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.

Slattery’s Tao of Writing, Part 5: Illumination of the Particular

ScorpionPhoto by Phil Slattery
Photo by Phil Slattery

Someone once said that poetry is the “illumination of the particular”.

In 1992, when I was enamored of poetry and was striving to become a serious poet, I took that advice to heart and wrote the poem “Faust“, which describes the thoughts of the infamous Dr. Faust immediately after signing over his soul to Mephistopholes  in exchange for all knowledge.  What I describe there is everything that is going through Faust’s mind in a few seconds, the amount of time it takes to actually read the poem.   The hardest part for me was to choose the right moment to illuminate.  I could have chosen the moment before signing or a moment a year later or the moment when he first met Mephistopholes or an infinite amount of others. But that second seemed the most pregnant with meaning, because it is the moment realizes that what he has done can never be undone and that he has lost everything meaningful as a result.   After that I just had to work out the details of what he had lost, the sensations he was experiencing, the future consequences, and the wording, all of  which took about a solid eight hours.   Choosing the particular moment to illuminate was the critical decision in construction of the poem.

Good prose is often compared to poetry.  When Ray Bradbury was introduced to Aldous Huxley at tea after publication of The Martian Chronicles in 1950, Huxley leaned forward and asked Bradbury, “do you know what you are?  You are a poet.”  “I’ll be damned,” responded Bradbury.

I believe that good writing (both prose and poetry) is like good photography: it illuminates the particulars in the subject so that the viewer sees them in their abundant wonder for the first time, though he may have seen that scene a thousand times before.  Take the photo at the top of the page for example.  I happened to see a scorpion crawling across a floor one day (when I was heavy into nature and wildlife photography), grabbed the nearest camera, lined up the shot as best I could, and snapped it.   To my surprise, the focus and lighting came off better than I had planned, and thousands of details popped out in the photo that I had never anticipated.   I had walked across that floor tile I do not know how many thousands of times previously and I had never noticed the texture in its surface.   I had never been as close to a scorpion before either and I was amazed at the details that popped out in it.

Great writers seem to have an innate sense for the proper amount of details and how to use them.   Among writers of horror, Poe springs to mind immediately as a master of detail with “The Tell-Tale Heart” as a prime example of how he used details.  Poe seems to string together a series of moments (describing the old man’s eye, creeping through the door to the old man’s bed, killing him, listening to the heart as it beats beneath his floorboards) and illuminates the details in each to produce a story of tremendous power.  But among all these, is there a single, superfluous detail that does not heighten the drama?  No.  Poe knew which details to illuminate and how to illuminate the details in each of those.

Several years ago, I saw a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte on A&E.  One of the speakers was an instructor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.  He said that one thing Bonaparte recognized was that “while details are important, not all details are important.”  I found this a fascinating point as the speaker went on to point out that Bonaparte had a incredible memory for details.   For example, every two weeks he had the roster of the entire French army (about 200,000 troops) read out to him.  He could remember from sitting to sitting who was sick, dead, missing, and so forth.  He could ask detailed questions about the state of repair of equipment such as “last time the second gun of the third battery at Cherbourg had broken spokes in its left wheel, has that been fixed yet?”

I try to remember that these days as I write, so that I weed out the important details from the unimportant ones.

“But which details are important?” you ask.  I wish I could give a quick and easy answer on that.  At this point in my development as a writer (I may give a completely different answer years from now when my learning has progressed further), I would say:  (1) details that help the reader live the story vicariously, such as sensations, (2) details that help the reader understand the current situation and its implications, and (3) details to help the reader understand the characters, their thoughts, their perspectives, and their reactions, (4) details that tie the parts of the story together, such as a motif, and create unity, and (5) details that point toward a denouement.

Details can be critical in writing, but as with all other things, there must be a balance.    Drown the reader in details and the story becomes tedious.  Provide too few details, and the story becomes monotonous.   Choose the wrong details, and the story is boring.  Choose the right details and the reader can step into another world.

Thoughts?  Comments?