Pitfalls for Writers – no.6: Historical Accuracy

 

‘Dear Mr. Author.

Whilst reading your book ‘Oh what fun and laughter we had during the time the Black Death wiped out our village’ the other day, I was disappointed to notice that you mentioned July 23rd 1449 as having been a sunny day in your fictitious village. From the descriptions you provide, you have clearly located said village a little to the south of present day Norwich, and my extensive researches prove that July 23rd 1449 would have been a rainy day there.

Yours disgruntledly,

A Pedant.’

How accurate do you need to be, as a writer, with historical facts?

If you are writing a non-fiction book, you have to be scrupulously accurate, no matter what subject it is.

End of.

On the other hand, if you are writing fiction, you have a certain amount of leeway. First of all, though, it is worth saying that if you sell enough copies of your book you will eventually attract correspondents like the fellow above. Is that something to worry about? Only if they get to know where you live, perhaps. Otherwise, send them a nice reply, thanking them for their diligence, and assuring them that you will correct your dreadful fault in the next edition. On the other hand:

‘Dear Mr Author.

The Black Death was actually sweeping the country in 1349, not 1449.

Yours smugly,

A Historian.’

This time, you’ve screwed up.

And yes, it matters.

Very minor inaccuracies are bound to slip through, and very few people will notice them. And if they do, they will not think anything of them.

Except for Arthur Pedant, of course.

The big things are another matter. Imagine reading a novel set in the days around the Russian Revolution, and then the author tells you that the Bolsheviks rose up against the state in 1927 instead of 1917. Or that they were led in the beginning by Stalin. Immediately, the author’s credibility has evaporated, as has their story.

Because the reader no longer believes the author, and they no longer accept their story.

The moral here, then, is don’t skimp on the research!

It is possible to radically change the facts of history, but the difference is that to do this the author must present it as the whole point of the story. In steampunk novels, the whole history of Victorian Britain is altered, but the reader accepts this as it is the premise behind the genre. It is seen not as a mistake, but as a narrative invention.

In many science fiction novels, the premise is a future that is the result of a different history than that which actually happened. For example, the Germans won the Second World War, or of different worlds or dimensions in which history diverges from the accepted version. Again, this is accepted by the reader, as it is the premise that the story is set on.

It is possible to break this rule, but to do so the author has to break it in such a way that it is quickly obvious that they have done it deliberately, and not by mistake.

One might, for example, set a novel in Victorian England that is not steampunk – a detective story, perhaps – but in which Queen Victoria is assassinated in 1860. As this is something that no one could possibly put in by accident, it will be seen as part of the invented narrative and accepted.

Well, probably. Where is Arthur Pedant?

Pitfalls for Writers – 2) Internet Research

Pitfalls for Writers, an occasional series; part 2) Internet research

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I read it in a newspaper, so it must be true.

Ho ho ho.

We are all aware that newspapers have their own agendas, and that they interpret events to fit their own world views, ignoring inconvenient facts and sometimes even misrepresenting them. Occasionally, they have been known to make them up.

On the internet, then, which is infinitely more difficult to police, we should expect to treat a large amount of presented data with, at the very least, extreme suspicion.

For the purposes of this post, I am assuming that the Work in Process is a work of fiction, be it a novel or a shorter work.

Wikipedia; good old Wikipedia. Everyone uses it as an infallible fact checker, don’t they? No? Very wise. An illustration of the downside of Wikipedia that I particularly like comes from the time of the Ashes series in England last summer. On the first day in the fourth test, England Bowler Stuart Broad took eight wickets for fifteen runs and effectively won the match for England. At some point that day, his Wikipedia entry was altered, by persons unknown, to begin, simply, ‘Stuart Broad is God.’

Now, at the time, as an avid English cricket follower, I might almost have accepted that as the truth, in a tongue in cheek sort of way, but it does illustrate that one of Wikipedia’s strengths is also a weakness. It is updated continuously by a huge number of people, some of whom doubtless have ‘agendas’, and that it is impossible to check that all of the information is accurate, and so it must not be used as a final arbiter of true or false.

I might use Wikipedia as a first stop, but then I would go and double check the information on a site that I trust. How do you know that you can trust a particular website? That rather depends on the information, and requires some common sense. If I were looking up an accurate description of, say, a particular disease, I might opt to check the website of a well-known medical facility. If I wanted details of a particular cricket match, at any time in history, I would go to the ‘Cricinfo’ site, which is trusted by the majority of cricket followers. History? Well, I just searched ‘history of Wales’ and amongst other sites, found Wales.com, the ‘official’ site of the Welsh Government. I guess I’d trust that.

I still like to use books for research, and, of course, I can do that on the internet. There are a huge number of books available to read online for free; many are there because the copyright has expired, although the legal length of copyright does vary in different countries and can be quite complex (in the US for example, where certain categories of work can have differing terms in different states), and many are there because the owners of the copyright have allowed it. So, if you trust the book…

And many can be consulted for a fee, of course.

Google (and other) translators. Although this is not research, strictly speaking, I have included it because it may be a part of the process. If you need a demonstration of why they are not to be trusted, then type in a simple phrase and translate it to your chosen language. Then translate it back again. To enliven a dull afternoon, repeat this a couple of times, and see if any words in the final version match the originals.

Now, having said that, it will do a pretty good job of translating from, for example, English to French – presumably both because they share the same alphabet, and also because there is much in common in the roots of these languages and their grammar. And, probably for the same reason, I have found it hopeless translating between English and Hindi, where there is far less in common, and no common alphabet.

For a factual article, the author’s level of accuracy must be higher; they dare not get their facts wrong, for even one incorrect fact will invalidate their entire article. Fiction writers are not under quite that same level of pressure, although the scrutiny may still be there.