Historical Fiction Mistakes

I occasionally enjoy reading a good novel based on the old days but nothing pulls me out of the story faster than to see glaring mistakes. Young/new writers would do well to read books written during that time and educate themselves on proper behavior and speech.

Historical fiction has to be based on fact. We realize it is a made up story that didn’t really happen but it has to be plausible. It didn’t happen but it could have somewhere.

Some of the best historical fiction writers have a degree in history or at least educate themselves on the period they are writing.


Bathing

During Victorian times people believed that bathing too much, especially in the cold season, was bad for their health. Due to this odd idea it was common to only bathe about once a month. As you can imagine people didn't smell too pleasant since deodorant hadn't been invented yet. This was also why women carried around tussy mussies or tiny bouquets of flowers to sniff occasionally. It helped mask their own aroma as well as the over whelming stench of those around them.


I often read novels based during this time where the characters are bathing almost daily.

Height

It amazes me how many novelists write about heroes in the 1800's that are six feet tall or more. Visit Europe and tour some of the old structures from that time and you will soon realize that people were really short.

People joke about how short Napoleon was but he was actually average height for that period. Most men were only about 5'6" tall by American measurements. For a man to be six foot tall he would have been considered a giant.

Look at clothing in museums to get an idea of how small humans were in the 1800's or even 1900s. If you are going to write about an era educate yourself of every detail before starting your story.


Wrong use of curse words.

Over the years swearing has evolved and changed. What was horrible in the 1930’s is no longer a big deal. Remember Gone With The Wind? The famous line, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” That one line is iconic of that film and everyone knows it but it was almost eliminated because during that time the word “damn” was really, really bad, as bad as the “F” word is in certain circles today.

When you read a book that is supposed to be from that era and they use the “F” word it doesn’t work because people didn’t speak that way back then. Prior to the 1960’s you never even heard of the word. There are a few variations of the word in old languages and some (including the unreliable Wikipedia) like to think it was around prior to that time but ask any older person and they will assure it was not.

In the early eras to “put a pox” on a person was one of the worst curses you could possibly make do to sickness being a huge fear. Doctors were few, far between and very expensive. They also weren’t very good using bleeding and leaches to cure people. Many also feared curses and were very superstitious.

The best thing to do if you are going to write historical fiction is to read as many books as you can get your hands on that were written during that era and familiarize yourself with the language and way of speaking. Be true to your art.


Women didn’t shake hands and especially not with men.

Even today it isn’t considered proper for a man to extend his hand first unless a woman initiates the handshake. In history, women did not shake hands with each other and certainly not with men.

If a man met a woman he would either bow or kiss the back of her hand.


Contractions weren’t invented yet.

Don’t, can’t, aren’t and wouldn’t are all recent inventions. As you may have noticed every decade new words are invented and the way we say things changes; contractions are a product of that. In the 1900’s and prior to that people didn’t use them. The only one I do know of is shant and it wasn’t written as a contraction. It’s difficult to find it in modern dictionaries but it means the same thing as can’t, basically “should not.” You’ll find it in Mother Goose Rhymes; which are very old.


Women weren’t allowed to own property.

If a woman’s husband or father died the land, house and business went to her closest male relative, not the wife. Do your research and learn when laws were changed (it’s different in every country) and what was proper behavior, not how you wish things were or how you think the world should have been. You are writing historical fiction, not science fiction.


Women were not as outspoken as they are today.

Use proper voice and language. A young lady wouldn’t be feisty, rude and obnoxious in the old days. People didn’t put up with that business, male or female. Women couldn’t speak out the way they do in America today. Writing a story like that just makes you look like an amateur. If you don’t like it stick to a modern day novel where your heroine can take names and kick butt, still pretty unlikely but more believable.

Don’t get me wrong, there were women with fortitude but it was done more subtly than it is today. Many of Jane Austen’s characters were considered outspoken or bold for that time but to most young women today they would appear mild.

One word that has greatly changed in definition is "slut;" If you look it up in an old dictionary you will find it was an untidy, slovenly woman but today it means a female with promiscuous morals.


Black people couldn’t own property.

It was brought to my attention in the comments below that there were black cowboys so I left that one out. Be aware of historical behavior when writing this in your books.

Hollywood has lately tried to rewrite history and it’s wrong. I’m not any more proud of the way African Americans were treated than I am of the treatment of Native Americans, Chinese or women but that is how it was. You have to stick to the facts when writing about history even if it is fiction. Besides, rewriting history is the same as forgetting it and forgetting risks repeating past wrongs.


In closing:

Please feel free to add any mistakes you’ve noticed when reading a historical novel and I’ll add them to this list.

More by this Author


Comments 55 comments

Daffy Duck profile image

Daffy Duck 5 years ago from Cornelius, Oregon

Interesting observations. I never really gave those things much thought, especially women shaking hands with guys. Nicely done Pamela.

How do you know these things? Do you have a degree in history?


Textured Ideas 5 years ago

Wow I didn't know those things. I remember learning at school that 'pretty' used to mean 'sly/cunning' and not 'attractive' as it does now.

I agree; when writing, it's easy to naturally gloss over facts and assume that people thought and acted in the modern way we do. Research is crucial!

Great hub and a very interesting read, thank you. Voted up and useful.


Pamela N Red profile image

Pamela N Red 5 years ago from Oklahoma Author

No, Daffy Duck, I do not have a degree in history but have read a great deal of etiquette books as well as social history. These are common mistakes I see often in recent novels.

Textured Ideas, over the years words change in meaning and we have to keep up with the definition during the era we choose to write.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

Great points. The best way to avoid those mistakes is to read books written in the era and use that terminology.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

I have to disgree with you about Blacks not being cowboys.I have a book:The Negro Cowboy by Phillip Durham and Everett L. Jones.It is the lack of Blacks as cowboys that is the distortion of history.


Dardia profile image

Dardia 5 years ago from Michigan

I haven't had time to read this yet but I have bookmarked it to come back to. I have been looking for information on my novel based in the mid 1860's. This has kept me at a stand still for a few months now. I'm hoping your hub can help with that. Voted up, useful and interesting, I'm sure I will feel the same after I read it. :)


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

I missed that part on black cowboys. I have several old pictures of black cowboys, including one of Nat Love:

http://www.blackcowboys.com/natlove.htm

http://hubpages.com/literature/Hired-On


writeronline 5 years ago

Hi Pamela, this is a worthwhile hub you've posted, and the advice is very sound. Nothing spoils the flow like a jarring word or setting that doesn't fit the context in which a story (or article) is set.

Unfortunately, I have to disagree with you in regard to the 'F' word.

From the Online Etymology Dictionary, (which I believe has far greater credence than Wikipedia; actually, at the risk of being dismissive about Wikipedia, I think pretty much anything you find there should be reviewed against other sources, so I share your 'unreliable' descriptor), anyway, back to the OMD, there's an entire page of interesting analysis, to be found here:

http://www.etymonline.com/index

(Obviously I've not included the 'magic word' in this link, because you've been circumspect in not doing so in your piece, but it's just a matter of searching for the term)

A summary line is revealing: "F*** was outlawed in print in England (by the Obscene Publications Act, 1857) and the U.S. (by the Comstock Act, 1873). As a noun, it dates from the 1670s. The word may have been shunned in print, but it continued in conversation, especially among soldiers during WWI".

As we know, it's only become more popular (common..?) ever since.

Cheers


writeronline 5 years ago

Sorry to intrude again, Pam.

Apparently that link should be;

http://www.etymonline.com/index.php

:)


Pamela N Red profile image

Pamela N Red 5 years ago from Oklahoma Author

Will and Dahoglund, I will have to do some more research on black cowboys. I had no idea they were around. I'm sure it was still quite rare. Thank you for your input.

Dardia, it depends on where your novel is being placed. History was different all over the globe.

Writeronline, it may have been in existence in rare cases but not to the extent it is today. I burned a recent book due to constant use of the "F" word ruining the entire story for me. The book was not based on soldiers in war or even low class people in a barroom but were supposed to be gentile people in a group setting. It was very poorly written with several errors including men shaking hands with women and was supposed to be in America in 1870.


kashmir56 profile image

kashmir56 5 years ago from Massachusetts

You make some great points throughout this well written hub and i agree with you 100%, it is a shame that books like that are being published .

Awesome and vote up !!!


Celeste Neumann 5 years ago

I noticed this recently when a new celebrated british author wrote a gay romance story about a Prussian and Austrian who had an affair shortly before the Prusso-Austria War. The Prussia officer apparantly resigns from office during the war, which causes "social suicide". While that may have been the case in AEW Mason's Novel "The Four Feathers", this would have been nearly impossible in Prussia, and certainly not during a war. After seeing the film "The Young Victoria", written by the Duchess of York I was disappointed about the holes in Albert's character, and decided to write this blog:

http://weissdorn.blogspot.com/2011/08/regency-writ...


Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

Excellent points, Pamela. Historic inaccuracies are a pet peeve for me, too.The worst trend is the PC rewriting of history regarding women. Modern writers (In books, movies and TV) portray women of the past as liberated modern women.

The excuse of "Female empowerment" is used to explain this, but I don't think it's a good idea to convince a generation (especially young girls) that things have always been as they are now for women. It mocks the struggles that women have gone through to be recognized.

Rob


Mentalist acer profile image

Mentalist acer 5 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

I encounter many science related misdemeanors in science fiction books that I read.;)


Pamela N Red profile image

Pamela N Red 5 years ago from Oklahoma Author

Kashmir, I'm not sure how they get past the editors.

Celeste, I see so many glaring errors in historic fiction it ruins the whole story.

Robwrite, that is my point exactly. It was not that long a go in history that America as well as Europe were much like the atrocities we now see in the middle east. To read a novel with empowered, modern women in them just doesn't look right. To forget is to repeat.

Mentalist, you should write an article about that. I am not good enough in science to pick up on those errors but can see how some would get past editors.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

BTW, while it's true that the widespread use of written contractions is fairly recent, the oral use of contractions has been with us for as long as there has been language. For instance, phrases like 'shall not' were shortened to "shan't", in both oral and written usage. Oral usage shortened terms like 'they are' to they're, so there's (there is) nothing wrong with writing it that way today, when depicting such speech.

Old nautical terms are full of contractions, like fo'c'sle for forecastle. It would sound silly to have an old salt say 'forecastle' rather than the far more common 'fo'c'sle'.

And of course, writers like Shakespeare used contractions quite liberally:

http://www.shakespearehigh.com/classroom/guide/pag...


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

I do agree that using today's popular terminology in an historic piece spoils the read. I also see that all the time in today's movies. When Wyatt Earp called a shotgun a 'street howitzer', I cringed, because that's a very recent term.


Pamela N Red profile image

Pamela N Red 5 years ago from Oklahoma Author

Will, I sometimes watch That Seventies Show. I realize it isn't historical fiction but they say and do wrong things all the time like high five. That didn't start until the 80's. I know it seems I'm nitpicking but it is important to be as accurate as possible.

I should have been more specific in my contractions comment. There were some but they were different than modern day usage. I'll go back and rewrite that when I have time.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

"Will, I sometimes watch That Seventies Show. I realize it isn't historical fiction but they say and do wrong things all the time like high five. That didn't start until the 80's."

Exactly, and that's just the sort of thing that will sink a period piece for discerning viewers and readers.

One of the reasons Band of Brothers was so well received was its attention to historical detail, and reliance on those who were there. .

This is an important Hub, and I certainly wasn't being critical. You made some excellent points.


Twilight Lawns profile image

Twilight Lawns 5 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

What a useful and reassuring hub. It is so nice (and I use the word in its correct form Ha ha) to discover someone who also cringes at inaccuracies.

A little bit of research never harmed anyone, and just to read some well written books and get the feel of the language being spoken is a very valid form of research.

Even writing about a person in the present day can lead to pretty awful characterisation if that person speaks in a manner not really of her/his class and aspirations and background.

But one of the things that really puts me off is when an attempt is made to write spoken language with all the local nuances, accents and syntax.

Yipes! I give up.

Marked up and useful... but then again, Pamela, your hubs usually are.

Will, that is one of the reasons that your writing is so good. I feel you know your characters inside out, and I can almost hear, feel and smell your people and your locations


writeronline 5 years ago

Wasn't trying to be a smartass (modern word?)in pointing out that the 'F' word has been around a long time.But your piece does virtually deny its existence, whereas I think you're talking about how seldom it was used, prior to the 60s (in our time). With which I agree.

Anyway...I thought I'd point out how I came to have that 'historical knowledge' of the word. And it's absolutely in tune with what you'e saying about context.

In Australia, where I live, there's a new TV series, set in Sydney in the 1920s. It's about how two brothel madams ran the streets red with the blood of gangsters and standover men attempting to take over their businesses. Purportedly a historically accurate piece.(ie: "based on actual events.." Even though this is an 'expose set on the mean streets" etc etc, I don't think I've heard a character yet speak a sentence of more that 4 words, without f*** being one of them. It's every bit as jarring (and to me, contrived) as you point out in other usage. I find it hard to believe that its constant use in that era would have been the case, and went in search of some reference - which I passed on to you. I guess the producers would point to that in defence.

I think I must be getting old, because the thing that really offends me, is that this series is aired on public TV, at 8.30 on Sunday nights. And it's by no means the only example on TV downunder. How are parents supposed to teach their kids not to use foul language, when their TV 'idols of the moment' can't communicate wthout doing so?


Chatkath profile image

Chatkath 5 years ago from California

Thanks Pamela, I guess there are advantages to being older and wiser after all - some knowledge you just can't fake consistently although it is surprising that it gets published at all...Good Job!


CASE1WORKER profile image

CASE1WORKER 5 years ago from UNITED KINGDOM

i wonder if some authors do it to make the text more accessible to the modern reader ? Just a thought? VOTED UP! A thought provoking hub


Scribenet profile image

Scribenet 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

Important points for sure. Historical novels need a lot of research to sound authentic. Something that seems "out of place" spoils the story for me.


Pamela N Red profile image

Pamela N Red 5 years ago from Oklahoma Author

Will, no offense taken. It's part of the reason I have yet to write a historical novel. I am currently doing some research and might do a period piece but will be careful as I go.

Twilight, I try to cover things I feel are important and hope others will agree.

Writeronline, I probably need to rewrite that particular section as there seems to be some confusion in my meaning. What you said later is a good example. Just because words were in existence doesn't mean they were openly used or to the extent they are today. I am no expert on the subject by any stretch of the imagination but have read many novels that jar me to the present and that takes away from a good historical fiction.

Chatkath, with age comes wisdom and experience.

Case1worker, I suspect they do but feel it ruins the reading experience. People read an historical novel to travel back in time and when we are jolted back to the present due to wrong language usage or mistakes in behavior it doesn't work.

Scribenet, I agree. They should do their homework and make sure they are accurate to the time before submitting a transcript.


tom hellert profile image

tom hellert 5 years ago from home

ramin Red,

i admit- I have written hubbs about history and I use "modern language for "humoristical pursuits" in fact I even make up words for the same end...

Does that make me a bad person???

Do I need to ask for forgiveness from someone?

who can i get dispensation from?

What would it be a couple "Our Shakespeares" a few "Hail Mark Twains" or "Hail Shania Twains."

But again, my "style" is a bit different and I hate punctuation.

TH


Pamela N Red profile image

Pamela N Red 5 years ago from Oklahoma Author

Tom, articles about history are different than period fiction. Non-fiction is different and you need not worry about speaking in the proper language of that time.


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 4 years ago from Central Oklahoma

This hub is the perfect example of why I will probably never finish writing a novel - albeit based on an actual event in a village in northern England - that bounces between the 1880s and 1920s. American English keeps creeping in.

One murder mystery series centered around a character named "Mrs. Jefferies" and set in London in the late 1880s to early nineties is so full of blatant geographical and time-lapse inaccuracies that I nearly didn't continue reading. However, the author's mastery of plot twists and turns (actually as good or better than Agatha Christie) made me overlook these things and I became a fan anyway.

But I won't be reading any more historical novels by the author of "Sarah's Key". Chapters alternate between Nazi-occupied Paris in the 1940s and the life of a current day American-born Parisian. The lack of knowledge of problem pregnancies made the plot line of the modern day chapters totally unrealistic. If using this "switch back" method to tie two eras together, it's just important to thoroughly research modern medicine as well as old!

As far as words commonly used a hundred years ago, the campaign to remove the N-word from "Huckleberry Finn" would be laughable if not for the number of teachers who refuse to even try to teach WHY the word was NOT considered a word-bomb back then, and why it is today.


Pamela N Red profile image

Pamela N Red 4 years ago from Oklahoma Author

JamaGenee, I see many medical errors in historical fiction. It's really important to stay as accurate as possible because it really detracts from the story.


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 4 years ago from Central Oklahoma

I'm currently reading a murder mystery called "Dissolution" about (go figure) the dissolution of the monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII (circa 1530-40). The murder takes place in the infirmary of a monastery, but other than the language being more modern, the book seems to accurately depict the medical practices of the time. So much so that one wonders how mankind survived before it was determined that bloodletting was a bad thing and "cured" nothing. ;D


Pamela N Red profile image

Pamela N Red 4 years ago from Oklahoma Author

Jama, I suspect many bled to death. I can't imagine why someone thought that was a good idea and started the practice. Meanwhile female healers were tagged as witches and burned if they actually made someone well. Weird.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 4 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

Bloodletting was originally based on female menstruation, because ancients believed that menstruation was the process of ridding the female body of contaminations and an overabundance of blood. Thus, they thought it would also benefit men, and it was practiced for nearly 2,000 years, largely ending just over 100 years ago!


Pamela N Red profile image

Pamela N Red 4 years ago from Oklahoma Author

Thanks, Will. I always wondered why they started that practice. Thank goodness they don't do it anymore.


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 4 years ago from Central Oklahoma

They didn't necessarily bleed to death on the spot but *were* severely anemic after the procedure (if they survived whatever condition prompted the letting), as any of us would be if we were a "quart low". In the book, the monks were routinely bled once a year and expected to be weak for days or weeks after. Ya think?


Pamela N Red profile image

Pamela N Red 4 years ago from Oklahoma Author

Jama, it's a weird practice and I imagine many died from it, if not from loss of blood, being already very ill this didn't help matters.


JKenny profile image

JKenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

A very useful article, as I am big fan of historical novels, so I'll definitely look out for those sort of things in the future. Voted up etc.


Pamela N Red profile image

Pamela N Red 4 years ago from Oklahoma Author

JKenny, I'm reading one now in which one of the female characters keeps a diary and I swear she is writing it in text speak. I'm pretty sure even in one's diary they didn't eliminate vowels to write faster.


louromano profile image

louromano 4 years ago

Awesome and vote up !!!


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 4 years ago from Central Oklahoma

Pamela, I can't imagine a diary in a historical novel written in text speak! How jarring that must be. If I have one pet peeve with historical novels, it's the use of excessively flowery language when it's inappropriate. Pages filled with "excessively flowery" in a Jane Austen or a Bronte are fine, because they record how Austen and the Brontes and everyone around them spoke at the time. But imposing the 21st century on a story supposedly set in the 17th or 18th century? Seriously? Shouldn't the editor at the publishing house have insisted the author include the vowels?

(btw, what was the name of the book...if you can remember now?) ;D


Pamela N Red profile image

Pamela N Red 4 years ago from Oklahoma Author

The book was East of the Sun by Julia Gregson. Editors don't seem to catch many mistakes these days.


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 4 years ago from Central Oklahoma

Maybe because the editors of historical fiction are twenty-somethings, or a bit older but whose main method of communication is texting?

Thanks for the name of the book. Seems very familiar, although not from reading it, that I'm sure of.


Pamela N Red profile image

Pamela N Red 4 years ago from Oklahoma Author

JamaGenee, I am thinking the same thing. I don't think editors would have allowed that a few decades ago. Books were edited better in the old days but now I'm sounding like an old fogie. :o)


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 4 years ago from Central Oklahoma

When we're talking about historical fiction, being an "old fogie" is a good thing! ;D


Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii

I agree - historical inaccuracies in books annoy me! Sometimes the little details bug me, even when I know they shouldn't.

I like that you point out the need to research your particular time and place because laws and customs do change. For example, the blanket statement that women and black people could not own property is fairly true in many places and eras, but it might not be true for a particular setting.


Gulf Coast Sun profile image

Gulf Coast Sun 4 years ago from Gulf of Mexico

One of the things I've been struggling with is the proper speech for my pre-colonial Florida historical fiction. Your article/hub came at a good time. In regard to African-American cowboys there was a special group of 'black militiamen" in during the Civil War. Many slaves from the Caribbean and Europe sold to cattle barons and plantation owners became cow hunters or cow herders once they were freed. Many went on to own their own cattle ranches and farms. One such website http://www.tropicalbreeze.com/content/view/911/102...


Pamela N Red profile image

Pamela N Red 4 years ago from Oklahoma Author

Gulf Coast Sun that would be an interesting exhibit to see. That would make a great novel based on those men of that time.


cleokrieger profile image

cleokrieger 3 years ago from Springfield, OR

thank you so much for your article! One of the reasons I started writing historical fiction is because I had read too many books with bad history and bad scientific facts/history. I am a scientist by training so it was easy for me to refocus my research to include the history of science and different eras. Well done :)


Pamela N Red profile image

Pamela N Red 3 years ago from Oklahoma Author

cleokrieger, it's important to know your material before writing. Your knowledge of science will a plus. I see many errors regarding medical procedures as well as the ones listed above.

Thank you for reading and giving your input.


Schoolmom24 profile image

Schoolmom24 3 years ago from Oregon

I totally agree with everything you mentioned! It completely turns me off, as well, to read something inconsistent with the times. I think if you're going to sit down and write about a certain era, be sure to research a lot! People tend to forget the part about researching language and conversation styles! I don't normally write historical fiction because it can be intimidating for just this reason...but just a few days ago, posted a very short story here on Hubs based on historic fact.

Anyway, you named some great examples of mistakes! Voted up and useful!


Pamela N Red profile image

Pamela N Red 3 years ago from Oklahoma Author

Thanks, Schoolmom. I wish editors would point out these flaws before printing books but they don't seem to care these days.


Homeplace Series profile image

Homeplace Series 2 years ago from Hollister, MO

Great points... depending, of course, on the time in history. Very important to consider, in any event. Thanks. Hope you stop by to follow and read some of my historical fiction, as well! ;-)


Pamela N Red profile image

Pamela N Red 2 years ago from Oklahoma Author

Thank you for reading, Homeplace Series. I'll go see what you have to share.


DrBill-WmL-Smith profile image

DrBill-WmL-Smith 2 years ago from Hollister, MO

Learned more on this visit, as well. Thank you for the great tips! ;-)


MariaMontgomery profile image

MariaMontgomery 18 months ago from Central Florida, USA

Between December, 2014 and March, 2015, I read all 8 books of the Outlander series, plus 2 novellas of that series. Some things that jumped out at me were (1) when Roger, Brianna, & their children returned to 1980 on the island of Ocracoke, NC, they heard traffic. Ocracoke has never allowed cars and trucks; you have to take a ferry to get there from the mainland. (2) In a couple of the early books, there were aspens in the North Carolina mountains. Aspens do not grow at that altitude. Still, I enjoyed the story sooooo much, and can't wait for the 9th book to come out. According to the website, it will be awhile. You have a great hub, here. I enjoyed reading it, too.


Pamela N Red profile image

Pamela N Red 17 months ago from Oklahoma Author

I know what you mean, Maria. I've read many that jump out at me and take away from the story.

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