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.

Author: S.P. Staff

Slattery Publishing Staff.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: