Friday, February 13, 2015

Fact re Historical Fiction


The Westfall Novels

If you’re a writer of historical fiction, you know the importance of getting the details right. Too many mistakes brings into question your “reality,” and you risk losing not only readers, but your credibility as a writer. This subject will be discussed by a panel (“The History Behind Fiction”) at the Book ‘Em North Carolina festival in Lumberton on February 28.

I hope the inaccuracies in the antebellum novels I’ve written are small, innocuous ones. With good reason, I didn’t write the following sentences. Can you figure out what’s historically wrong?

-A boy threw a pebble and broke the kitchen window, a nuisance that sent the overseer to the village for a new one.
-The slave slipped into his master’s office and stole an ink pen and wristwatch.
-They took their son to the doctor, who gave him mercury pills for his fever.
-She was so nervous she sneaked into the piano parlor and lit a cigarette.
*See below for explanation.

Sometimes you’ll find conflicting information. The word sandwich originated in the 18th century, but you won’t see references to them in 19th century diaries, magazines, or recipe books. I had a heck of a time figuring out how people started fires. Matches existed in Europe, but they were hard to come by in antebellum literature. After much research, I reached the conclusion that matches were making their appearance, but they were an early, and more volatile, version. I’ve seen in other antebellum novels references to steel. Until the Bessemer Process in 1855, steel was so difficult to produce it was rare in everyday life.

The answers to many questions are found on Wikipedia, which I have used extensively. Books written during the 1850s, diaries in particular, were reliable sources. However, in general, slaves didn’t read or write, for it was prohibited by law. Most of the information I gathered about slaves came from the Slave Narratives, stories gleaned from former slaves by writers employed by the Federal Government in 1937-38. These narratives are available at the Library of Congress and are not only informative but interesting.

* Though glass jars were used, glass for windows was imported from England.
-Ink pens and wristwatches as such didn’t exist. More common were the quill and ink pot and pocket watches.
-Sick people didn’t go to the doctor. He came to them. Mercury pills were used to treat syphilis. 
-Cigarettes didn’t exist. Cigars did, and if a person lit one, he usually did it from a fire in the fireplace.

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