Thursday, June 24, 2010

Guest Post: Historical Accuracy with Jill Eileen Smith

Historical Accuracy

by Jill Eileen Smith

History is story. And stories are about people. Take historical facts, keep them accurate, then dress them up – one in blue, the other in gray and set them at odds with each other in the same family during the Civil War – one defending a livelihood, the other defending a people, and you’ve just snagged my interest. But if you want to keep that interest, the author’s attention to historical detail must carry through the entire novel.

Case in point. I was reading a historical novel set in biblical times a few months ago, which included scenes involving religious rituals of an ancient culture. The descriptions were rich and colorful, and put me there. The religious ceremonies (though foreign and pagan to biblical thinkers) were interesting to “see” and understand. If the author got her facts straight, she was doing a great job of letting me envision a different culture.

But when she got to some of the facts in the Bible, I found some blatant errors. Where the Bible named someone specifically as having done something, she had the act done by someone else. Since I believe the Bible to be accurate history, she lost me with those errors. Writers of historical fiction need to do their homework and double and triple check facts to make sure they get things as right as possible. That is not to say we will never make mistakes, but we should do our best not to.

This carries over into little things a writer might at first overlook. For instance, if I’m writing about 1000 B.C. during King David’s reign, I’m stepping into a whole different world. While the characters may live and love and struggle as we do today, they were not modern in the things they used. In truth, they would not even think as we do today, though figuring out their mindset can be much harder than understanding what implements they used in daily living.

The writer of historical fiction must be aware of all of these things, but one of the easiest to overlook are modern terms we use without thinking. For instance, we might be used to saying A minute later…but “minute” should be “moment” because they would not have measured time in minutes then. The same is true for words like miles, inches, yards. Fabrics were never mixed in Israel, and cotton did not grow there. Rayon and polyester and other synthetics, of course, were unheard of and undiscovered. It’s debatable whether they knew of silk at the time. Their clothes were made mainly of wool or linen. These may seem like small things, but they add up to credibility. Even verbs like “inched” as in, She inched closer to the door, straining to hear, can’t be used because “inch” was not a unit of measure at that time, so the verb would not fit.

Thanks so much to Jill for stopping by to write such a helpful articale! I know we can all of us who have written or writing historical fiction know how hard it is to keep things acurate, so thank you!
Do you have a question for Jill? She will be visiting us here on the Writer's Alley today, so don't be shy!


Mia said...

Thanks for being here today, Jill! :) I don't write historical fiction, however, I think your post was still a great reminder to get the facts right.

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

Thanks, Jill.
The burden is heavy at times to verify details, but the result is fabulous. I liken it to: everyone notices a messy house, but no one seems to notice the clean one. To keep my readers turning the pages, I need to have accurate information.
Great post. Thanks for being here today:)

Casey said...

One of my biggest struggles in my historical fiction was getting facts right, it can be overwhelmning to know where to look! I greatly admire great historical authors. :)

Thanks Jill for sharing the day with us. :)

Susan J. Reinhardt said...

Wonderful post, Jill. Thank you for the examples. I've discovered Wikipedia isn't the best place to check your facts. :)

Casey said...

LOL, Susan, I can image not. :)

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

I am late in getting to the party, but I have a question. Given the time period, plus the added equation of Bible history, how long does it take you to research a book? What resources do you use to research?

Krista Phillips said...

This is one of the reasons I write contemporaries.. ha! I mean, I have to get my facts right there too, but it is a much different measure.

I enjoy READING historicals... but am not a history buff by any means so researching it all would be brutal for me:-)

Jill Eileen Smith said...

Thanks so much to all of you for your comments! I appreciate you taking the time to read the blog. It's a pleasure to be here!

Sherrinda - thanks for the questions. The first thing I do when writing a biblical novel is to get to know the Bible portion well - not just in the portion where it is recorded in the Bible, but studying other passages of Scripture that apply. I continue to do this while I'm writing. In the stories of King David's wives, I taught a Bible study on David and then continued to study his life on and off for seven more years. (In between real life, of course!) I read every commentary, Bible dictionary, Bible encyclopedia, manners and customs books, atlases, etc., that I could find. For a list of some of the resources I used for MICHAL and ABIGAIL, go to and look under Bonus Features on each books' page. I have links to most of the resources.

For my current WIP SARAI (Abraham's wife) I've had to study ancient Mesopotamia as well as Israel and Egypt. I do a more cursory study at the start - enough to write the first draft - putting the word "check" in parentheses - (check) - in various places where I'm not sure I'm accurate. My goal is to finish this coming week, then take a month off - to let it sit before I reread it, then in August read through my resources again. Then I'll get edits for BATHSHEBA (the cover is up on Amazon today if you want to check it out!) but by September I'll go back to SARAI and work in all of the things I learned along the way.

Does that help? Thanks again to all for stopping by today!

Casey said...

Thanks Jill for stopping by today, it was a pleasure having you visit. :)

Jan Cline said...

This post really got me to thinking. My WIP is set in WWII and I need to consider what the mindset for certain things was at that time to fit into my story. For instance what was the role expectations of women during that period. Things were changing I know because women were needed in the work force to make up for the lack of male workers. Hmmmm. Lots to think about. Thanks!