Monday, December 7, 2015

Writing Historical Fiction by David Wilma

If the story focuses on real personages like Julius Caesar or Abraham Lincoln the author should strive to be as faithful to the historical record as possible. Lincoln should be tall, Caesar should have epilepsy, and both should be skilled political operatives. The trick is how to put words in their mouths. There are no recordings, but they left writings. Witnesses wrote down what they said. Anything the author gives them to say should be consistent with all that. And the details of their time need to be accurate. Caesar rode a horse from Gaul to Rome while Lincoln took the train from Springfield to Washington. But did Caesar have stirrups on his saddle? Did Lincoln's train arrive at Union Station? Readers will jump on errors. Bill O'Reilly wrote about the Lincoln Assassination (non-fiction) and talked about the Oval Office. Buzz. The Oval Office did not come into being until Theodore Roosevelt. Lincoln conducted business on the second floor of the White House. Research, research, research. Read, read, read. I gave Abraham Lincoln the wrong color eyes until a colleague pointed out my error.

The librarian with a web browser is your best friend. Make friends with your librarian. Tell him or her what you are doing and he or she will love to help. You will get calls weeks later with some idea or tidbit. Even if you have access only to a tiny regional library, librarians are part of a network called Interlibrary Loan. They can find just about any book for you.

There is accuracy—detailing events as they occurred, and authenticity—getting the time and situation right. Sometimes you might have to fudge accuracy to make the story flow such as inventing a town or a person. Authenticity relates to what wood smoke smells like and what it is like marching through Pennsylvania in a wood uniform. If you can't be accurate, be authentic.

David Wilma
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