Writing Historical Fiction
I enjoy reading historical fiction. I love westerns, and the Civil War period. I enjoy books like Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe series on a soldier rising through the ranks of the British army in the Napoleonic Wars, or C.S. Forester's Hornblower series about a British officer rising through the ranks of the Navy during the same period.
So it follows that I would enjoy writing historical fiction as well. It’s a good thing that I do enjoy it because it can be a lot more work than other genres. I could sit down and write a romance or a mystery in a nice comfortable familiar setting. I could write a science fiction story set on a planet entirely of my own imagining. I could create my own fantasy world and populate it with creatures as I imagine them to be. Instead, I choose to write historical fiction where the least little deviation from historical fact can pop my reader right out of the story and have them throwing it in the dustbin while swearing loudly that they will never read anything of mine again.
Its a tricky genre to work with. Every detail needs to be checked and rechecked against the fabric of the times. I have to get everything right.
My civil war veteran going home to Texas can't be armed with a Colt Peacemaker nor even the Colt Dragoon. Why? Because neither of these popular weapons existed until much later. My vaquero won't be lassoing cattle with a rope, because the vaqueros preferred the riata made of braided leather which were much longer and harder to master. I must resist the strong temptation to clothe my westerners in jeans or Levis. Levi Strauss in partnership with Jacob Davis, a Nevada Tailor, didn't make their first pair of the iconic “waist overalls” until around 1873. Likewise, I cannot have an Alabama farmer wearing blue jeans which were not sold east of the Mississippi until 1950.
The historical traps don't end with clothing and equipage either. If my character is to go to town for supplies, I had better be sure that the town existed and was active in that time period. The same is even more true for frontier forts which were often built, abandoned, regarrisoned and abandoned again. I also need to know what size force was stationed at the fort. Although Fort Lincoln in Nebraska served as home to the 7th Cavalry and their flamboyant Colonel as well as a couple of infantry regiments, many frontier forts were commanded by mere Captains and garrisoned with as few as two dozen troops.
I wrote once of a cattle war in New Mexico in 1866 only to learn, much to my chagrin, that the first cattle were driven into the state by John Chisum in 1872. Fortunately, I caught this error before the piece even went to a Beta reader.
No matter what period in history one writes about, there are always these sorts of things to be considered. Historical fiction is a tricky beast and what distinguishes a great read from only passable is often in the details. The only reason anyone would tackle it is a love of the genre and he period it is set in.
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