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How to write believable historical fiction
By Jeanette Watts
It comes down to one simple word: research. You’ve got to do your homework if you’re going to create an environment that takes people out of the 21st century.
Anyone who writes historic fiction needs to realize that their audience 1) is not stupid and 2) loves history. They may know more about a specific era than you do. After all, they read historical fiction because they love history, and by all that reading, they know an awful lot.
Getting sucked into any story is called the “suspension of disbelief.” While it may play a bigger role in movies, it is a powerful force in any storytelling venue. The moment your story deviates from historical fact because you didn’t do your homework, you are going to lose readers. I have had it happen to me before: a character in a story set in the 1880s picks up a telephone to call a neighbor. WRONG! Just because Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876 doesn’t mean that five years later, every house had one, and used it for social calls. Someone asked me to proofread a novel for her that had her primping in a rearview mirror years before automobiles had them.
You have to ask a lot of questions if you are really going to help people understand what it smelled like, tasted like, and felt like in a different era. Assumptions are a bad thing, and you could lose huge portions of audience in a moment of thoughtlessness. My first book, Wealth and Privilege, originally made reference to a “bad-tempered Pekingese.” It was a personal reference – my grandmother had a Pekingese who was the crankiest old lady you can imagine. It was a point of pride for me that I was the only grandchild who was never bitten by that dog. But the breed is not officially recognized by the American Kennel Club until 1906. If I would have put a reference to one in Pittsburgh in 1875, I would have lost all the dog lovers in the audience. (Bedlington Terriors WERE around in 1875…)
Word choices are probably even trickier than historical assumptions. One of my proofreaders for Brains and Beauty came up with a whopper of a mistake: the term “baby” to mean the youngest child in the family is a very modern term. My heroine would never refer to her youngest sibling as her baby sister. And I had made it her pet name! There were something like eighty places where I had to replace “Babysis” with a new pet name. (Now she calls her “Sweet Pea.”) Even more incidious, the term “sex” to mean coitus does not exist until D.H. Lawrence used it that way in 1929. So when explaining the facts of life to a younger sibling in the 1880s, one would NOT ask “do you understand what sex is?”
Now, of course, no one goes so overboard with language as to reproduce the language of a time period. Imagine trying to read Philippa Gregory if she insisted on writing in Tudor English! But a writer still needs to capture the spirit of the era in which the story takes place. The first thing to do is avoid modern phrases and words. I still remember grimacing while watching a Civil War movie about Gettysburg, I think, in which one of the characters actually says “You da man.” Ow! Ow, ow, ow, what the hell?!?!?!!? Talk about losing the suspension of disbelief!
It takes a large investment of time and thought to do the kind of research required if you are going to avoid catapulting your readers from a previous century back to the present moment. But every time I get another reader writing a review that says I “took them on a magic carpet ride through history,” or “this author taught me things I didn’t even know about my own city,” it’s worth it. My readers trust me. After I’ve piqued their curiosity, and they chase down some historical tidbit I’ve included and find out wow, that really happened, they are trusting me to tell them a story that teaches them about another time and place.
That’s a sacred trust. I cannot imagine violating that. If I did, I don’t think I could still call myself an author.
5* Very good read
*I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review*.
So if I’m honest about it I need to confess I would rate it 4.5 if I could but rounded it to 5 because my reasons for not rating it 5 are too personal and might apply to other potential readers. Moreover, I don’t like spoilers so forgive me for not giving many specifics below.
For starters, I prefer my reads to have steamy scenes between the protagonists and Brains and Beauty falls short on those. However that doesn’t mean it is dull. It’s just less X-rated than my favorite kind of books. LOL
I also didn’t agree with a few of Regina’s choices or the way she conducted some very personal businesses because the conflicts resulting from her attitudes ended up seeming a bit artificial (remember I don’t do spoilers so this is vague on purpose). On the other hand, many people may not agree with me when they read the book, which I encourage them to do by the way.
At this point you must be wondering why I recommend Brains and Beauty. Aside from personal differences of opinion between the main characters and I the book is very good. Jeanette Watts did an awesome job with characters’ creation not only with the main ones but mainly with the secondary characters, which makes a story richer and better. My favorite ones were Anthra and Bit, the Labrador Retrievers. LOL She also went to great lengths to research the time period the story is set in, which contributes both to a more complex pot and detailed background story.
Finally, I have to say that Regina Waring reminded me of Scarlett O’Hara while I read the book mainly due to her business acumen and forward thinking but also because of her nasty habit of making wrong decisions in her personal life as I mentioned above. In spite of that I love Scarlet just as I liked Regina very much.
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Was it really less than a year since she had witnessed the conflagration at the railroad yard? Once again, she faced smoking ruins that had once been a thriving industry. This time, it wasn’t human made. Or at least, it wasn’t deliberate.
The mill ruins were, perhaps, more intimidating. The Washburn “A” had been a seven-and-a-half story building, and the explosion had been so large it shattered glass windows in the neighboring city of St. Paul. It left a crater in the middle of the mill district, destroying about one third of all the businesses in the area. The circle of destruction was ringed with the charred skeletons of mills that existed on the edge of the blast zone.
She was amazed that there were only eighteen other people killed in the explosion. Considering the scope of the wreckage, it seemed to her it could have been so much worse. As hard as it was to be married to one of the victims, Regina felt a certain gratitude that there were so few new widows. The bereaved would all be able to fit on a single trolley car.
Her eyes scanned for places where Henry might have been found. She had no idea where he was, or even who had rescued him. There were fallen walls everywhere – and nothing looked like a place where a man could be pinned down, and survive, even briefly.
Between the wreckage of the Washburn “A” mill, and the old wreckage from the collapse of the tunnel, Regina mused on her walk back to the hotel that this part of the world was very dangerous – or unlucky.
Regina Waring seems to have it all. A loving husband, a successful business, and the most expensive wardrobe in town. But nothing is what it appears to be. Her husband is critical and demanding, the business teeters on ruin, even the opulent wardrobe is a clever illusion.
Regina’s life is one long tiptoe through a minefield; one wrong step and her entire life is going to blow up and destroy her. Attempting to hold it all together, she appeases the husband, dresses the part, and never, never says what she is really thinking. That would get in the way of getting things done. And, if there’s one thing Regina did really well, it was getting things done.
Enter Thomas Baldwin. Young and handsome and completely off limits, Regina is smitten at first sight. Then, to her great astonishment, he slowly becomes her best friend. He’s the one person in her life who never lets her down. Torn between her fascination with him and her desire not to ruin a marvelous friendship, she tries to enjoy each moment with him as it comes.
If only that were enough.
Jeanette Watts only lived in Pittsburgh for four years, but in her heart, she will always be a Pittsburgher. She missed the city so much after her move to Ohio, she had to write a love story about it.
She has written television commercials, marketing newspapers, stage melodramas, four screenplays, three novels, and a textbook on waltzing. When she isn’t writing, she teaches social ballroom dances, refinishes various parts of her house, and sews historical costumes and dance costumes for her Cancan troupe.