Historical Accuracy in Works of Fiction

Historical Accuracy in Works of Fiction--PhilSlattery.org

A week or so ago, a contributor submitted a work of historical fiction that had an error in it that was obvious to me, though it probably wasn’t to a lot of readers. I replied that I would reconsider the work (it was nicely written and had a good plot and ending) if he would change that error into something more plausible, which he did and I accepted his work.

I feel it is necessary to be as historically accurate as possible in the details of a work, even if the entire point of the plot is a theoretical scenario, as in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, in which Hitler and his retinue are assassinated in a French theatre in 1944. Although this premise is fantasy, details as to uniforms, equipment, accents, were meticulous. The one detail that impressed me the most was when toward the end of the movie, two of the Basterds (Donowitz and Utivich) kill the guards outside Hitler’s theatre box. Utivich (the “little man” as he is called elsewhere) uses a glove-gun, which is a single-shot .22 caliber pistol attached to the back of a leather glove and fired by punching someone. This was a little known assassination weapon used during WWII. I happen to know, because during summer breaks at college, I worked at the Kentucky Military History Museum, which happened to have one identical to the one Utivich uses. To know that Tarantino watched his details to such a meticulous degree, helped me enjoy the movie.

On the other hand, I have often gone to movies with friends who could not enjoy the movie because some detail was inconsistent. For example, the patches on Tom Cruise’s flight jacket in Top Gun were not ones a true Naval aviator would wear. I know because I used to wear a flight jacket when I served in an A-6 squadron (VA-95, the Green Lizards) aboard the Enterprise as did most of my squadron mates, and I, as everyone else did, had lots of patches on my jacket to commemorate various operations or units I was in. This kind of inconsistency can ruin a movie for a lot of meticulous people, which is bad for the movie.

Another movie that is guilty of this and with which I have an indirect connection is An Officer and a Gentleman, in which a young man (Richard Gere) goes through naval aviator basic training at the Navy’s Aviation Officer Candidate School (AOCS). The movie was released in 1982 and I graduated from AOCS in May 1985. It sometimes annoys me that the movie received as much critical acclaim as it did, even though much of what occurred was preposterous. For example, AOCS, when I attended it, was in Pensacola, Florida. The movie was set in Port Townsend, Washington. I know because my first duty station, once out of training, was at Whidbey Island, Washington, a few miles across Puget Sound from Port Townsend. I would go drinking occasionally in Port Townsend and I have a t-shirt from the bar where Richard Gere had a fight with the locals. I have passed by the hotel where Gere’s friend hung himself several times, and I once went up to the Coast Guard station a few miles north, where the base scenes were filmed. Combined with the other errors in the film, for me watching An Officer and a Gentleman is more comedy than drama.

The magic of writing a story is to have the reader become so immersed in it that they mentally and emotionally become part of the story. They lose themselves in the story. This cannot happen if some detail is out of sync with the rest of the story. I don’t want this to happen in any of the stories I write, and I don’t want it to happen in any of the stories I publish. If I were to make a lot of mistakes in my details, I would garner a reputation as a sloppy, careless author which might inhibit me from being published in finer magazines or in having a book published. I can no more afford to neglect the details in my stories (or in those of my contributors) than I can in my grammar, spelling, or punctuation.

Here is an example of the lengths to which I like to go to ensure my stories cover their details and are as meticulously crafted as I can make them. Several years ago, I wrote a story called “Shapeshifter” about an alleged werewolf in early 17th century France. When I finished the final draft of the story, I sent it to a friend of mine who is well-read in history. In one scene the protagonist, a wolf falsely accused of being a werewolf, hides in a cathedral. He enters through an open door, runs down the aisle between the pews, and hides in the choir box. On reading this, my friend asked, “did they have pews in France at that time?” This is something I had never thought of. I researched it and found that by the time the story was set, pews had been appearing in churches for about fifty years.

I learned a lesson from that experience, because I always want to be taken seriously as a writer and no one will take me seriously, if I am careless about details. The more careless I am, the less seriously they will take me, but the more careful I am, the more seriously they will take me. This is true of any endeavor.

Thank you for taking the time to read this and I hope that you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Hasta luego.

Please leave any comments or questions below.


If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy some of my stories, which can be found around the Internet and on this page.

Rights and the Small Publisher

Rights and the Small Publisher

Last night, I posted a rather lengthy comment to a post in Lit Mag News about rights and reprints. It was so long that I thought it would be a shame for it to be seen only there and so I thought I would post an expanded and refined version here for your enjoyment and possibly enlightenment.

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I publish one small online magazine (thechambermagazine.com) that has been online since December 2020 and am toying with maybe starting one or two more. I see rights as being important if the author being published is well known.

If I publish one of my stories (one that I authored) for the first time anywhere, the general reaction from the reading public will be to the effect of “who cares?”. If Stephen King publishes a new story in, let’s say, the New Yorker, then it’s a big deal. Everyone and his brother will want to read the new Stephen King story the moment it is out and will be willing to pay whatever it takes to read that story. And the way for the New Yorker to maximize their profits on that story is to ensure they are the only ones to have it for a certain period. That is where rights come into play.

But for most writers, even if they are paid at pro rates, they don’t stand to make a lot of money off short stories. The money has been in novels for a long time. The only real value in a short story for a writer is exposure. It keeps that author’s name and talent in front of the public, so they don’t forget him when his novel comes out. They can also help expand the writer’s readership by introducing that writer to a part of the public who has never seen his work.

The key to the entire writing game is exposure. The bigger the readership an author has, the bigger his income is. So, when authors submit stories to my magazine knowing that I cannot pay for them, they do know they will get exposure and another publication credit, and their reputation is bolstered a little for being published among other high-quality authors.

Do I care if a story I publish is a reprint? No. Like someone said elsewhere in the comments, having a previous publication credit is a sign the story is of decent quality (depending on the mag of course). I like publishing a story by a well-known author for the first time, but it’s not critical to me. Anything I print, so long as it is quality material, builds my mag’s reputation and draws more attention to the magazine and ergo increases my readership, who will hopefully come to the website and buy something or make a donation.

Do I care if a story printed somewhere else the next day? No. There are thousands of magazines out there in the literary ether and odds are slim that someone who read a story in my mag (The Chamber Magazine) will read it in another mag the next day. Besides, would seeing a story you know is previously published and is a reprint stop you from reading the mag that reprinted it? Probably not. There will probably be a lot of other stories in that mag that you haven’t read. If someone were copying my magazine issues story by story and publishing them under a different name, that would be another matter, but I have never heard of anyone doing that.

All this would change for me if my circulation were to jump to over 500,000 next week. Then I would want to be a magazine in which all the stories were by nationally known authors and were all being printed for the first time. That would draw a huge readership and involve a lot of money. Rights would be everything then. But in my current very low position on the literary totem pole, rights just don’t mean a lot. I just need good-quality stories that will draw an audience whether or not they already been published. Besides, if a well-known author (we’ll use Stephen King again as a theoretical example) wanted me to reprint one of his short stories, I would say “HELL, YEAH!” Because I need to build my mag’s reputation and place in the public view and having Stephen King listed among my authors would garner me a much larger audience. When an author is printed in a magazine, that story will attract that author’s readership to that mag.

I could go on like this for a while, but I think you get the idea that I am trying to get across. Rights are primarily important if you are publishing a lot of well-known authors whose followers/fanbase want to read his/her stories the instant one is out. Then you want to have a stranglehold on the exposure for all those stories for at least a little while, so that everyone will buy your mag to read those stories they can read nowhere else. But at my low level, it’s a different world.


This was only a first draft (the only difference between what is above and the original is that I corrected one unintended omission and maybe a couple of typos), which will probably raise more questions than it answers. Because I was just commenting on someone else’s post and there were a lot of other comments, I tried to keep my response reasonably brief, which left out a lot of perspectives I would have preferred to address. For that reason, please feel free to ask questions or to comment below. Maybe at some point in the not-too-distant future, I will be able to expand this into the discussion I feel it should be.