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No-no's in Historical Fiction

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Hey all,

I've started writing my first historical MG and would love to avoid making any "amateur moves"! Before this I wrote a MG fantasy. For us fantasy writers there is the well-known and hilarious Fantasy Novelist's Exam http://www.rinkworks.com/fnovel/ that covers all the cliches. Is there something similar for Historical Fiction? Cliches, things that are way overdone, etc?

Help me avoid those first-timer pitfalls!

Thanks all, and I've loved breaking into another Blueboard Genre forum!
#1 - June 23, 2013, 07:10 PM

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Sorry, no help here, though that's a great question. I have to say I loved 46. in the fantasy no-no list- Do inns in your book exist solely so your main characters can have brawls? Too funny!
#2 - June 23, 2013, 07:58 PM

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I just read an historical fiction book based on a real event.  >shudder<  The no-nos that occurred in this book IMHO were the inclusion of real names and the photo's of these people along with what happened to most of these people, no in many cases, that in itself is not a bad thing, it was including the photographs in the middle of the story (which was fiction) and most children - would not have been able to tell what part of the book was fiction and what part was truth.  In fact some of the book was based on true events that did occur, the rest of it was made up around it.  The author should have written a non-fiction book and said unfortunately at that time there were no methods of keeping track of ...

In one part of the book he told how someone died - there was no one there to see this person die, so how were we to know this person died in this manner - his ghost?  (It was a book on a natural disaster).

I have not written historical fiction, but have enough historical background to know some information and some things you need to make a decision on to see if it will work in your story.  Because something was invented in and some people owned something by a certain date, does not mean the vast majority of people would have had one.  The one instance I will give you which used to drive me bonkers was on Little House on the Prairie (the TV show).  There was a telephone in the general store, but no one else in town had one and you could make long distance calls on this telephone.  The likely hood of that really happening is so rare it made me scream when people made long distance calls.  Telephone companies started usually as something that people subscribed to in one community and one person would have the "central" system in their house and you would call "central" and tell they to connect you to so and so.  Rarely did this central office have the capability to make a long distance call.  If they did, it was made by going through several different "central offices" until it reached a major carrier and then they would call back the person who was placing the call when their call was connected.  Thus placing a long distance call way for MAJOR emergencies.  Telegraphs were sent, up into the late forties.  One just did not make a long distance call. 

In the 1960s my cousins who lived in a small town in Indiana still had a telephone without a dial and had to listen to the number of rings - long and short - to see if the call was for them.  To call someone, they had to call the "central office"and place the call. 

My friend's grandmother, also living in a rural part of Indiana, still had two telephones in the 1970s, one was for one section of the county and one was for the township.  She apparently sat on a line and depending upon who was calling her or who she was calling depended upon which telephone she had to use.  Yet they had plumbing and electricity in their house before either of my parents had full plumbing in their houses because of rural programs. 

So in this case the rural farm had more modern upgrades than my grandparent's and great-grandparent's city houses. 

Do not make assumptions that because most people had plumbing around 1920 all people had full plumbing.  Many people did not have bathrooms or may have had an inside toilet, but no bathtub. 

#3 - June 23, 2013, 08:34 PM
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Ha! Very funny. I liked #75 best.

A couple of years ago I read a book set in the Middle Ages out loud to our son. At one point the characters stop and make a stew of potatoes and carrots. I spluttered that potatoes are from the New World, and medieval people didn't eat carrots. Our son gave me the stink eye and gestured to continue. He was right--it was a wonderful book by one of our favorite authors, and the plot worked just fine, despite the vegetable irregularities.

I write with what I think of as historical blur. I choose a decade in which the book is set, simply to help me with the material world (clothing, transportation), but I don't tell the reader exactly when it was set. I just want the reader to have a sense of consistency.
#4 - June 23, 2013, 08:43 PM
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Well, "they say" avoid these three periods: The Revolution, The Civil War, and The Depression/WWII. It's just hard to make them fresh because so much has been written. If it's one of these, be sure you have a really good angle! I think careful selection of the period will help prevent knee-jerk "we can't sell that" reactions from agents or editors.

Compile a bibliography as you go! After doing one historical novel and one historical bio, I would never again work without a bib, for F or NF. If you add each research source when you use it, it'll be a painless process. Even if you never show the bibliography to anybody, YOU will have it, and will be able to go back to the sources if you need to. Then too, certain publishers, most notably Calkins Creek or Boyds Mills, would require a rather exhaustive bib.

I also print out or photocopy pages from books or the internet that contain info I use, staple them together, note the bibliography info on the top of the first page in proper format, and file in a physical folder. I also bookmark the most helpful websites.

Be thinking about an author's note. There is where you can discuss such things as what's real and what's made up, what (if any) facts you changed for the sake of the story, and, in general, assure readers that you did your research, changed anything that may be "off" for a reason, and issue a disclaimer that any errors that remain are your own.

I love historical, and wish you great enjoyment in your writing. 
#5 - June 24, 2013, 09:09 AM
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Thanks for those tips, Marcia! I had never heard that about the time periods to avoid, so that was very interesting. And yes, I have already kicked myself for not bookmarking or printing out an online source that I couldn't find again! Your ideas for organizing are great ones.
#6 - June 24, 2013, 11:40 AM

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And Christina, you can always ask here because someone, somewhere, is sure to have an answer, or at least a resource to find the answer.

Love your avatar, by the way! It's of my favorites!
#7 - June 24, 2013, 01:22 PM

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Do lots of research and include a few primary resources if you can find them. Think twice before writing about someone who's still alive or whose immediate family is still alive. Be prepared to discover that almost every fact you uncover will turn out to be:

a. disputed by other sources or witnesses
b. in error
c. terminally ambiguous
d. convoluted
e. too x-rated for a kid's book

Have fun!
#8 - June 24, 2013, 03:06 PM
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Do you mind if, as another newbie possible historical person, I throw in a question of my own? How do you get all those minute details about setting / clothing / surroundings right? Those detail bits seem much harder to me than historical events.
#9 - June 24, 2013, 03:49 PM
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Depending on when and where your setting is, old magazines can be an amazing source of period detail. I'm writing about 1917 right now, and have bought several magazines from the appropriate months on eBay for reasonable amounts.

Beyond that, writing in period detail basically means immersing yourself in research for a while. While it's a lot of work (writing historical fiction is not for the faint of heart) it can also lead to some awesome aha! moments when a bit of research can contribute plot points and twists to your story.
#10 - June 24, 2013, 04:07 PM
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Oh, modern sensibilities in HF drives me batty. I don't mind if it's a historical time travel .. I expect it then (contemp kid back in time), but it's good to have the character be true to their station in life.

I cannot emphasize the usefulness of keeping a good bibliography. Always when you're revising, you need to do some fact checking.

I love reading diaries -- they have all sorts of interesting details and also catalogues.

Enjoy. HF is my favorite genre.
Vijaya
#11 - June 24, 2013, 04:37 PM
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Vijaya already posted my pet peeve about historical fiction: giving modern sensibilities to people from the past. There's a lovely article from Horn Book Magazine by Anne Scott MacLeod about this (although I don't agree with all of her examples): http://archive.hbook.com/magazine/articles/1998/jan98_macleod.asp
#12 - June 24, 2013, 05:54 PM

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Uh oh I liked most of the books that Macleod chastises! I feel like those modern sensibilities can make the stories more accessible. Crud, am I going to get banned from the hf forum now?? ;)
#13 - June 24, 2013, 07:53 PM

Very useful response! Thanks, Marissa. I think that's one of the things holding me back, realizing just how much work historical fiction is! But so fascinating, too.
#14 - June 25, 2013, 06:32 AM
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I beg to differ -- somewhat. I agree that you can't plop modern sensibilities into history. But, I also believe that not everyone in history fit neatly into their station in life. If so, progress would stop. There were women authors, scientists, participants in Wild West shows, bandits, rulers, etc. Unusual, yes. But it happened. And those are the people we write about. A story is about a person with a problem and how they overcome it. I don't think there is a lot of difference in mindset between an 18th c woman who wants to be a writer and a 21st girl jr. high girl from the dregs of the social strata that wants to be prom queen. I do agree that authors bend social mores -- or at least don't make it plain enough how tough the task was at the time. But really -- is anything impossible?
#15 - June 25, 2013, 08:08 AM
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Vijaya already posted my pet peeve about historical fiction: giving modern sensibilities to people from the past. 


Adding my dittos^.

Hastily written historical novels are rarely good history, though they can be riveting stories. It is much more than external details, it's a mindset not the author's. I got a bit of flack from one reader for something in my historical, that could not have possibly crossed the MC's awareness back when it is set.
The most common mistakes of this nature to watch for are modern-type feminism, modern notions of hierarchy (lack thereof, really) and modern political awareness of "the other side." Hard to write while removing yourself and your ego out of the way.

P.S. Put your author-self into the Author Note, not into the characters' thinking.
#16 - June 25, 2013, 09:03 AM
« Last Edit: June 25, 2013, 09:05 AM by 217mom »
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I think that it is possible to get away with breaking "rules" (for lack of a better word) in proper/normative behavior for whatever era you're writing in...but make it clear that the character knows a rule is being broken and that something s/he is doing or thinking is not the norm, but they have a very good reason for doing so. In one of my stories, a girl disguises herself as a boy in order to do some snooping...but rather than enjoying the freedom that male clothes offer (as a 21st century person might do), she's intensely aware of and discomfited by her trousered legs being exposed and her lack of corset, and is chastised by her brother (who's snooping with her) for walking like a girl.
#17 - June 25, 2013, 09:34 AM
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If you're not going *too* far back, books/other stuff written in the time you're writing about can be a useful place to mine, not only for details of life but for attitudes, ways of expression, etc.

That said, I'd say one pitfall is going too far into archaic language and syntax for the sake of authenticity. Like a strong spice - use with care.

I like Betsy's list a lot and will add that when you start digging, there is a LOT of misinformation out there, even in respected books (and don't EVER trust Wikipedia; just use it as a launch pad for more research), but will add that trying to track down the reasons for the misperceptions and arguments about how things were can be very fruitful, whichever expert you end up trusting.
#18 - June 25, 2013, 11:57 AM
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Remember history is written from a white, male perspective.  One of the reason's diaries often prove invaluable. Most books on a period will not speak about the the role of women or children in history unless it is specifically geared toward that perspective.   
Even then, it may be a slanted view written by a white male. 

I know I sound like I am dissing while males, but when it comes to history, most of it deserves a bit a dissing.  Single or married white males did not run this country on its own, nor did they run any other country on their own.  A thing they tend to forget when writing history.  They also tend to forget that when they went home that it wasn't just the little wife that did the housework for them.  Oh yeah I have a strong bias on this.
#19 - June 25, 2013, 01:06 PM
You must do the things you think you cannot do.  Eleanor Roosevelt

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One thing that irks me when reading historical fiction is when characters speak the way we do now.  Everything seems accurate, we've got a wonderful set up, and then a character says "Okay, give it to me straight.  This dress--yes or no?" and the other character answers "Oh, Bronwyn, give me a break.  That dress is to die for and if Count Orsoff can't see that, he's not the liege lord for you."

Or whatever.  Often seen in not-that-great fanfic, FWIW.
#20 - June 25, 2013, 01:30 PM

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Great thread!  Thanks for starting the discussion!
#21 - June 25, 2013, 01:46 PM

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Remember history is written from a white, male perspective.  ...   
Even then, it may be a slanted view written by a white male.  ...
I know I sound like I am dissing while males, but when it comes to history, most of it deserves a bit a dissing.
Not all historians are male or white, nor are all white male historians unaware of the contributions of women and persons of color (and children, by the way). Female historians have had a very active role in promoting and writing social history, but men have made significant contributions as well.

I think the issue is less the color of the historian's skin than whether the person is writing social history or political/military history. And both are valuable.

These are significant issues, listraw, and I understand your concerns--and share them--but so do most other historians, male and female.

No offense at all is intended here--I just had to stick up for my male colleagues.
#22 - June 25, 2013, 03:40 PM
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I will agree that some history has changed over the years, but I am not necessary dissing the current historians - but most history books on the market, and as taught in school show what white men did for the country.  Not what females, slaves, freed black people, the American Indian, the Mexicans, etc. did for the United States.  The Immigration population is largely ignored, unless the immigrant became famous and rich. 

Cultural history is seldom taught, it is mostly political and war history. 

Yet unless you have papers proving you are a member of an American Indian tribe you are a descendant of an immigrant, some may have arrived very early in this country and some may have recently arrived.  Depending upon where your family originated from depended upon how it was treated in various cities.  I could go on, but for the sake of everyone I will not.   :hug
#23 - June 25, 2013, 05:35 PM
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Just chiming in to agree with Katie and to add that when you're researching for historical fiction, you need to choose your sources carefully, finding recent, well-documented, authoritative works that show the views of people other than the dominant ones of a particular time. There is a lot of really great recent research on the lives of children, women, poor and working class families, etc. There's also a ton of primary material being put online in digital archives (such as the Library of Congress) that is fabulously useful for the historical novelist---including not just letters and diaries but also things like music and photos and things such as campaign posters, etc.
#24 - June 25, 2013, 05:46 PM

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Yet unless you have papers proving you are a member of an American Indian tribe you are a descendant of an immigrant....
Actually, Native Americans are descendants of immigrants, too, just from an older immigration. I learned that from a white male historian.  ;) (Sorry--couldn't help myself.)

I think you have a rather dated view of the profession. I don't know any history department that doesn't have a significant number of social historians, and the presence of women's studies faculty was assumed when I was in grad school, which was...er...several years ago. Several severals.

Your concerns are certainly legitimate--and shared by historians--and I realize this thread isn't really about history as a profession. It's just that most of our friends are historians--in fact, a white male historian is washing my dishes as I type this--and so many of them are such fine people, intelligent and erudite and broad-minded and kind. And it just felt wrong not to say something.

So with that, I shall un- :hijacked. And  :hug to you, too, lizstraw. This has been a fun discussion.
#25 - June 25, 2013, 06:03 PM
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Jaina, too hilarious! I know just what you mean, and it is so completely jarring! These are all great tips, everyone! I goeth back to ye old research pile...
#26 - June 26, 2013, 07:40 AM

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I was watching a show recently, set in the early 60's, which had an eleven-year-old presenting a paper on the movement of tectonic plates. I am pretty forgiving when it comes to anachronisms, but this one was so jarring, I laughed out loud - which was not the intended response, I am sure.

Laurel
#27 - June 26, 2013, 08:07 AM

I feel dumb--did people not know about tectonic plates in the early 60s?  I remember doing a project about them in the mid-70s.  I always found that so fascinating.
#28 - June 26, 2013, 08:34 AM

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Tectonic theory was still pretty much laughed at in the early sixties, but by the mid seventies had started gaining ground. I remember doing a project on it in middle school, too!
#29 - June 26, 2013, 08:45 AM
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I was eleven in the early sixties and we definitely did not know about tectonic plates. Maybe someone in the scientific world did, but the knowledge had not made it down to the elementary school level or into textbooks, which is something to consider while doing research: slang, awareness of current events, scientific advances often take a little time to work their way down through the educational pecking order.

#30 - June 26, 2013, 08:11 PM

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