Is it history or is it fiction?

History isn’t easy. It’s always fun to jump on mistakes that pop up in books, tv shows or movies. Many movie fans have pointed out a scene in the 1989 movie Glory in which a Civil War era soldier is seen wearing a wristwatch. It is only a brief glimpse in the movie, and

civil war soldier
Civil War soldiers (image by Philip Katcher)

it slipped by the filmmakers, but now that the shot is posted on the Internet, we can all laugh at the mistake.

Anachronisms appear often in famous books and plays. One of the best known is the clock that chimes in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. That makes a good joke for a classroom, but it doesn’t detract from the experience of theater goers. But sometimes anachronisms in historical fiction annoy readers and detract from the reading experience. Reading groups and discussion boards jump on mistakes such as having a soldier in the American Revolution smoking a cigarette, or a housewife in colonial New England serving orange juice for breakfast.

I recently came across a fascinating book called Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders by Susanne Alleyn, which is designed to help authors avoid the kinds of anachronisms that are so easy to fall into. The chapter on underpants—medieval and otherwise—is

Helen Jewett
Ladies of the evening 1840s

fascinating. Like so many aspects of history, we seldom think about the nitty-gritty details of how people in earlier times handled the everyday tasks of personal hygiene in the days before toilets and running water. If you were wearing a hoopskirt, how would you manage to use a chamber pot? There’s something to think about.

In my own writing I haven’t had to worry about the underpants problem, but I’ve spent lots of time researching other details. Although the leading characters are fictional, I like to stick to the truth about what was going on in the world at the time—to present an honest picture of events that might have happened.

All of the books in the Charlotte Edgerton mystery series are set in the 1840s, but

A Death in Utopia Final (Small)

Charlotte moves from Massachusetts to New York City and then to London in the first three books. I have found myself searching for details about what the people living in an idealistic vegetarian community in 1842 would serve for a Sunday supper. It turns out they were very fond of Boston brown bread and milk, which is what appears in A Death in Utopia.

And then when I came to write Death Visits a Bawdy House, which takes place in New York Death Visits a Bawdy House (Small)City, I spent some time looking for a suitable place for the burial of a murder victim because the well-known cemetery at Trinity Church was already overcrowded. It’s doubtful that my readers would have known that, but I like to make the details in all of these stories as authentic as possible. It’s fun and I have learned so much about the 1840s, one of the most turbulent decades of the 19th century.

Railroads were just being developed at this time, so I’ve learned more than I ever dreamed of about the railway system in England after Charlotte and her new husband, Daniel, move to London. For my newest book, Death in Victoria’s City, which will come out this summer, I had to find out whether a working man could make a trip from London to Bristol and return in one day. Sure enough, a Google search led me to the history of British railways and I learned that the government had decreed that all railways had to offer third-class tickets at cheap rates for working people. For the first time in the 1840s, ordinary people could visit friends and family even if they lived some distance away.

I highly recommend Susanne Alleyn’s book, but of course that is only the beginning. Whether you are writing historical fiction or reading it, you will find that Google search and Wikipedia can be your best friends. Not only do they help you find details about life in other times, but they can lead you to the people and places that have shaped the world we live in today. Wikipedia may have some mistakes, almost all reference sources do, and Google may sometimes lead you to unreliable sites, but these two places can give you information to get you started. Your local library can help you find more in-depth accounts and background.  The more you find, the more your curiosity grows and the harder it is to stop. There is always another story just over the horizon.