Let’s talk about what makes an historical novel a wall-banger. That’s what author Elizabeth Chadwick calls the kind of book that annoys the reader enough to chuck it at the wall in disgust. Medieval mysteries have been my dessert reading of late. Actually, historical mysteries of all kinds. And I’m a picky, picky reader. Here are my suggestions to help historical novelists avoid the dread wall-banger:
Details Must be Right
Readers of historical fiction are usually experts when it comes to their favorite times and places. I’ve studied historical costume for more than four decades.When I’m reading a Civil War historical and our heroine puts on a spencer to protect her from a chill breeze, or buttons the cuff of her delicate leg o’ mutton sleeves, I’m through. I can no longer trust that author to have done his or her research.
It reminds me of an afternoon in North Dakota, after Lauraine Snelling had spoken at an event. An elderly gentleman came up to her and insisted he was her number one fan. “But I did find one mistake. You got the wagon wrong in one of your Red River books.” Lauraine replied that she had studied wagons and frontier vehicles carefully over the years. She knew every part of a wagon. “Bet you didn’t study Dakota wagons,” he said, smiling big. “There’s not a single hill in North Dakota. Our wagons never needed brakes.” Thankfully he didn’t consider any of Lauraine’s books wall-bangers.
Whether it be tools, food, occupations, houses, transportation or pastimes, an author must get it right. Did you know a child in the 1880s couldn’t have had a teddy bear? The first toy teddy didn’t appear until Teddy Roosevelt. If you don’t adore history and every minute detail, stick with contemporary novels.
Reflect the Culture of the Era, not Current Mores
We’ve all experienced an author who tries to paste twenty-first century sensibilities on an historical character. It is jarring to the historical fiction aficionado. A woman in the early industrial revolution would not be worrying about polluting the planet anymore than she would be concerned about the hard life of work horses. The historical writer, Sharon Penman calls these “Plantagenets in Pasadena” books.
Our universal humanness remains unchanged. The delight in newfound love. The grief of losing a child. Jealousy. Anger. The way we express these is what is different era to era. Some times people have been more restrained, more shuttered, other times, more unfettered.
Suggest the Sense of the Language
No one wants to read dialogue written in dialect, but we do want a sense of a different time and place. Historical readers understand that even though they are reading in English, the characters may have been speaking another language. We suspend disbelief. But good dialogue should hint at the rhythm and time period. It just takes a few repeated archaic words here and there to suggest the language of the era. One of the authors I’m currently reading substitutes “for cert,” instead of “for certain.” It’s enough to tease us into thinking we are hearing the way they spoke. Do you remember Boo Radley* busting up the chifforobe in To Kill a Mockingbird? Using the word “busting”and the term “chifforobe” set the tone and the southernness of the novel.
Name Characters Specific to Time and Place
Don’t give us a Debbie in a seventeenth century novel. Deborah, yes, Debbie, no. Thanks to the internet it is possible to track typical names from every culture and every era. ‘Nuff said.
Offer Characters of Depth
Readers of historical fiction delight in the fact that people who lived long ago were every bit as complex as we are now. The commonly held belief that we are somehow evolved is a misconception. People have long been complicated. The idea of the simple milkmaid is a myth. That girl had many of the same needs and worries that the reader does today. Don’t offer up cardboard characters. Dig into the events that made each character unique. Did their grandparents lose their land due to the British Enclosure Acts? Did it make them bitter? Distrustful of government? Dig deep into the history and it will enrich the telling.
Drop the Reader into the Setting
Just last week, in a meeting, an editor was talking about excellent fiction and mentioned one particular author (who happens to be my client). This editor has been to Poland more times than she can count. The author’s book is set in Poland during WWII. The editor said she couldn’t believe that this author, who has never visited the country, took her right there. When she described a street it was exactly as the editor had experienced it. That’s powerful research!
Give Us a New Understanding of History
Each historical novel should give us a deeper sense of history. You might be able to tell that I love history . I’ve learned more from novels than I ever learned from textbooks. When an author can deftly combine history with stories of the people who experienced that history, it brings a freshness and immediacy to what our school history classes reduced to wars and rulers and dates. Writers of historical fiction have the opportunity to make the past come alive!
Wall-banger or keeper, it’s all in the details. What are your pet peeves?
- Oops! Two of my readers pointed out it was the defendant Tom Robinson that busted up the chifforobe in To Kill a Mockingbird. Definitely time for a reread. Tip: Don’t rely on memory when commenting on a book read at least 50 years ago. *blush* Thanks, Debbie Thomas and Laurie Herlich.
Please author take me back in time,
for it’s what you’re engaged to do,
but do not take these days of mine
back with me and back with you.
I’m up to here with social justice,
environment, and gender bending;
call up the Caesar, old Augustus,
let’s have rules instead of ‘trending’,
and give me stern Centurions,
shifty Zealots on the skulk;
bring blunt Show Me Missourians,
and China Sailors caught in bulk,
and maybe in some SF way
we can import them to this day.
What an outstanding post! Thank you, Wendy. 🙂
A pet peeve of mine is the failure to convey the mentality of an ethnic group. For instance, three of my novels are set in late 19th-century Italy (The Italian Chronicles Trilogy). Having grown up in an Italian home with a native Italian mother, and having lived in Italy, I understand the thought patterns of Italians. Those thought patterns differ in many ways from American thought patterns.
For example, Italians as a group tend to be fatalistic in their thinking. They have a “che sarà, sarà” thought pattern. One will not usually find among the Italian people the same sense of control of one’s destiny that Americans possess. This is not to say that it doesn’t exist among Italians, but it is far less pronounced than it is among Americans.
All that said, I believe that writing historical novels must take into consideration the way a people thinks, for mentality greatly affects actions and, hence, characterization and plot development.
Again, thank you for your excellent post. Your points are well taken. 🙂
Absolutely. As soon as I read this I knew this was another nuanced way to make history come alive.
Tea bags being dipped in 1880s water.
Right? These little details catch us up.
Thank you for this, Wendy! I’m sure I’ve made my share of wall-bangers, but my pet peeve is character names. I’ve seen too many historical characters given names that parents are naming their babies NOW. Even if the name you give them was popular in the 1930s when your story is set… was it popular in 1905 when your character was BORN? Always calculate the year they were born and choose a name from that time. As you say, the internet makes it so easy. I won’t even pick up a book if the character’s name is in the title and I know it’s an anachronism. How can I trust the author to get the rest of the book right?
So true! And names cycle back. I remember the 1910 names like Miranda, Dorothy, Mabel, Agatha, Agnes, etc., you see coming back some hundred years later.
Kim Janine Ligon
I detest moralizing in historical fiction on current hot issues. And I hate to tell you but Victorian English ladies would not be escaping chaperones at every turn for a naked romp with some rakish Lord. Those Lords would be romping with an entirely different class of women and paying for the privilege.
Great post, but didn’t you mean Tom Robinson broke up the chifforobe, not Boo Radley? 😊
I guess fifty some years is too long to trust my memory. Time for a reread. (Does that mean I’ve become a wall-banger and you can never trust me again?)
No! And sometimes a reread is like enjoying it for the first time.
“I’ve learned more from novels than I ever learned from textbooks.” Yes! And thank you! When I was a kid in the Philippines we got a good laugh out of a Hardy Boys book that described someone climbing a pineapple tree.
And the King James translation of Isaiah 3:22 comes to mind– with “mantles, wimples and crisping pins” — what a challenge those translators faced to make ancient language relevant for their culture.
Thanks for your post!
Carol Ruth Loewen
Thank you, Wendy, for these wall-bangers. In my first novel, Out of Russia, I’m working to avoid these. However, your post reminds me to watch for each of these as I edit.
Kristen Joy Wilks
Yes! It is in the details that a story is born. My biggest pet peeve, writers who include horses in their story who clearly have never cared for a horse. Maybe they went on one paid ride on the beach or something, but this does not give them the details needed to write believable horses or characters who use horses in their everyday work. One does not simply ground hitch their horse somewhere in the rain and rush off without a thought! A horse was an incredibly valuable animal, vital to everyday life, and their care would have been forefront on the mind of any character.
And I’m curious! What book set in Poland were you talking about? It sounds so good!
The book set in Poland is indeed about horses. Watch for it. Nicole Miller”s debut with Revell. (And Nicole has worked with horses her whole life.)
Kristen Joy Wilks
Yes! I’m not a horse expert, but I have a CF author friend who has ridden competitively and trained both horses and people professionally. I check out my horse details with her to make certain a casual rider like me isn’t making stupid mistakes.
Janet Holm McHenry
Thank you, Wendy–well put.
Even contemporary writers can get details wrong. I often groan when a writer has a character who is a teacher, because there typically is something procedurally that will be incorrect.
I was a teacher for 26 years (elementary, 3 years; high school English 23 years). Writer friends, ask me if you have questions.
Elaine M Faber
As an author of WWII historical fiction, I agree with all you’ve said, but on the flip side, modern day liberal critics are quick to denigrate (or ban books) of an author who includes a scene a ‘mindset’ current to the times of her story. They are currently judged as ‘racist.’ I don’t need to describe specifics. Your article did not touch on that important reality. How do you suggest a author approach such sensitive subjects as prejudice, unfair laws, segregation, etc. when these were all a part of life during WWII.
I appreciate authors who just brave their way through it. Revisionist history keeps us from understanding the past. And understanding the past helps us craft a better future. Right? I think this current culture of negative judgement toward creators will pass. You can already see pushback from comedians.
When I first started reading this blog in 2015, one of the agents made a comment about writing blog posts about our historical time. I went overboard and created an entire Roman history website because I do deep research into my period. I figured the topics would interest others, too, and that website is why I have so many international readers. Thanks so much to whichever of you it was that launched me in that direction for something worth sharing as an author.
One of my pet peeves is when authors feel they can’t have names longer than two syllables so they abbreviate longer historical names to nicknames in cultures that didn’t do that. Maybe their editors force it on them, but when a Biblical character has a four- to six-syllable name, it feels misplaced in time to shorten it to two.
All valid points! And I’ve saying this after having read some real “wall-bangers” this past year. Nothing takes me out of a story faster than easily-fixed historical errors.
(And yes, seeing the word “siblings” in a historical makes me cringe. This includes faith-based fiction. Pet peeve.)
Wendy, though I don’t write historical fiction, I enjoy reading it. And, like you, I’ve learned a lot of history through story. I appreciate details that sweep me up in the story. But, when there is so much description that it slows the story down, it’s hard to stay focused. I love when an author nuances setting into the action.
I LOVE this topic! Wonderful article and I’m in the AMEN corner. I’m so glad to know I’m not the only one with marks on my wall from literally throwing books against it in frustration. My pet peeve is interjecting modern slang into historic fiction (WWII book I recently read had someone unable to wrap their mind around something…sorry, Charlie–same era, different author using the phrase “domestic violence”!) And as you rightly point out…it’s so avoidable! Authors might want to read novels written during their historic setting (if possible…I suppose Clan of the Cave Bear would be a tough one) –you learn so much from a primary source you can’t get from research! Thanks for ringing my chimes with this post today!
I write historical fiction set in Bible times. As a Christian, I set myself the rule that what’s written in the Bible is truth and can’t be changed. In my second novel, set in 1 Kings, I wrote about Naboth, his son and wife, and their son. I was halfway through writing the book when I came across a verse in 1 or 2 Chronicles that quoted Elijah cursing Ahab for killing Naboth and his sons. Whoops. I agonized over what to do. What else? I rewrote about 50% of the first half and gave Naboth another son, a change that actually made the book much better. Ha!
This is such a helpful article. Thank you for sharing. I love reading historical fiction and want to learn historical details. When I see a detail that isn’t true to the era, I do question how much else is inaccurate.
I wandered through the cemetery in the town where my most recent historical is set. There’s history in those headstones I recorded on my IPad. Names, dates and epitaphs that spoke volumes in the few words inscribed. When looking for a girl’s name born in 1918, there was Abigail with a lamb on her headstone. Perfect. Claude Leukens is beside her–So prone was he to find some good in all mankind, so quick to stop and heed the cry of those in need, that heaven with love abrim did not seem strange to him. And next to him is Jay Durnell–Gone to be with the master fisherman.
Goodness, Faye. You are a woman after my own heart.
Wonderful article, Wendy, and one I will take to heart. My pet peeve involves an author using words of description that “pop” the reader out of the novel’s time period. Please don’t describe the sky as “steel gray” if your novel is set in 1000 B.C. Technically, you are not claiming smelting knowledge, but you will negatively impact the novel’s aura, and aura helps the reader shed the veil of disbelief.
Frenchy Dennis Dennis
I am a long-time history buff. If I’m reading historical fiction and the history is wrong, that’s a wall-banger for me. Just one thing to say: research, research, research!