Fiction Hits the History Books

Writing a book is hard work, regardless of the genre.  It takes patience, focus, perseverance and passion.  Historical fiction, in particular, requires a bit of extra OOMPH.  Why?  Research … You gotta hit the history books and internet to get your facts straight. Dig Deep and take your time for a thorough research. And Be Advised: You Can’t Believe Everything You Read on the Internet or everything you’re told in interviews. Are you aware that anyone can edit a Wikipedia page?  Knowing that, be careful what you document in your book based on your internet findings.  In addition, you should always cross-check information you obtain during a personal interview.

Most historical fiction works involve a fictional character who is interacting with something that actually took place in history.  Markus Zusak is the author of The Book Thief.  His main character is a nine-year-old girl named Liesel Meminger living in Nazi Germany in the year 1939.  The town she lives in is also Zusak’s creation; it’s called Molching.  Zusak has done a brilliant job of balancing the freedom of creation with the restraints of historical preservation.  I highly recommend that you read this novel.

In my book, Extra Innings: The Diamond  Thieves, my goal was to paint nostalgic accuracy around the innocence of youth in the old American South.  It was important to thicken the plot in order to straddle the age gaps between older readers who would enjoy reminiscing over some of the specific throwbacks I’ve peppered throughout the story and younger reader who may enjoy discovering what the old south was like prior to our laws protecting equal rights among races.

Research for the Extra Innings trilogy was both fun and exhausting.  I had the blessed fortune of meeting multiple sets of twins who provided me some fascinating perspectives into their unique environment.  This was by far the fun part.  The exhausting part was getting all the facts correct that I wanted to include in this book.  Peppering in accurate historical facts are what help to bring a historical fiction novel to life as well as keep the critics at rest.

For example Book 1 includes an extensive baseball trading card debate that required layers upon layers of research.  It was important to me touring the tastes, sights and sounds of the old south to life in all three books.  This information was gathered both through interviews and internet.  The chocolate cream pie mentioned in Book 1 was actually one of my Grama’s famed contributions to dinners when my dad was growing up.  I plan to share this recipe (with photos – finally) in a future blog.  The story gives considerable references to popular music of its time – particularly “the blues.”  Authors should be careful not to use any defaming terms when mentioning real people who actually existed.  Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker are all referenced in Book 1.  Frank Sinatra and Tommy Dorsey are mentioned in Book 2.  Since I am NOT writing for the purpose of documenting their specific lives, it’s wise to either mention them in a positive or indifferent light.  The books also mentions numerous products like Palmolive, Gay Furlough cologne and Camel cigarettes. Two points I want to make here:

These names are trademarks of their respective owners. Their owners would have to claim for infringement if I was using them for promotional purposes.  Which I am not, so again, as long as I am not disparaging the product, then I most likely will not encounter an issue.

Double and triple check that the products you are mentioning not only existed during the time in which your book is set but also that they were used.  For example. I was planning to mention a specific furniture dusting product in Book 1 to illustrate how the twins’ mother, Ellen, kept the house clean and smelling fresh.  However, I learned through my extensive research that it was far more common, especially for a middle-class family, to use a vinegar and water solution to clean furniture.  Only one in a while was a special product like Pledge or Old English used.

I want to thank all the folks at Ole Miss (The University of Mississippi), especially Langston Rogers, who provided me specific details to campus life and the Rebels baseball team that I could have never dissevered online.  For example, Langston was able to inform me of the dining hall most on-campus residents used along with where the pay phones were that students used, since today’s handy-dandy little cell phones & iPhones hadn’t even been conceived back then.

Part of Book 3 takes place in Lackland Air Force Base and in Korea.  Over this 10 year period of writing this trilogy, I med some wonderful guys who were directly involved in the Korean Conflict (the more accurate title for the otherwise popular Korean War).  I actually even got to hold and load an M1 Garand rifle (which is the specific gun illustrated by Adam Lichi on the book’s cover).   I heard some great stories from these guys and will be paying my respects and thanks to them in the printing of Book 2 (A Hero Among Thieves).

Compiling all of these facts were key building blogs to capture the authentic feel I was going for in the Extra Innings trilogy.  However, a tip for historical fiction writers is to look out for overkill.  Don’t inundate your readers with so many facts that your story becomes a snooze fest.  Remember that it’s also fiction.  So don’t feel too constrained by feeling like your High School history teacher is standing over your shoulder or that they’re going to grade your book like it’s a term paper.  HAVE FUN!  It’s okay to paint a place or time in history with a more color if it lends to the direction your book needs to take.  One tip to increase your flexibility is to create your own immediate setting.  Just like what Zusak did in The Book Thief, the town is fictional although we all know Nazi Germany (sadly) existed.  If you need the setting to be an actual place that exists like New York City or San Francisco, for example, perhaps have the building where the main character lives be your complete creation or where they work or go to school.  This just helps ease the workload required in researching as well as keeps you clear of any defamation complaints in case there is an negative or risqué incident that takes place in the specific location that the building’s landlord or business owner feels might be a possible threat.  Perception is reality so it would be horrible if one of your characters lives in a specific building that actually exists somewhere and they are attacked or raped in your story and that building’s landlord gets word of this and perceives it as a threat to future tenants being afraid to rent there.  Make sense?

I would love to hear some comments from other historical writers?  And definitely your feedback on the first book in the Extra Innings trilogy (The Diamond Thieves) which is AVAILABLE NOW.  Keep in touch!

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