Fact-Checking Historical Westerns

 

Fact-Checking Historical Westerns

I imagine that most of us read a historical romance for enjoyment first, and then some learning on the side about what life was like back in the day. It is fiction, after all, not a scholarly history book. However, words, items, and phrases that are untrue to the setting can pull the reader out of the story and possibly make them quit reading the book altogether. As an author, I feel I owe the past and my ancestors, the respect of portraying them as truthfully and authentically as I am able.

I just finished up the rough-draft of my next book and am in the middle of fact-checking to make sure that I have everything correct.To double-check the initial usage of words, I use my ancient Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary on my desk or I pull up Dictionary.com. I must make sure that the things my characters say and the items they use, actually existed in the time and setting of my historical romance. Thank goodness for the internet! It is so much easier today than when I first started my career as a writer. (The internet is always right…Right?) I do find though, that in this part of the writing process, I get sucked into checking out all sorts of strange, fascinating and downright weird tidbits that never make it into any of my stories.

The Rebel and the Lady

The Rebel and the Lady

When I first started writing westerns, I peppered my second book, The Rebel and the Lady (set at the Alamo) with Stetsons and blue jeans, only to find out upon fact-checking that those items didn’t exist in 1836. The John B. Stetson Hat Company started making the Stetson in Philadelphia in 1865, almost thirty years LATER! Arrrgh!

Denim pants were around, but were called “waist overalls” in 1873. They weren’t dubbed “jeans” until 1890.

Stetson Hat used in the Army

 

In the book I am currently writing, I recently made the correction about my hero hitching his thumbs on his belt loops. Although belts have been around for centuries in various forms, the kind we think of today, along with belt loops, began catching on with the general population slowly. They were on some Civil War uniforms, but wearing them really took off in 1922 when they were placed on Levi jeans. Before that, suspenders were the norm. (I kind of like the look of suspenders. How about you?)

Standard Civil War Infantry Waist Belt

I was sucked down the rabbit-hole again when I wondered if a small town like Oak Grove would have water-closets in each of their businesses along the main street. I mean…people lived on the second floor and had their business on the first floor. In a city like Chicago or New York there would be a sewer system. But what about a one-horse town like Oak Grove that is just starting out? Would each business have an outhouse behind it? Would there be any type of communal cistern? What about communal privies?

 

Not only is it items that I need to check the existence of, it is words and phrases. Although “fetch” has existed since before the 12th century, the use of it meaning someone attractive or pleasing to look at (fetching) wasn’t common usage until 1880 (according to some dictionaries.) My story is set in 1879 and my editor caught this one. I still insisted on its use though. It characterized one of my characters perfectly. And my thoughts are that people used it for awhile before the dictionary made it an official word. Just as “google” was used as a verb for searching the internet several years before it was admitted to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2006. (My! Has it been around that long already?)

The words, phrases and items that I don’t catch when I fact-check are usually caught by the eagle-eye of my copy editor in London. She is hyper-critical and an amazing editor. It would be great to send in a completed manuscript and have it so “clean” that she can’t find any issues. So far, that day has not happened. ?

 

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Kathryn Albright
Kathryn Albright writes sweet western historical romance. Her stories celebrate courage and hope with a dash of adventure. Kathryn’s stories have been finalists in the distinguished RWA Golden Heart® and the HOLT Medallion as well as several other industry awards. When she isn't caught up in a good story, she enjoys road trips with her husband (when he drives) and planning her next home improvement adventure. She lives with her family in the rural Midwest. Visit her at http://www.kathrynalbright.com.

41 Comments

  1. I would like to take exception to what scholarly history books contain. Written by mostly men that are the winners in history does not make them right. I have learned more history, details of the past and geography by reading HWR books than I ever did in school. Granted the authors I have read took a strong postion to do the research necessary for accuracy and timeline. That makes the story come alive with a life and breath of its own. A vivid picture comes to mind with reading. Then the characters become people we want to know more about. Authors of HWR that are serious really write the history for us. Thank you for yours.

    1. You make a valid point, Jerri! Thanks for weighing in! You are so right about the vivid picture that well-written fiction brings to history.

  2. I love reading books that are truly based on actual information true to the time period. I learn so much about that time period too. And when an author uses a real town and real rivers, historic events, well it just ups my interest for the book. Great blog thanks for sharing.

    1. Hi Tonya,

      I enjoy the real aspects too. With The Lady and the Rebel, I intertwined lots of real events, people, and the towns nearby. It was helpful at the time that I wrote that book, that Mexican authorities had recently released historic documents that had been previously not been available to the public.

  3. I enjoy learning these historical tidbits. So, I have to ask, how would a small town handle its water closet/privvy issues?

    1. Hi Alisa!

      I guess I must enjoy the historical tidbits too. My head is full of them! Businesses in small towns in the U.S., like Margaret mentions just below, still had outhouses in the back.

  4. Hi Kathryn, loved your post. My go-to book for getting the words right is English through the Ages by William Brohaugh. This books tracks words when they became bona fida English or first appeared in print. My copy editor uses the dictionary, which shows words several years after general usage. As you can imagine, we sometimes butt heads.

    To answer the question about privys: Some towns had what was called outhouse or privy alleys.

    1. Thank you for the tip about the Brohaugh book, Margaret, and the answer about the outhouses. It amazes me how some modern phrases can slip through my “historical” filter! I really have to watch for that. It is also interesting how some of the colloquial “Americanisms” stump by London-based editor.

  5. Such good points and worthy of repeating. I’m pretty good about not having my Oregon Trail characters use a cell phone, or any phone, but I get tripped up on subtler things.

    1. Hey Kathy! Thanks for stopping by! It is so easy to get tripped up! And about the cell phones — isn’t funny how movies can be dated so quickly by what type of technology is used? I watched You’ve Got Mail recently and was tickled by the AOL “You’ve Got Mail” email icon.

  6. Great post! Writing a book is more than just getting the story right. Lots of details are needed as well.

    1. Thank you for stopping by, Debra. Sometimes, when I get bogged down in the details, I fantasize about writing contemporary. But I think that would bring with it, it’s own new set of details LOL!

  7. Thank you for sharing your great post and your great books. Love the facts!

    1. Hi Melanie!

      So good to hear from you! I want the facts too — which can, at times be uncomfortable, and sometimes slanted depending on who is stating them (as Jerri mentioned above.)

  8. Great post, Katherine. There are so many aspects to research. It never ceases to amaze me how some “old-fashioned” words didn’t come into use until the 1920’s or later and some modern sounding words have been around since the 12th century. I’ve learned never to assume, but to check if there is even a flicker of a question in my mind. 🙂

    1. Thanks for stopping in Karen and such good words to live by. Never assume! I’ve been caught before when I assume.

  9. I enjoy reading historically accurate books.

    1. Nice to hear from you Estella! I agree. I love learning through fiction.

  10. Katheryn, I love this. It’s so TRICKY. That ‘waist overalls’ thing. Ive never heard that term. I have researched denim and knew it existed…the rivets on seam stress points, too, right? But not the word JEANS. I wonder if I’ve used it??? (I may not want to check)

    1. Hi Mary! It can be tricky! I learned something that stuck with me about the rivets. The tailor that suggested trying them on the pants’ stress points to Levi Strauss put one in the crotch. Ranch hands and cowboys complained that the metal burned a bit at that particular placement when they sat around a campfire and so a few years later, that rivet was no longer put there during manufacturing. Maybe too much information…but it’s history!

  11. I enjoyed the post and the info. I truly have a lot of respect for Authors who do all that research for their books. I have to say that I have learned so much more of history through their books the in school.

    1. Hi Carol,
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting! I like straight history books for the inspiration on story-lines. I’ll read something and then think…”what if”… They get my creative side going.

  12. Very interesting post and well said. Thanks so much.

    1. Hi Eliza! So nice to see you here!

  13. I appreciate the fact-checking and determination to get things right when I am reading a historical novel. I don’t use it as a textbook history lesson but do like to feel, as you say, that the setting and phrasing are accurate. Thanks for the hard work, and thanks for the great stories.

    1. Hi Sally!

      Such kind words! You’re welcome! I find it exciting to watch some of the “facts” evolve. I’m thinking of the movie Hidden Figures and the three women’s contribution to rocket science and NASA that I didn’t know about before the movie came out. It’s wonderful to learn about it.

  14. I have always loved the info in your stories! You do your research well. 🙂 I also love suspenders. I would not have known about the belt and jeans. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Hello Susan! Suspenders are fun, aren’t they? Plain or snazzy, they can reveal a lot about a man’s character 🙂

  15. I was watching When Calls the Heart last night, and they used some modern phrasing I’m sure was not around in the time period it’s set…

    1. I just checked–soul-searching was not used until 1924. The show is set at least a decade earlier.

      1. Hi Denise! I need to watch that show! So many people I know enjoy it. Yes–Hollywood gets it wrong, although I think they are trying harder to be accurate. John Wayne had belt loops in many of his westerns. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  16. I loved this blog today. Made me think — so were there “water closets”? Made me wonder. : )

    1. Hi Karen! The term “water closet” was first used around 1750 in Europe.

      In the old West, it meant an indoor room for elimination of waste and those didn’t start showing up until the 1870s in very nice homes. Everyone else had outhouses, aka privies, and chamber pots and commodes. The term “bathroom” meant just that — a room with a bathtub for bathing. It wasn’t until the 1900s that the bathtub and toilet were put into the same room for economy-sake. At least, this is my interpretation.

  17. We looked at a lovely old home on the market when we were thinking of settling in an area in Northern New York. It was a two story house built for a wealthy family. Beautiful woodwork, pocket doors, built in cabinets, butler’s pantry, painted porcelain sinks in vanities in the bedrooms. The house was built in the mid to late 1800’s and had a two hole latrine on the second floor. I didn’t get the opportunity to explore just how that would work. There was also one on the first floor. Indoor outhouses. How would you keep them clean? The 1860’s farmhouse we lived in had a 3 hole unit in the attached garage/barn. There were 2 adult holes and one small child sized hole. I hadn’t seen that before or since.

    1. Hi Patricia! Wow! That house sounds lovely! It strikes me as odd how the Victorian era sounds so very “proper” about private things, and yet they would have a place built that two people could relieve themselves at the same time. I’m sure I’m missing something in that analysis…just not sure what. The child-size hole — now that makes a lot of sense! Why weren’t more built that way? Much less chance of a child slipping inside!

  18. Thank you for sharing this interesting post! I enjoy reading books based on true events.

    1. Hi Caryl,

      Lovely to see you here! I like true events too…hence my “Alamo” book I mentioned. Thanks for commenting!

  19. What I find interesting is the women who also found the west there is little info on them.

    1. YES!!! Kim! It’s because men wrote the history books for so long and so they wrote about what they thought was interesting! I’m so glad that information is coming out now about women’s contributions to our country.

  20. This is a very interesting post. I’m not familiar with water closets but I do know about outhouses and privies, or toilets.

    1. Hi Connie, I’m so glad you thought this post interesting. You can still google the term “Water closet” and get modern references to them. Even Lowe’s sells them. The term “toilet” was used more once the flushing mechanism was invented. (Of course in earlier times it also meant other things regarding a person’s personal hygiene.) When I was growing up, I also heard the bathroom called the “necessary.” There are a lot of slang terms too… but I write “sweet” romance so I won’t go into those LOL.

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