Thursday, September 15, 2011

Historical Fiction and the Terrible O.O.P.S.

Writing historical fiction is like typing with one arm tied behind your chair and your tongue taped to the back of your head.  There are so many rules, so many blind spots!

And I wouldn't have it any other way.

My first serious taste of writing historical fiction was in the original draft of Mummer's the Word, which involved an ex-SOE agent (Special Operations Executive) in a Canadian city on the shores of the St. Lawrence Seaway, in the final 12 months of the second World War.  It was the same year I discovered Wikipedia, and I was very proud of myself, having done research during and after the creation of the book.

I'd been so excited about my brainchild that I contacted Lynn Phillip Hodgson, author of several books on the subject of Camp X, where my main character learned all the tricks of his trade.  It was the boldest thing I've ever done in my life, and I really didn't expect a response.  But Hodgson and his wife Marlene agreed to read the draft and provide comments.  (I'd purchased one of his books prior to contacting him, then proceeded to buy the rest once I'd met him in person.)

There were four major things I learned from Marlene and I'll be forever indebted.

1)  Yes, the ballpoint pen existed in 1944, but my character couldn't have afforded one.  I'd already confirmed that several patents had been issued for ballpoint pens and mass production had begun well before 1944, so I was in the clear (and yay me for looking up information on the patents and manufacture).  So it was technically feasible that a particular character could carry one around in his upper jacket pocket.  But as my new best friend pointed out, in 1944, ball point pens were so bloody expensive that it was unlikely that the police detective would be able to afford one on his wages.  The Biro prototype, for example, cost about £27 in 1944 - which, by my rough estimate is about $500-$600 in today's bucks.  Feel free to correct my bad math, but the point is, ouch.  He would more likely have stuck to a pencil, or used a fountain pen at his desk.  Even if the police detective did buy one, or if he had received it as a gift, he certainly would not have been carrying it around with him as he interrogated dangerous criminals - like uh, professional thieves.  It was a little itty-bitty detail that I'd taken for granted; but it was enough that a savvy history buff called me on it.

2)  Large ships couldn't pass into Lake Ontario, because the St. Lawrence Seaway and all its myriad locks didn't open until 1959.  Construction didn't begin until 1954.  I had to go back and redesign an entire scene because ocean-going ships had no means of navigating as far as Lake Ontario.  In my world, they'd always been there; it had never occurred to me that there existed a time before the SLS.  I was able to change the cargo vessel to a coal ship, though, and I didn't have to delete the scene altogether.  Any savvy boater - or anyone who's old enough to remember the opening of the seaway - could have called me out on this detail.
"You bet I'm going back to sea!  I can't get into no stinkin' ha'bour at Morgan City!"

3)  The right to remain silent isn't as old or as ubiquitous as you think it is.  Imagine - you've got a guy facing off against four armed cops, and this guy hasn't got a tongue.  During the arrest, some flatfoot says, "You have the right to remain...oh..."  Gosh - what a great line, hey? Marlene told me, Miranda Rights were introduced in the United States (not Canada) in 1966.  Anybody familiar with civil rights activism and the recent history of law would have picked up on this one; and in this case, it wasn't just a detail that needed to be adjusted - I had to make an important decision:  save the line for artistic reasons, or ditch it in favour of historical accuracy.  I scrapped the line.  Three years later, I don't miss it.

No, seriously.  You can't make him talk.

4)  You can never do enough research.  That's both an exhortation and a get-out-of-jail-free card.

My advice:  write first, then research like mad to add more tasty details, or to amend your O.O.P.S. (Out-Of-Period Stuff).  Don't do it the other way around (*kaf kaf - Michael Lorenson! kaf*), or you'll splurge all your finite writing time by following the twisty, winding paths of Wikipedia.

Stay on target.  Writing questions, like "Could someone in Canada have listened to an American broadcast of The Shadow?" helps to direct the focus of your research, so that when you do go meandering down the halls of Wikipedia, you'll know where you were supposed to be going.  Be patient, be persistent, and have fun.  It's amazing what you'll learn when you start researching - and what you'll learn might be handy at impromptu trivia shows.

Reach out to other history buffs!  Ask them questions about the time period in which they are experts.  Read forums, post questions.  Visit museums and libraries.  Old fashion magazines, by the way, are pretty useless; they'll tell you what people considered high fashion, but they won't tell you about what people actual wore.  Compare today's runway models against people in the mall; ain't the same fashion, now is it?  Photo archives, family albums, those are far better.

When you look at pictures from your time period (if they exist), always look at the background.  What do the cars look like (if they exist)?  Do the streets have curbs?  What kind of shoes are they wearing?  What does the architecture look like, and is it still in that same place today?  What advertisements do you see in the background?  Absorb these details by osmosis, and when applicable (more on this in part two of the mini-series), insert the details into your story.  These tiny brushstrokes give the reader an uncanny sense that you've recently been in that place and that time.

But no matter how much research you do, there is always going to be somebody more knowledgeable than you, and chances are, they'll find a way and a time to prove it to you - and they might not be as nice about it as my first readers have been.  There is a point at which you need to shrug, thank your reader, and remember not to make the same error in the sequel.  There is always a point at which you have to admit that you've done enough research - maybe not all, that would be impossible - and then send the story off.

My encounter with Marlene's Red Pen of Death taught me some skills necessary for writing historical fiction well.  But that's for part two of this mini-series on historical fiction.  Stayed tuned this weekend for more neat stuff you didn't know you should know.

For now, I recommend you check out Hodgson's books.  Camp X is, in my personal opinion, a much overlooked but fascinating piece of Canadian history.  We trained spies, for goodness sake, in Oshawa!  American spies, British spies, spies from all over Europe.  We were training secret agents before the CIA even came into existence - even before its predecessor the OSS was formed!  Us, Canadians!  Granted, we don't have a lot of fascinating history to begin with, but this history is incredibly cool.

And Hodgson's cool too.  He's hosting a tour of the Camp X site on the Oshawa/Whitby border on the weekend of September 24th/25th - so get out there, if you can! Awesome trip for the kids, too.  It's the only time they can stand in a crater made by a spy-in-training who had too much time - and too much dynamite - on their hands.

And buy his books.  All of them.  Seriously.  Buy them like they're collector's items in the making.  Buy two copies of each - one to keep pristine on your bookshelves, the other to underline, dog-ear and highlight.  Buy extra copies for your friends.  Buy them for friends of your friends.

'Cause if you don't...Well, we have ways of finding you.  *suspicious squint*

Oh, and if you're interested in the '30s, '40s and '50s don't forget to check out my other blog:  Theatre of the Mind, at  Film, radio and fun facts about actors you didn't know you knew!


  1. Why you gotta be like that :(

  2. Because I've sat across from you while you painstakingly researched whether street lamps were gas or electric in Manila during the American occupation. I think you even tried to figure out what kind of lamp it was by analyzing the shadows in a very zoomed-in B&W photograph. All that because you couldn't decide if you wanted to say "shadows cast by gaslight streetlamps" or not. And that was a short story! That you hadn't finished yet! Two hours - we were at Second Cup, I remember this very well. Mady was there. She can attest.

  3. Thank you very much Pat for all of the wonderful things you said. It is very important to get it right the 1st time. I remember when I published Inside CAmp-X, I was so proud of my research and then immediately someone called me on it. "It wasn't the CP line it was the CN line." Of all the brave people, their fascinating stories published at last, I got called out on a CP instead of a CN. Go figure! LoL
    Lynn Philip Hodgson

  4. Hello Pat
    Thank you for the kind words. It was a pleasure assisting you on your book and the 'timeline' editing. I was just 'playing it forward' for all the help that Lynn and I had when he started writing.
    Lynn and Alan Longfield did not always appreciate my 'suggestions' as well as you. If I went up against Alan, I really had to have my facts straight and be willing to defend them. I could be more subtle with Lynn, of course.
    I encourage everyone to read this book. Parts of the book have stayed in my brain for a long time.
    Good luck on your future endeavours. Lynn and I always willing to help fellow authors. We are here if you need us.
    Marlene Hodgson

  5. And once you've done that research, check it again...for dopey mistakes. I don't write historical fiction, but in Vanishing Hope, I made mention of a character in the soap All My Children...and then proceeded to mess it up. Somehow, Mona morphed into Monica...likely because my editor's name was Monica. Whatever the reason, it was my sharp-eyed sister-in-law that caught the error. Unfortunately, it was after publication. It's being fixed for the second printing.

    I've now heard it at least four times: no matter what you do, two errors will always squeak through. I believe it.