Ask the Editor – Historical Accuracy & POV

Ask the EditorToday continues our Ask the Editor series.

I write historical romance. How important is it that all details be historically accurate versus making it understandable to modern day readers? For instance, most people nowadays think of dinner as an evening meal. Not so in the 1800s when it was the midday meal.

The degree of historical accuracy can vary from publisher to publisher. I know this only because of the books I read from various houses. I’m not privy to their rules.

But I advise my clients to be accurate. That doesn’t mean you can’t make the verbiage more understandable or smoother. Contractions weren’t widely used until the early 1900s, but I find it very tedious to read a book that doesn’t use them. In all things, it’s finding a balance. Let your dedication to accuracy lead you. If you want to be faithful to the language of the day, then be so (and I say kudos to you). You can put other clues into your story to help people know it’s the noon meal.

Where I insist on historical accuracy is when actual events or dates are mentioned.

If your story takes place in 1949 and you have your characters discussing Veteran’s Day, you’ve made a big mistake. While not all readers will catch it, some will. In 1949, the Nov. 11 celebration was known as Armistice Day and didn’t change to Veteran’s Day until 1954.

The thing about historical accuracy —or accuracy in general about anything in your book—is that you never know what your readers know. If you have errors in your book, your reader might stop reading. For that matter, they may not purchase any new book you publish because they’ve decided you lack credibility.

“Pshaw!” you may say.

But a keynote speaker at a writers conference had this to say. He was reading a contemporary fiction, and the speaker (aka reader) shared the hobby of tree grafting with the main character. The author got some of the facts about tree grafting wrong. The speaker/reader stopped reading and never finished the book. That error called the author’s credibility into question.

When I edit, I check almost everything, right down to whether the moon was actually a full moon on a specific date. Ridiculous? Yes, probably, but I’m an editor after all. However, I have saved authors and CrossRiver Media Group from some very embarrassing mistakes.

Does your character sing “It Is Well with My Soul”? Then your story better take place post 1876. Is your hero taking the train from New York to California? Then that trip takes place after May 10, 1869.

Writers often mention things in their stories without thinking. They have grown up with that something as a part of their lives, and it just comes out when they write. You must ensure historical accuracy for real events or things you mention in your story.

I’m writing a fiction book in first person. Is it okay to have a chapter or chapters written from another person’s POV, but still in first person, as a different perspective on the protagonist?

It’s okay to use first person POV with different people in the same story. I’ve seen it done and have done it myself (in my WIP). It’s important to let your reader know which one you’re in and I would, in this case, always stick to separate chapters for each.

It’s the “as a different perspective on the protagonist” that concerns me. It sounds as though you’re using the other POV merely as a way to convey information you can’t find any other way to show through the protagonist’s—a mistake readers will see through. Readers can recognize when authors write something for the convenience of the plot.

Your POV characters are major players in your story and can carry their own plot line. They have their own story arc and affect the protagonist’s goal in some way. So when you say “a chapter,” that should never occur. Your POV characters need to show up more than just once.

Determining point of view for your story is not always that easy. In a workshop I teach on the subject, I use the movie The Princess Bride as an illustration. What kind of story would have been written if the POV had been Buttercup’s? Wesley’s? Inigo Montoya’s? Or imagine what we would have gotten if it had been Wesley and Prince Humperdink telling the story!

To Kill a Mockingbird is another great example. What kind of story would we have if Harper Lee had told the story from Atticus’ perspective?

If a writer is struggling with POV, I recommend writing one major scene from several different points of view. This emphasizes the differences in perspective and will help show you what will and won’t work. You may also try outlining your plot from several POVs to see what you get.

Do you have questions about today’s answers or another question? Be sure to put them in the comments below.

Want to get published but don’t know where to start?

Maybe you have a finished manuscript or just an idea stuck in your head. Email me today at Deb [at] DebraLButterfield [dot] com, and let's discuss how I can help you reach your dream of publication.

Comments

  1. Good information to remember and apply.

  2. I was always curious about accuracy in novels. Interestingly, I love finding out how authors research for those accuracies. Often Googling subjects alone is never a good idea. But rather, deep studying as if it is your final exam in University is best! I looked over this fact when writing my second YA novel. I wrote about a late blooming rose and was surprised when my editor asked me the name of the rose and where it grew and the hardiness of that zone, etc… I really had to dig deep and learn some gardening 101 quick!

    Thanks Debra, it is always a pleasure reading your blogs.

  3. julielcasey says:

    Great advice, Debra! I especially applaud your insistence on accurate history in historical fiction novels. After all, learning about true history along with a good story is why people read the genre. Without the history element, it is simply fiction set in another time. Thank you for pointing that out along with the good advice on POV.

    • The line between accurate history and fiction can blur, especially when your fictional characters interact with the historical. A reader may wonder “did that really happen?” Disclaimers in the front matter become essential, and so does a discerning mind.

%d bloggers like this: