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.
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.
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?)
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. ?
The Prairie Doctor’s Bride, is my newest release.
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