Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Accuracy in historical fiction: a guest post by Ashley Sweeney, author of Eliza Waite

In today's guest post, author Ashley Sweeney expands upon a topic familiar to historical fiction writers and readers: getting the facts right.  I'll be posting a review of her debut novel, Eliza Waite, in the near future.


Accuracy in Historical Fiction
Ashley Sweeney

In children’s literature, if a frog and a monkey wear striped pajamas and go on vacation to the moon, we think nothing of it. But give Jean Valjean a cellphone or Jane Eyre a Corvette and poof! Our credibility’s shot.

author Ashley Sweeney
(credit: Karen Mullen Photography)
Back when I was a newbie reporter at a rural weekly newspaper, the Five W’s: Who/What/When/Where/Why ruled first paragraphs. The thinking behind a formulaic style of writing is that if stories must be shortened due to space limitations, all the facts still appear in the story.

And our editor drilled into our heads: Check your facts. And you better get them right. Period.

In literature, authors have the luxury of spreading out details, at times feeding them crumb-by-crumb to readers. All elements are not weighed equally. In character-driven plots, Who or What is vital. In murder mysteries, Why, and its partner How, reigns. Historical fiction draws heavily on Where and When; setting identifies time, place, and mood of the narrative.

And what’s paramount for authors of historical fiction: we can’t make mistakes. We have to check our facts and get them right. Period.

In writing Eliza Waite, I was constantly fact-checking myself. Did matchsticks exist in the late 19th century? Who was president of the U.S. in 1890s? What was the major source of news in the San Juan Islands and Skagway, Alaska at the turn of the last century?

Where did women go for female hysteria treatments? When was The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde published? Why did tens of thousands of men and women drop out of their lives to search for elusive gold in the Klondike?

And how did women cook and bake without any modern conveniences?

I amassed more than 100 books on various subjects pertinent to the era and turned to librarians, historians, museum curators, authors, and storytellers to fill in holes. Of course the Internet was a constant companion.

I encountered surprises while researching, including the fact that Skagway was electrified before most of the United States. A.F. Eastman founded Skagway Electric Light Company in the fall of 1897. Within months, Alaska Electric Light and Power Company, which traced its roots to 1893 Juneau, appeared in Skagway in competition. By the summer of 1898 at the height of the Klondike Gold Rush, the companies dueled for customers and Skagway’s streetlights, hotels, and businesses were illuminated.

The fact that Skagway was electrified allowed my protagonist—a baker at Skagway’s The Moonstone Café—to marvel over the new-fangled invention.

What wonders will this new electric invention open up? It won’t be long before kitchens are electrified! Electric lights! Electric mixers! Maybe even electric ovens!

But imagine if I had my protagonist driving a Jeep or arriving in Alaska by air in 1898 rather than by steamship from Seattle. I’d certainly get bad reviews or be booted out of historical novel associations. Or worse. I might be tarred and feathered. Or—heaven forbid!—put in the stocks.

Ashley Sweeney is the author of Eliza Waite, published in May 2016 by She Writes Press.

1 comment:

  1. My book "LaRose Land" tracts my mother's roots back to France, it begins in the late 1500's. Research is almost my full time job in making sure what is written is right. A lot of times what I had written goes in the trash because the situation was not right. My challenge is researching with little luck on how barbers (doctors) treated patients concerning battle wounds.