April 25, 2009

At the Scent of Bluebonnets: Avoiding Hysterical Historicals

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by Kathleen Y'Barbo


Unless a historical novel is supposed to be funny, the last thing you want as a writer is to generate laughter. Unfortunately, this can happen when you’re guessing instead of researching.

For example, as a published author, I’m occasionally called on to judge writing contests. I once received a historical manuscript to judge that was nearly flawless. The plot was fresh and intriguing and the characters were so lifelike and well developed that they virtually popped off the page. I began to get excited about this new “find” I’d found. This writer really had some talent.

And then I got to a sentence describing the scent of the bluebonnets as they rode across the plains of East Texas in the July heat. For those of you who don’t know, East Texas is full of pines and hills, and bluebonnets are absolutely gorgeous but they bloom only in the spring and have no scent.


The only thing this otherwise incredibly talented writer got right was the July heat.

As you can imagine, the story was ruined for me, a tenth-generation Texan who grew up in the very place that chapter was attempting to describe. All that glorious writing went down the drain in one single sentence. The author lost an opportunity to place in a contest, possibly even to be reviewed by an editor because of a simple factual error.

Tracie Peterson, a multi-published best-selling author and all around great friend, is a stickler for historical accuracy. She swears by a research principle she calls the “Rule of 3”. Basically she requires three sources to agree on any historical fact before she will include it in her manuscript.

This is especially important if you’re doing research on the Internet. There are no requirements for accuracy in the content of web sites. Anyone can put just about anything on a web site and call it factual, so please check with other sources before taking anyone’s word for anything.

Sometimes the smallest detail is our downfall. Something SOUNDS right, so we assume it is right. I’m going to give you a few scenarios that could appear in manuscripts. You tell me whether the facts are historically accurate:

  • A cowboy in 1868 uses a Colt single-action “Peacemaker” revolver in a gunfight – False – the “Peacemaker” not patented until 1872
  • A character reads dime novels in 1862 – True – the first dime novel was published in 1860
  • What about baking a boysenberry cobbler in 1870? False – boysenberries are a hybrid of raspberries and blackberries that was developed in California in 1940
  • Your hero runs away with the circus in 1836 – True – circuses began around 1830 and by 1836 there were 30 of them traveling around the US
  • A turn-of-the-century heroine reaches for a bottle of ketchup – true – Heinz ketchup in the bottle was first sold in 1876 but homemade ketchup dates back to the eighteen century
  • Finally, your action adventure novel takes place on a clipper ship sailing from New York, around Cape Horn, to San Francisco. The year is 1839. True or False? False – clipper ships were introduced in 1845.

Each of these scenarios SOUNDED plausible, but not all of them were. I will confess that unless I had the research material in front of me, I wouldn’t have known the answers to any of them, at least not with any certainty. Unless your reader is a specialist in Texas history or sailing ships, he or she may not know the answers either, but as a writer, I am not willing to take that risk.

Are you?
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3 comments:

Lena Nelson Dooley said...

Kathleen, glad to share my main soapbox with you. An excellent article.

Vickie McDonough said...

Loved the bluebonnet picture, Kathleen. I hope to one day see them in person.

I once read a historical set in the 1880s and the hero was carving a toy truck for a kid. Kind of yanked me from the story. Thanks for encouraging us to make sure we have our historical details correct.

For His Glory said...

thanks for the article. as a reader of lots of fiction i don't know all the history either, but enjoy learning it. i appreciate authors who research and verify before just adding something to the story. i am familiar with the bluebonnets and thought they blossomed in the spring, as that was my first (and with a bit of dismay) and only occasion to view them though i've been to Texas numerous times. they're beautiful and i brought back a pack to try to grow here in georgia, but alas, they didn't come up :-(