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The Writing Life - The importance of research

December 5, 2014
By Michael Tidemann - Staff Writer , Estherville News

Editor's note: This is a monthly column on the writing process. Topics will range from books and authors to writing conferences and workshops to the writing process itself.

Maybe you've decided to write the great American novel, a history-steeped saga filled with all sorts of authentic details that will make your reader feel a part of the story.

So you sit down, pen (or computer) in hand, and start writing about a Civil War battle with both sides dueling it out with BARs.

Well . . . maybe not.

Attention to historic detail means attention to accurate historic detail. And, while you might be able to fool a few people some of the time, all it takes is one or two historical inaccuracies or anachronisms to have your beloved reader (provided such egregious details slipped past an astute editor) to have said beloved reader throw your book against the wall.

If you're going the standard brick-and-mortar publisher route in which you find an agent to handle your book and market it to an editor at a major publishing house, you'll have the editorial backing to make sure that such inaccuracies never occur (but never say never). Even then, both agents and editors don't want to see historical inaccuracies. They speak of amateurism at best and total incompetency at worst.

The problem is compounded if you're self-publishing, a route that most writers are taking now with options such as Create Space and Ingram Spark. Even though you're self-publishing, you'll be judged by the same exacting standards readers use when they buy a book from a major publisher. After all, most readers don't know the difference. And besides that, it's actually getting rather difficult to tell the difference between a book put out by an indy or small publisher and one that's self-published.

So regardless of what route you take - self-publishing, indy, academic or trying your hand with a major publishing house, historic accuracy is paramount whether you're writing straight history, historical romance or historical thriller. So how do you prevent those egregious errors from happening?

Quite simple. Do your homework.

If you're going to write a novel about a sea-going pirate, you're going to have to know about not just the historical period, but the weapons used and loads of nautical terms (and there are hundreds). One book that I read recently that had more nautical terms than I would ever want to remember was Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr., a gripping nonfiction book about a novice sailor who signed up for merchant seaman's duty in the early nineteenth century.

A novel I read recently that seems to pick up where Two Years Before the Mast leaves off is The Sea Wolf by Jack London, almost a fictional counterpart to Dana's book. A nice source is Wikipedia's Glossary of Nautical Terms - probably not endorsed by academic purists - but it will sure do in a pinch.

If you should try to take on a novel set against the backdrop of the Civil War, get ready for a couple years of solid research. Just today I got a copy of the Casemate Publishers catalogue in the mail, featuring some titles by the publisher Savas Beatie. A lot of these books have battle maps that detail just when and where the Union and Confederate forces were.

Better yet, visit the Civil War battlefields. And better than that, see if you can't take part in a Civil War reenactment. If that doesn't get your narrative blood pumping, nothing ever will.

If you're concerned about historical accuracy about the weaponry you're describing, maybe pick up a copy of Gun Digest which actually sells replicas of period firearms. Gun Digest lists a Euroarms 1861 .58 calibre Springfield rifle, a reproduction of the original three-band rifle issued early in the Civil War to Union troops. At $730, that might seem to be a bit steep for research, but what the heck. You'll end up with a pretty nice elk rifle.

If you're concerned about historical accuracy in clothing, following are some sources:

n What People Wore When: A Complete Illustrated History of Costume from Ancient Times to the Nineteenth Century for Every Level of Society by Melissa Leventon (2008).

n Costume Designers Handbook: A complete Guide for Amateur and Professional Costume Designers by Rosemary Ingham and Liz Covey (1991).

n Fashion in Costume 1200-2000 by Joan Nunn (2000).

n Pictorial Encyclopedia of Historic Costume: 1200 Full-Color Figures by Karl Rohrbach (2007).

n Costume Through the Ages: Over 1400 Illustrations by Erhard Klepper (1999).

n Costume and Fashion:

A Concise History by James Laver, Amy de la Haye, Andrew Tucker (2002).

n Fashion: The Twentieth Century by Francois Baudot (2006).

As for dialect and speech, try reading authors from the period about which you are writing. Pay special attention to social status, regional dialects and historical period. After all, you wouldn't want a mountain man speaking like Jane Austen's characters or an uppercrust Southern Belle sounding like Huck Finn poling himself downriver. These were two very different authors, and besides that, Twain didn't have much use for Austen, judging by his comments about her characters.

Michael Tidemann's author page is located at:



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