Wanna Know What Really Bugs Me About Historical Fiction?

Matter of fact, it’s just about any fiction. Just consider this me ranting.

Writers who don’t do their homework make me crazy.

I just spent the last few years of my life obsessing about medieval underwear. I spent untold hours researching what a 12th century guy in the Maghreb wore for underpants versus what an English knight wore for underpants. That’s because my characters took their clothes off and trust me, they weren’t wearing black Fruit of the Loom boxer briefs!!!!!! Try figuring out how the heck they managed to take a leak on or off the battlefield…pretty much they just peed on the ground, but how did they get their dicks outta their armor? Don’t even get me started on helmets, chain mail, and hauberks.

For God’s sake, know your locations! When I was writing DREAM DANCER, much of the location I had in mind was inaccessible. I’d never been to Peru, much less the area between the northern Andes and the Amazon Basin. There was no way for me to get there. But I spend years (and I do mean years) researching the area, spending way too much time hanging out at the University of Minnesota Material Sciences collection at Walter Library and at the Borchert Map Library in the sub-basement of Wilson Library where really cool nerdy guys helped me pin down specific locations and topography for the novel. Okay, I had fun while I was doing this, however, it was a huge amount of work all the same.

But it had to be feasible/plausible. Sure, I made up stuff, but it was all based on the very real geological, topographical, and aerial maps.

And don’t even get me started on Quechua, my favorite language. Finding Peruvians is easy. Finding Peruvians who speak a northern dialect of Quechua is freakin’ impossible. Almost. But it can be done.

Can you tell I get riled up over this?

If I read one more cheesy novel that waxes rhapsodic about how the Manhattan billionaire guy went to a mall to get that five carat engagement ring, I’m gonna barf. What? He had a coupon for Kay Jewelers? Harry Winston is right over on Fifth Avenue and a ring in that unique Harry Winston box would certainly be more impressive.

Or how everyone drives around Manhattan and finds parking spaces on the street in Midtown at midday without circling the block ten times? Really? Is there a parking god they’re praying to in order to make a space appear? I grew up in New York. I have even driven a few times (about one hand’s worth) in the city, and I know how truly horrible it is to compete with cabbies for street space. It is not a sport for the faint of heart. Driving in Manhattan can be like being a contestant on American Ninja, only with a steering wheel. Never mind that parking in a ramp costs more than a hotel room.

And while we’re on the subject of Manhattan, there is a series of books which I won’t identify about the Manhattan Family that founded New York City. Excuse me? This is beyond artistic license and suspension of belief. It was a tribe, not a family, and let’s not forget the founding of that city was NOT New York, it was New Amsterdam. Her version of Manhattan is not an alternate reality…it’s supposed to be New York City. Did you know, according to her, that there are suburbs on Manhattan Island? That you drive to and never go over a bridge? That have big, rolling, grassy yards, lots of trees, and curvy streets? And she’s not talking about Central Park. She’s talking about turf and she makes me crazy. And no, I am no longer reading her books.

But back to historical fiction…which is my pet peeve at the moment.

If you’re gonna write about an era not your own, you really do need to research that era, or, if it’s close enough to have survivors, you have to talk to eyewitnesses. You cannot write about the Holocaust without knowing the train service to Auschwitz consisted of people packed in boxcars, and not comfortable coaches with overcrowded seating. There were no seats. And if I had a nickel for every “good German” or kind Nazi, I wouldn’t be sweating this month’s stock market correction not to mention all the relatives that would still be alive. Seriously folks, those nice German neighbors closed their drapes and looked away. Yeah, Oskar Schindler was pretty much the exception to every rule, but even he started out looking for cheap (free) labor.

If you’re gonna write about a time period or a place, it’s easy enough to do your research online these days. Make sure you have at least a basic understanding of whatever period you’re creating. Watch a movie! Watch Law & Order! Same for London or Paris. Look at pictures. Even the Civil War was well photographed. Get a sense for your location. Pretend you’re writing a movie script…envision your setting/set. At least read a few contemporaneous chapters from books/articles of the period. They are out there.

In other words, do your homework.

If this was 50 years ago, I might understand that the source material isn’t readily available. But it’s not 1972, it’s 2022 and you can do it all on your bleepin’ cell phone.

Okay. End of rant. Going back to writing a not-historical fiction now.

Published by SJSchwaidelson@The Author Is In

New York born and bred, living in Minnesota, I am a widow, mother, grandmother, and writer. These are the things I do well.

8 thoughts on “Wanna Know What Really Bugs Me About Historical Fiction?

  1. I guess we’ll all have pet peeves when it comes to our specialty. I myself can’t fighting descriptions from someone who clearly hasn’t practised any form of martial arts. An example would be when a narrator would mention how the uppercut is the strongest punch. That throws me off completely.

  2. I guess this is funny, but I also guess it is impossible to not have an opinion about bad writing.

  3. I like this one as it educates readers what to look for in historical fiction. But underlying the post is a more subtle but effective (marketing) message to your prospective readers: any fictional novel penned by SJ has been researched so granularly that you can trust the historical backdrop to her story. 😌

    Sent from my iPhone


  4. I do have to say – the one and only time I have ever driven in Manhattan and found an on-street parking spot without any effort or circling a block was on Christmas Day. You can find parking immediately, anywhere you go!

      1. Yeah, I wouldn’t risk a Sunday, just a Christmas Day. I drove right up to Rockefeller center and parked right out front, got out and saw the tree! We did a whole city tour with my niece and had a great time.

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