Many of my historian friends are facing the beginning of a new school year right now, so I’ve been reading lots of posts about what they would like their students to know (or learn). It seems to me that writers of historical fiction would do well to follow some of their rules. Here is a short list, freely modified from professors’ Facebook postings and comments on their syllabi.
1. Do your homework. Be prepared to read a lot. You can’t write convincingly about a historical period unless you really understand it. Remember that your readers who know the period will laugh at you when you make a mistake. But also remember that you are responsible for not misleading your readers who do not know the period well.
2. Pick the right sources. If you read a newspaper, try to identify its political bias: The Tri-City Democrat may tell quite a different story from the one in the Commercial Appeal. Find out something about the author before you read the book in order to identify bias. Were the letters of a famous man edited by his doting granddaughter or his mother-in-law?
3. Ask the right questions. Think: “Why? What’s the reason?” “How do we know?” “How did it happen?” “Who says so?” “Can we trust this source?”
4. Don’t trust cliches. If it sounds like an old phrase that you’ve heard before, you probably can’t trust its accuracy. Does your source say, something like, “He’s a chip off the old block.”? Maybe that was just an easy way to avoid looking into the subject’s real character. Or perhaps the writer wanted to make you believe something he couldn’t prove. The father went to jail, but that doesn’t make his son a crook.
5. Avoid snowclones. What are they? They are well-known statements from famous people that those people never really said. For example, people often quote that famous line from Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade”: ‘Theirs but to do or die.’ But what he really wrote was, “Theirs but to do and die.” Make quite a difference, doesn’t it? Quote accurately by going to the original source. Don’t just accept what someone else says the person said.
6. Think Conditionally. “If this is true, then. . . . what would also be true?” If a source says, “Everyone knew the man was a liar,” how was he able to get a loan, or ask for help, or get his wife to marry him?
7. Beware of Assumptions. Recognize the difference between what you really know and what you don’t know. Jack eats a peanut butter sandwich for lunch every day. You know that because you see his lunchbox. But you can’t assume he does so because he loves peanut butter. Maybe his wife just can’t cook.
8. Think about Alternatives. This rule follows from the preceding one. Once you know what you don’t know, always look for alternative explanations and reasons, and then test them against the known facts.
Any other suggestions? I’ll be happy to add to the list.