Wednesday, January 18, 2017

In Which I Elaborate on Historical Accuracy

Hello!  It's Grace.  Today I'm going to yell at the universe about historical accuracy.

For those of you who have never read this blog EVER and are completely new (in which case, what have you been doing with your lives do you not know how glorious we are??), I love history.  It's something I'm really passionate about.

With that comes one of my biggest pet peeves:  SKIMPING ON ACCURACY

That's right, folks.  When you don't do all the research you should have been doing, when you let things slide because "your readers won't notice", let me tell you that I WILL NOTICE and I WILL THROW THE BOOK ACROSS THE ROOM BECAUSE HISTORY DOES NOT DESERVE THIS KIND OF DISRESPECT.

*sighs* *straightens clothing and hair* *takes a deep breath*


I am going to provide some tips on how to glean knowledge so that your books will not be burned in the fire of shame.  Please note that if you're writing fantasy you can disregard all of this.  Historical fiction, on the other hand?  This might sound a little like a college lecture but pull up your chairs and PAY ATTENTION.

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1. Get in touch with people who study what you're writing about.
This can be a college professor, a local history buff, a friend who likes research (me), historians at a museum, archaeologists, and many other positions.  Don't be afraid to ask questions.  And if someone you ask doesn't know the answer, chances are they have millions of ways to find it and lots of other people they can ask.  It's a pretty safe bet that historians like to talk about history, so giving them a chance to share their knowledge with you is not only going to help you write an informed novel, but it's probably also going to make them happy because you asked about something they're very passionate about.

2. Use primary sources.
Okay we're gonna have a lesson here, y'all.  
Primary Source: A piece of writing or an object (or anything, really) which existed at the same time as an event or period of history and was either near or a part of that event.  Anne Frank's diary is a primary source, and so are photographs, legal records, pottery, paintings, and bones.  Bear in mind that a document could be written after something happened, but if the person writing it was present at or near the event the document still counts as primary.
Secondary Source: Anything written or recorded in any way which does not draw it's information directly from an event or era but instead uses various primary sources to come up with an idea of how things occurred.  A history textbook, a painting of a Biblical story, an epic poem like the Illiad, news reporters (but not the people being interviewed), and most articles online are all secondary sources.  

While there's nothing wrong with a good secondary source, you shouldn't rely on other people to get all the information for you.  While a primary source can be biased in favor of the people who are writing it (this is often the case with battles), secondary sources are not only written from the outside looking in, but are also often written with at least a little bias themselves.  It's much better to get at least some information directly from the source instead of trying to make sense of Wikipedia and multiple Encyclopedias.  

3. Watch what websites you use.
While we're on the topic, don't trust everything you read.  Finding reliable sources can be hard, but it's worth it.  Jane Doe might have a website completely devoted to Egyptian history, but how can you trust what she says?  Something more reliable might be a museum website, something associated with a university or graduate school, or records of studies done by groups of historians.  Encyclopedias are often not bad choices either, but they can only tell you so much.

There are also many MANY primary sources available online.  You can get to these by looked them up (if you have something specific in mind) or you can look at the bibliographies of secondary sources.  

4. If possible, find some historical reenactors. 
These are people or groups of people who make it their passion and sometimes full-time occupation to bring history to life.  They can be found at museums and historically themed events.  These people dress in historically correct clothing, cook historically correct food (from the original recipes), and basically do everything they can to show you what it would be like to live in that specific era.  Here in the U.S. the most common are Native American, Colonial/Revolutionary, Civil War, and WWI and WWII reenactors, but you can find other time periods if you look around.  

One of the best reasons to see people acting out history is that you can only form so good of a picture with descriptions and paintings and archaeology, and it's helpful to have everything you've seen or read about put in context.  Those shoe buckles you saw?  Here's what they look like with the rest of the outfit.  That pudding your character is eating?  Here's with it tastes like, and this is how you make it.  

So there you have it.  That's my advice on how to keep massive flaws from showing up in your historical fiction.  I apologize if it sounded a little like a lecture.  It's how I roll, guys.  I've been known to accidentally call a writing club a "class" even though I wasn't even really leading it.  

The most important thing to remember while writing is that to your character, this is everyday life.  It might be strange to have to go to the well every morning or only own one pair of shoes, but you shouldn't write it that way.  The reader is seeing things through the eyes of the people in your story, and unless those people are time travelers, all this is old news and they would probably look at you funny if you said "the well on the corner of the road where I have gotten water every morning since I can remember, because it is the single source of clean water within walking distance."  You would sound a little like this:

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