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Getting Dates And Details Right In Historical Novels, by Kathleen Benner Duble

Accuracy is critical for historical novels. As historical fiction writers for young children, that job is even more crucial ‐ kids will take your written word about life in the past as facts.

But even when you’ve done intensive research for your book, just the slightest change in a date can affect all that groundwork. The exact, and I mean exact dates you choose for your story will determine what your character wears, what he eats, who she knows and what items they use in their daily lives.

When I was in the process of revising my book, Bridging Beyond, my editor and I decided to change the year my character encounters her grandmother from 1925 to 1927. The book went to the copy editor who immediately picked up a mistake that arose from the change. In the book, the Grandmother makes a suggestion to my main character that she and her friends go to California and try to meet the great Rudolph Valentino. But Rudolph Valentino died in 1926. In moving the setting of my novel by just two years, I had created an historical inaccuracy in my work.

Currently, I am in the process of doing research on the medieval period. In doing the research, it is tempting to lump all the information I have discovered about the period into one big medieval vat. Unfortunately, the Middle Ages covered a vast amount of time, specifically from 500 to 1500 AD. During that period, there were a great many changes. For instance, before 1330, clothes were practical. They hung loosely from your neck. The types of fabric you wore rather than the cut of the cloth determined your rank and status. But after 1330, clothing became more distinctive in terms of style. Tailored sleeves allowed clothing to be form-fitting and unique in look, and it became the design of the clothes rather than the fabric it was made from that indicated your wealth. So depending on when I set my story, the clothes my characters will wear will be greatly affected.

Say that you want to write a novel set in 1832. Your character is a sea captain, moving molasses from the Caribbean to Canada. You research the 1800’s and begin to write your novel. Below are some things you’ll need to consider:

In 1832, your character could have used a typewriter to type up the notes about his journey while captaining his vessel, but he couldn’t have used Morse Code to send a message if his ship got into trouble. Morse Code wasn’t invented until 1838. Your character could have had a stethoscope used on him at the doctor’s office when he went to have the chest cough he’d picked up on his recent voyage looked into, but he would not have encountered a dental chair when he needed to get the toothache he got on his travels resolved.

So think about the examples above when picking the date of your novel. Being sure your facts are date-correct can be a laborious task but it is a job that we, as historical novelists, are bound to uphold.


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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. I think that’s the hardest part about writing historical fiction. I am finishing a work where all of the children are mentioned in the father’s will ten years after the book ends, but the story reads so much better if I let a couple of them get killed off. Being unknown people, it probably doesn’t matter to anyone except me, but I’m still figuring out what I want to do.

    August 8, 2013
  2. Good post. I am always surprised at the things readers can find in a historical novel. I once had a reader point out that although smallmouth bass are in the C&O Canal (the setting for my novel) now, at the time of my novel, there were only largemouth bass!

    August 8, 2013

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