I’m a history nut. Historical non-fiction and historical fiction is what I enjoy reading most. When I read that stuff I expect the writer to know what he or she is talking about. I don’t think it’s too much to ask, is it?
I’m also an aviation enthusiast. My wife would replace the word, “enthusiast,” with the word, “fanatic.” I prefer the former. So being a fana…um, enthusiast, it’s another area where I expect an author to do their homework. Information is too easily accessible, today, to accept lazy writing. There is no excuse for having your characters going out to the airport and boarding a Boeing 707 when your story takes place in 1949. There were no 707’s in 1949. A quick Google search would have told you that.
Recently, I read a crime thriller. Something I don’t normally read. The bad guy works for the U.S. Government. The Government, as in many recent books and movies, were all bad guys. He enters the story flying an F-14 Tomcat. Now, okay, it’s a novel so I’ll forgive the fact that the Navy gave a civilian an F-14. My problem is when he lands. The writer says that he “engaged the reverse thrusters.” Reverse thrusters? On an F14? It’s a jet fighter not an airliner. Sorry, no reverse thrust on an F14. Am I being too much of a geek to expect that to be correct? I don’t think so. But he got away with it because 99.9% of the population doesn’t know an F14 from a Piper Cub. But okay, I’m just enough of a geek that it bugged me.
Now, like most writers, I tend to write what I like to read. My novel, ‘Jenny,’ is an historical piece that takes place in 1928 Texas. Obviously things were different then. It’s up to the writer to know, or at least find out, just how different. We’ve already established the fact that it’s no longer hard to do. I actually find the research enjoyable. I have a Model T Ford that plays a prominent part in the story and I did a lot of reading and Google searches on Model T’s. I like finding out things like the fact that the car’s gas tank was under the front seat. I love passing information like that on to the reader. I even watched a video by a guy who owns one. He showed how to start it. I got a kick out of that and worked it into the story.
And the history itself has to be right, too, of course. Not just the little details. If it’s 1928 you have to be careful that you don’t have your characters talking about something that happened in 1932. Make sure you don’t have them heading out to see ‘Gone With The Wind.’ That wasn’t until 1939. You have to do the research. I’m sure this scares a lot of people away from doing period pieces. It’s time consuming, that’s for sure. But, again, I like it.
But a writer can also have fun with history. Embellishment often works when doing historical novels. Putting your own slant to an historical event. In a great novel about the old west called, ‘Little Big Man,’ Thomas Berger decided to make George Armstrong Custer slightly insane. There’s no way to know if he was, or not, so he could do that sort of thing. He shoots down a bunch of other western myths, too. Terrific book. But even there, his history was on the mark. He just made use of a little artistic license, that’s all. (Which reminds me, mine is up for renewal, soon).
However, I don’t think you should mess with the facts as much as Noah’s biographer did (see cartoon). Then you’re leaving the historical fiction genre and moving into fantasy. If I pick up a book about ancient Rome and it starts with Nero pulling up in a limousine, I can be pretty sure that the writer didn’t do his research. Or that this is gonna be a really good story!