Historical Fiction Ain’t What It Used to Be

Historical fiction is a popular genre in American literature, and has been, almost from the beginning of the American lit tradition. Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is historical fiction. It was written in the 19th century, written about events placed much earlier in this country’s history. By contrast, Dickens’ novels seem to us today to be historical, but they are not; they were contemporary when they were written.

Writing historical fiction is trickier than it might seem to be. If one is writing a western, for instance, it isn’t enough to base the depictions on material garnered from Hollywood. Film makers mess things up on a regular basis. In my youth, I dated a man who was something of a gun nut–um, pardon–a student of firearms. Going to films with him was frustrating. If the movie involved firearms of any sort, he’d comment on the authenticity of the weaponry. “He can’t be using that rifle. This movie is set in 1865. That rifle wasn’t invented till 1873.” So much for appreciating the film after that.

Still, I suppose I’ve done my share of film spoiling for others. I once turned off a movie on TV when the hero announced, in a film set in 1867, “My father died last year with Custer.” Since Custer’s demise took place in 1876, ol’ dad should have had ten more years.

But writing historical fiction takes more than just getting the dates right. It’s complicated¬† by things we think we know about the past, things we believe that are not true, and our inability to understand a concept called “tacit knowledge.” Tacit knowledge is information that everyone in a particular time and place shares, knowledge that is so common that people of the time would probably not bother writing it down. Suppose I write a line that goes, “She walked into the room and turned on the light.” I would not consider writing, “She walked into the room, reached for a plastic plate mounted on the wall and raised a toggle switch to the on postion, thereby completing an electrical curcuit which enabled the ceiling fixtures to emit light.” I don’t have to say all that because we have tacit knowledge about what “turning on the light” entails. If , however, I’m writing a novel set in the 16th century, I may have to elaborate on the procedures required for the production of light, if those procedures are necessary to my plot.

Sometimes tacit knowledge is important; sometimes it isn’t. I learned in my research on 1866 Wyoming that playing cards of that day did not have numbers or letters on them. A king was just a picture of a king, no K in the corner. A three of hearts just had three hearts–“pips” as they’re called–no 3 in the corner. Did this get mentioned in my book? No. Everyone of the day would have known it, and no one now needs to know it. Interesting bit of info, but nonessential.

With historical fiction, the devil is, indeed, in the details. If I mentioned a man riding across the 1866 western plains wearing a rubber poncho and green goggles, readers would probably hoot. Those items, however, did indeed exist at that time and were worn, though probably not commonly.

Speech, too, lends itself to error. In my first published work, I had a character say, regarding mistakes he’d made in his life, “I’ve made some beauts.” I think I could defend that expression, a shortened version of “beauties.” An editor, however, changed “beauts” to “doozies,” and I missed the change when I proofed the book. Given the time of the book, the late 1870’s, “doozies” was an anachronism. That term came about when the Duesenberg automobile was invented, many years later. I got some static about that.

Tricky stuff, history. It’s so seldom what we think it is.

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