From Writers in the Storm Blog:
I’ve attended a few panels on the knotty problem of how accurate you have to be when writing historicals, so for those of you who read or write historical novels, I thought I’d pass along what I’ve gleaned.
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In Larry McMurtry’s epic Lonesome Dove, the heroes drive cattle from Texas to Montana and never encounter any of the three intercontinental railroads they should have crossed along the way. In his Comanche Moon, a character has a Winchester rifle even though the weapon was not invented for 10 more years.
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Are the stories any less compelling? The answer probably depends on your perspective. A history professor may reject such liberties, while to someone with a more cursory knowledge of the historical period, ignorance would be bliss. The trick to writing a story from an earlier time period is to find the right balance between dry-as-dust history and an engaging story, and how accurate you need to be, I think, depends on who your readers are.
So–how accurate does your readership want you to be? If you are writing “hot” Regencies, the answer is probably not very accurate, because nice young ladies didn’t fool around (and were definitely never given an opportunity.) Along the same lines, nice young ladies didn’t go west in the early-and-mid nineteenth century to stake out a homestead or run a cattle ranch; the huge majority were prostitutes.
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Have you tied yourself down to a certain year? Is there a commonly-known historic event in your story? If so, it is probably necessary to be a little more careful in your accuracy, which is actually a lot easier than you think, thanks to Google and Wikipedia. Were there gas stoves, yet? Was Stetson selling hats? And be especially careful about weapons–the gun people are sticklers.
Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm Blog