Friday, August 17, 2018

Historical Research; A Guest Post by Dorothy Anne Spruzen

Thank you, Dana, for inviting me to contribute to your excellent blog. I thought I would share some of the tips I pass on to my creative writing students concerning historical research for writers of fiction. I know some of you are readers rather than writers, but I hope this will nevertheless prove interesting.

I’m not going to give a discourse on how to perform historical research in the broad sense, but rather to point out some of the ways in which one might avoid embarrassing little blunders. Some reader, somewhere, will pick up your errors with a malicious sense of glee and self-congratulation.

For me, and I think for most people, if I spot an egregious error, my train of thought is
broken, I’ve fallen out of the story, and I’m irritated. We need to get it right. There is usually a historical element in my novels, so here are some of the errors I have come across over many years of reading and writing such books.

My novel The Blitz Business is set in World War II England. Jamie, a fifteen-year-old mildly intellectually disabled boy, loves red fire engines; close to the beginning of the novel, he is found by air raid wardens wandering the streets in the middle of one of the most devastating raids of the Blitz. He is taken to a large fire station that is being used as a headquarters for the rescue services. Imagine his excitement to find so many beautiful red fire engines ready for action.

Only I discovered, quite by chance, that they were all painted gray during the war so as to avoid easy detection from the air. The fact did not come to light during the course of research, per se, but through reading fiction set in that time period and written by a credible source—R.F. Delderfield (The Avenue, God is an Englishman), a well-regarded British military historian who also wrote fiction.

My fix? Jamie still had a red vehicle to admire because, as luck would have it, the station had run out of paint before finishing the last one!

But, be careful. It is unwise to depend entirely on secondary sources; further research was needed to confirm the fact.

In my first novel, Not One of Us (featuring a female serial killer), I had a young girl in New York City dial 911 in about 1950. The fact that the emergency number did not yet exist in New York City may be old news to many of you, but not to me, as British cities and towns had already had an emergency number (999) for years. An American reader in my critique circle picked it up. Critique circles are invaluable, as every member brings his or her own experience and knowledge to the table.

Language usage is another issue. I bought a historical mystery set in the Victorian age, written by a Texan man and wife team who visit England regularly. The language errors are numerous; here are some of them:

Someplace else
I guess
Fix you something to eat?
Doctor’s office (referred to as “surgery” in the U.K.)

The authors had not recognized these idioms as being either American or modern,
perhaps because many of them are often used by the British these days. They have failed to absorb the speech patterns of whatever historical works they might have (should have) read.

I was born in England to a father who was born the year after Queen Victoria died and who had relatives and friends much older than he. I remember their speech patterns, the formality of their oral exchanges, not to mention the written ones, and so I developed the “ear” to recognize these missteps. Imagine my annoyance, when I read:

(Husband in the 1880’s) “What time is it my dear?”
(Wife) “It is three thirty-five, Stanley.” (Maybe she was looking at her Swatch!)

This is a modern Americanism. Even an American would have phrased it differently in those days. As recently as when I was a child (!), we would have said, “five-and-twenty to four” instead of “three thirty-five.”

What would have saved the authors from these errors? A critical reader who knows the speech patterns, and reading novels not only written about that period, but written during that period. And there are plenty of books written during the Victorian era.

Now, one must be careful reading dialog in old fiction, whether English or American, with a view to your own writing set in the same era. Written work, even for dialog, was typically much more elevated than everyday spoken language, even at a time when spoken English was, by our standards, very formal. You will need to modify so your readers won’t be tempted to skip!

For British writers, American usage can be a minefield, too. For example, whether you refer to Pepsi as a soda, pop, or cola, depends which state or city you are in. And I guess most people know now that Americans correct their work with erasers rather than rubbers, unlike the Brits. I had a very embarrassing experience before I learned that one! And let’s not forget slang, which evolves like fruit flies.

Technology is the greatest trap for many writers, especially our younger colleagues. We forget just how recent technology and medical treatments we take for granted are. Take the Internet, for example. In the 1950s, could they analyze blood samples from a pillow? And how precise was that analyses? Was it admissible in court in the 1960s? When was DNA accepted as evidence in a court of law? And is it likely that kid would have had a cell phone at his disposal in 1995? Was that vaccine available in 1975?

Every country has its unique legal system. Saudi Arabia follows strict Islamic law, but Egypt’s law is based on the French civil code while still accommodating national mores. In America, state law varies from one jurisdiction to another, even while Federal law takes precedence. Not only that, but laws are continually being changed or modified, so be sure you know the relevant local situation in the 1940’s or even last year, as it may differ considerably today.

My novel Lily Takes the Field (the sequel to Not One of Us, featuring a female serial killer) is set in Toronto, Canada. It is set in the late 1990s, so fairly contemporary. At one point my protagonist is sitting in the Art Gallery of Toronto enjoying lunch in its charming restaurant, looking out at the garden and admiring the statuary dotted around. She was eating from a menu that featured French cuisine, reflecting a current major exhibit. Not too much later, the whole gallery closed down for about three years while major renovations took place. Sadly, that lovely restaurant is no longer there. I would have had significant egg on my face had I set that scene a few years later.

What saves the day? Research all contexts of your story. Do not rely on the unreliable. Encircle the subject, even using movies and other fiction. Look at the author’s intent (bias, misinformed, shaping to their story). Even encyclopedia entries may be biased and are to be verified. And we have all heard about recent history textbook scandals! I wonder how text book sections on the Civil War might differ from Alabama to Maine? Double check everything!

Remember, social history is part of our game. It is a context for people’s lives and actions and provides connections between different events. It sets your characters onstage against a particular backdrop: other cultures; social strata; the kind of things they use and how they use them (clothes, food, utensils, tools, housing); their speech patterns and slang; and, how they are affected by social and political upheavals.

Always ask the hard questions: Who said that and why? Has anything changed? (Just because the town hall is there today, doesn’t mean it was there fifty years ago.) When, where, why, whom, and how did it change?

I hope some of this has been helpful, particularly to those who write historical fiction. Thank you for taking the time to read my piece!

** ** **
D. A. Spruzen, grew up near London, U.K., graduated from the London College of Dance and Drama Education, and earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte; she teaches creative writing in Northern Virginia when not seeking her own muse. In another life she was Manager of Publications for a defense contractor

A historical novel The Blitz Business was published by Koehler Books in August 2016. Long in the Tooth, a poetry collection, was published by Finishing Line Press in July 2013; her poems and short stories have appeared in many online and print publications. She self-published the first two novels in the Flower Ladies Trilogy—Not One of Us and Lily Takes the Field—and Crossroads: Two Novellas.

Dorothy has served on the boards of many nonprofit organizations, including ten years with Langley Residential Support Services, which provides services for the intellectually challenged. Dorothy is also a visual artist, working in acrylics, watercolor and pastels.

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