By Elisabeth Foley
We historical-fiction writers know well enough the importance of research. Before launching into a project, we study books and records and photographs and memoirs, immersing ourselves in our chosen era till we know its roads and towns and fashions and domestic life well enough to write about them with ease. But in spite of research jobs well done, there are some details small enough that they don’t even register in our minds as we write. You know the type—things that may finally catch your eye on a third or fourth round of edits, or may not intrude upon your notice at all until a test-reader questions them. I’ve found that I usually end up fact-checking at least one or two things in a manuscript at the very last stages of polishing for publication. For example:
I had to do more research for my short Civil War story, War Memorial, than for any other project, because of its setting at the real-life location of Gettysburg. But still, it wasn’t until I was deep in editing that it occurred to me to check and see if the break-top model of revolver I’d mentioned briefly in the story was in use at the time. It wasn’t. So I had to rewrite a sentence slightly to accommodate the correct model. I also noticed that I’d automatically described a Bible’s pages as “thin” and “crackling,” based off my own experience. I was able to get in touch with an expert on Bible printing, and learned that some small 19th-century Bibles were indeed printed on thin rice paper that resembled the pages of our modern-day Bibles. No changes necessary there!
That wasn’t the only time fact-checking led me to an interesting historical tidbit. A book of matches plays a rather key role in my latest release, Left-Hand Kelly, but when my mother read it she suggested I check to make sure book matches had been invented before my time period (early 1900s). And what did I learn? Joseph Pusey, a cigar-smoking Pennsylvania attorney who disliked having to carry a bulky box of matches around with him, patented the first paper matchbook in 1889. He sold his patent in 1896 to the Diamond Match Company, who became the first mass-producers of the product. My fictional matchbook was safe and I’d acquired a little history lesson in the process.
And then there’s the smallest of anachronisms which can still have a jarring effect—the wrong word. In a yet-unpublished manuscript, I described a house as having been “modernized.” A test-reader questioned whether that word would have been in regular use in the 1890s…and the more I looked at it, the more I agreed that it didn’t feel right. I replaced it with the phrase “brought up to date.” And on my third round of edits for Left-Hand Kelly, I noticed that I’d had my narrator say he was “hitchhiking.” I thought I’d better double-check the origin of the word…and sure enough, I found it didn’t come into existence until the 1920s. Out it went.
And that’s what careful editing and test-reading is for. Most of these little incongruities can be fixed without damage to the story. The only time they can really throw you is if your plot actually turns on something as small as a revolver—or a matchbook—or a word. In that case…it’d be just as well to double-check the details beforehand!