I enjoy an absorbing historical novel just as much as any fan of the genre. But there are a few things some historical novelists stumble over, so I’m putting on my copy editing hat to offer a few tips. And by “few,” I mean only…two. :) But they’re two big stumbles that can take readers out of your story:
1. When writing the historical novel, never assume that the way the world is now is the way it was back then: This seems like an obvious rule — after all, even the laziest researcher knows, for example, folks didn’t drive cars in the 17th century. But I’m not talking about that kind of glaring difference.
I’m talking about things such as having your character order a cocktail in a Mississippi town after Prohibition was repealed, not bothering to check if it was still a “dry” state. Some states remained dry, due to state laws, for years after Prohibition was repealed. Ensuring plot verisimilitude means digging a little deeper, beyond obvious historical milestones.
Don’t have your 19th or even early 20th century character wander into a store on a Sunday, either. Virtually all places of business closed on Sundays back in the day — there were actual “blue laws” on many town/city/state books that required businesses to shutter on the Lord’s day. (Caveat: you can write a Sunday open-business scene, but you need to acknowledge to the reader this wasn’t common: “Clark wandered into the only place open on a Sunday, a small coffee shop near the local hospital.”)
Don’t just check when various items were invented–try to find out when most families would have been able to afford them. For example, the TV might have been invented in the 1920s, but wouldn’t have been widely available for many, many years later, and most households wouldn’t have been able to afford to purchase one even when they did become widely commercially available. Same is true for color TVs. I’m old enough to remember what a luxury a color TV was.
The same goes for things such as movies with sound. Even though the first feature film with sound, The Jazz Singer, was released in the fall of 1927, it took years for theaters to be wired for sound. Many small-town movie theaters still played silent movies for quite a while.
While on the topic of movies, check release dates at IMDB.com. You can’t have a character going to see The Jazz Singer in August 1927, since it wasn’t released until October of that year. And even then, it wasn’t released simultaneously around the country.
The above tips mostly concern 20th and 19th century issues, but the same principles apply to earlier times. Some things we take for granted now were not the same back then, and some things you discover through research might require a bit more digging to accurately reflect the time and place.
2. Words are added to the lexicon every year; make sure your characters aren’t using words and phrases from the future: This is a tricky topic because, if historical novelists were really being true to a particular time period, their manuscripts would be littered with odd spellings and hyphenations we don’t use today. Many closed compound words, for example, start as open compounds, progress to hyphenated ones, then close up entirely. Readers wouldn’t expect to see such words printed the way they were back in the day. And many historical novelists consciously decide to ignore language accuracy, giving their characters a more flippant, modern tone to convey distinct personalities and themes. If done well, it works, and the reader stays in the story. But in narrative, anachronistic usage might jar, so be careful.
There are some words that didn’t enter the lexicon until the 1900s or later that even readers who aren’t linguists or language experts might stumble over. For example, a 19th century duke wouldn’t think to himself that he is “out of sync” with the world — sync didn’t enter the lexicon until 1929 as a noun, 1945 as a verb (or so saith Webster’s 11th).
An 18th century duchess wouldn’t think to herself how unfortunate it was that the duke was “plastered” the night before. That word, meaning drunk, didn’t enter the lexicon until 1902.
And even a princess in 1900 wouldn’t muse on how “posh” her surroundings were–posh came into use in 1918 (and some believe it was an acronym for “port out, starboard home,” the best cabin positions on a trip to India).
I’m not arguing for being a language purist when writing historical novels (see my comments at the beginning of this point). But I do think readers with even a minimal knowledge of language might stumble over certain words, at least wondering to themselves: Was this really in use back then? They might not know the answer for sure, but if they suspect it’s “no,” they’re taken out of your story for a few seconds.
That’s it for now — hope these two tips are helpful, historical novelists. Now, get writing!