew how the place smelled because of the thousands of Texas cattle in pens on the outskirts of town waiting to be loaded into boxcars for Kansas City and Chicago. Then there were the stinking buffalo hides that were piled 30 and 40 feet high south of the Arkansas River. Streets in those days were not paved and were usually littered with horse apples, garbage, stagnant water and road kill. 

Not a very pleasant sight--or smell.

Clothing in the 19th Century, especially women's clothing, was often uncomfortable. Cloth was abrasive, irritating and heavy; buildings were often unpainted and built from coarse wood; and food was not always fresh or prepared with the greatest attention to sanitation and safety. In my book, Nellie Cashman (a real Irish woman who operated the Russ House Restaurant) runs an ad in the Tombstone Epitaph that proclaims to her potential customers: "My kitchen is clean and free of cockroaches." I found that ad looking through old copies of the Epitaph.

All of these things, and I am sure I haven't included everything here, need to be considered when balancing accuracy with artistic license. For me, this is kind of second nature. Paying attention to accuracy is what I did for a quarter century as a journalist. Artistic license didn't come into play until just recently when I began writing fiction--or what I like to call "FACTION."


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