1. jo spumoni
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    jo spumoni Member

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    In historical fiction, how correct do I have to be?

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by jo spumoni, Feb 19, 2012.

    I know I have to be right about the basic facts of the era and get the ambiance right, but what about things like the weather? I mean, other than knowing that the place usually gets hot in the summer or something, do I have to know that on February 9, 1938, in Munich, Germany, there was a thunder storm? Or is that overkill? Now, I can find out, since the time period I'm looking at is fairly recent, but I don't want to be so bogged down on things like that that I lose perspective on the whole story. But in the finished product, should I try to find out trivial details like that, or should I move on?

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    Likewise, I'm having trouble finding a way to include historical information in my actual narrative. It feels artificial when I drop in random historical information. I end up mentioning things in dialog or thought or radio broadcasts, but does anyone have tips for finding the proper balance between historical information and narrative? Because infusing them seamlessly is very difficult!
  2. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Member Supporter Contributor

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    No, you don't have to know that on February 9, 1938, in Munich, Germany, there was a thunderstorm. In my opinion, that's getting ridiculous. If someone complains that you got that detail wrong, they might as well complain that your main character wasn't walking down the street in Munich that day, either. In your story, he was, and in your story, the weather is what you say it is (so long as it's plausible February weather in Munich, that is).

    But don't force historical information into your narrative just to show off that you've done your research. Include enough detail to establish the setting - what kind of clothes people are wearing, for example. What they're smoking and drinking, if anything. And avoid anachronisms - don't have power windows on the cars in 1938, for instance. Or jet planes. Just imagine, very clearly, what your scene looks and feels like, and write your narration. The right period details will come to you at the right times if the scene is very clear in your mind.

    Good luck!
  3. jazzabel
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    jazzabel I do not like snoopy reporter Supporter Contributor

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    My rule of thumb is, if there are still people who lived in the place and the time I want to write about, I definitely go as far as checking out the weather. Imagine you are merrily writing away your story, whatever it is, and you set it in a month when there were floods, or earthquakes, or major fires which burned down most of the city etc. But in your story there's no mention of it. If not the actual weather, I'd definitely check out for natural disasters and things like that, but I suppose it is always a good idea to do this when writing historical fiction.
  4. Jared King
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    Jared King New Member

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    If you're writing historical fiction, you can change the weather if you want to. Some historical fiction writers have more fact than fiction, but others don't. Write what makes sense for your story.
  5. madhoca
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    madhoca Senior Member Contributor

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    It all depends how realistic you want to be. My first degree was in Social and Economic History, and I have to say, the weather, a new song etc usually influenced people far more in their everyday life than sweeping historical events or who was the ruler. So, these things can sometimes be one of the necessary basic facts of the era--and e.g. everyone with a knowledge of social history will know that winters were unusually cold at the turn of the 18th century and in the 1830s in England (the reason Dickens always depicts such cold winters), and again after Krakatoa erupted the weather was colder than usual and in fact the 1880s were unusually cold. There is plenty of information online for you to check e.g. if there were any big storms that year, what was being debated in Parliament that day, or what day of the week the 14th May 1826 was (a handful of things I have looked up recently).
  6. funkybassmannick
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    funkybassmannick New Member

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    To me, the most important thing in historical fiction is if you capture the zeitgeist - the spirit of the time. I don't care if you make some stuff up in order to have a story, so long as it seems very plausible in that specific time and place.

    I would also say be consistent with how accurate you are. You can write historical fiction that doesn't actually follow historical events, but still capture the zeitgeist. But if you all of a sudden incorporate a major historical event, that could be jarring. Another way to put this is if you wrote a story that doesn't strictly follow historical events in the first half, but DOES in the second half.
  7. madhoca
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    madhoca Senior Member Contributor

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    I'm not sure I follow you here--and what do you mean by 'first/second half'?
  8. HorusEye
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    HorusEye New Member Contributor

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    Don't get obsessive in fear some historian will read your novel and call you up and complain. Even if something so unlikely should happen, you can just chalk it up to creative freedom. Most readers value creativity over obsessive fact comparison -- I know I do. I'm a history nerd, but some of my favourite authors take history, mash it through a big grinder and mold their own stuff out of it, and I love that. It's what creativity is all about.
  9. funkybassmannick
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    funkybassmannick New Member

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    I mean first half of your book and second half of your book. If the first half is basically a retelling of the American Revolution, but the second half has aliens, the reader may feel very confused. But then again, if there's a really good reason for it and the writer does it well, it might be okay.

    My basic point is be conscious of how consistently you deviate from history throughout your manuscript. Even anachronisms can enhance a story if you use them consistently and with purpose (though I wouldn't recommend them).
  10. madhoca
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    madhoca Senior Member Contributor

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    ^^ Ah... This is a new one on me, I've never written or read a book that divides in the middle into two completely different stories.
  11. Daniel_Allan
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    Daniel_Allan New Member

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    Eiji Yoshikawa - Musashi

    Best historical fiction book I've read. He took the folk stories of a man, the politics of the time, historical accounts (sometimes multiple retellings), and fleshed out a book which reads incredibly smooth. Yoshikawa was not to know ALL the details (some accounts say that Musashi is older than his own father) so the book was written with a combination of extensive source material and a great imagination to fill in the blanks.
  12. Snap228
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    Snap228 New Member

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    I'm just going to say that if I was reading a historical fiction about Munich, Germany in 1938, it really wouldn't matter to me if the day-to-day weather was historically correct or not, I'd be (hopefully) more focused on what was going on in the story. I wouldn't even care if I happened to know it was wrong. So it would probably be a wasted effort, in my eyes.
  13. funkybassmannick
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    funkybassmannick New Member

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    It's a hyperbole to illustrate a point, not an actual book :p
  14. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I think it depends on how big the weather events were. I don't care much about getting it right that there was a light shower in the morning and a sunny afternoon. But if, say, your story seems to have forgotten about the Dust Bowl in spite of being set in a relevant location, that's an issue. And if you want a major hurricane, say, for plot reasons, I think that you'd do better to research an actual hurricane and adjust your story date accordingly, than to make one up.

    On the other hand, I think that researching trivial details can be good for inspiration and mood. While researching the weather you might find out that a performance by famed pantomime artist John Smith was rained out, and that may lead you to something cool in your plot. So I don't think that research is wasted time.

    For historical information, I think it's a mistake to just tack facts on without a good character-based or plot-based reason.
  15. madhoca
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    madhoca Senior Member Contributor

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    This is the closest to what I meant, I guess. Thank, cf.
  16. Gonissa
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    Gonissa New Member

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    You have to be correct enough to make the reader think you know what you're talking about.
  17. funkybassmannick
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    funkybassmannick New Member

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    Omg, yes. Well said. This goes for any setting, whether you are talking about a specific city in modern times, or even when writing in a fantasy world.
  18. Papillon
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    Papillon New Member

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    Personally, I hate when I found historical fiction to be incorrect as the books are great sources to general knowledge.
    However, I'm talking about significant era facts like the cloth, the houses, food, diseases, science, gender roles ect.
    Unless it was important for the period for the period, say the small ice age in medieval times, I don't see why a small matter as the weather should be a obstacle for you :)
  19. Nakhti
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    Nakhti Banned

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    I agree that the accuracy needed depends on how significant the fact is, both to your story and to history. For instance you can't say it was raining when JFK was assassinated, because it is well known that it was a sunny day - not only is it well known, but it was also significant for shaping the events of that day. If it had been raining they would not have been riding with the top down on the car, and the shot could not have taken place.

    So, if the weather has a significant impact on the events, or if a particular weather condition is known because it coincided with a famous event, then yes, you need to know it.
  20. Lemushroom
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    Lemushroom New Member

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    It really depends on what type of historical fiction you are writing. Say you are writing about a specific battle, like in The Killer Angels, then you would have to know the weather. But say you are writing about the life of a certain person then the only thing you would have to know is dress, cultural norms, speech and major events that occurred at the time.
  21. jg22
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    jg22 Member

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    Hello jo spumoni,

    I think that if you are worried about historical inaccuracies in your story then I would either make an effort to be fully versed in the history (the old 'write what you know about') OR I would place the whole story narrative in the mouth of a character in the story itself (either the main character if the story is told in first-person, or a character outside of the narrative, but reciting it), therefore, if there be any inaccuracies one can put the blame at the feet of the fallibility or forgetfulness of the character-narrator, rather than you as the writer of it. It's kind of cheeky, but it might work!

    :)
  22. AntisocialMoose
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    AntisocialMoose New Member

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    I want to say thanks for asking this question. I'm struggling with this right now too and you got a lot of good answers here.

    Seems like the consensus is, look like you know what you're talking about and no one will care too much. Hopefully your plot and characters are good enough that they won't have to pick apart your historical inaccuracies :)
  23. riggbren
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    riggbren New Member

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    You could have a made up city in a real country or state, and then control local events all you want, while keeping it consistent with world events.
  24. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma New Member Contributor

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    With historical fiction no matter how accurate you are someone will pick holes in it. Personally, when reading the story is more important to me. My very favourite story is Mist Over Pendle by Robert Neill. It contains wonderful accurate descriptions of location and clothing. The story is warm, colourful and gripping. However his telling of the story surrounding the Pendle Witches flies in the face of usual interpretations of the events. Anyone using it as a textbook is going to have some duff information - Roger Nowell by all accounts was not the honourable local laird and in fact 'fitted' up his neighbour so he could obtain her land. In the story she is chief witch and he is the kindly slightly rebellious uncle of the main character. It makes a much better story the way he tells it :) He also tells a very sanitised history as many historical writers do, it isn't portrayed as cold, stinky and unwashed. :)

    As my background includes archaeology I often spot a lot of inaccuracies in historical fiction, but I have no desire to ruin it for myself. If I want a 100% historically accurate book I can go find a text book.

    Having said that I do research things like what buildings looked like etc
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