Fact Vs. Fiction: Getting It Right (Even When You’re Making It Up) by CiJi Ware

Posted by on Jul 31, 2017 in Featured Book, Historical Research, Historical Tidbits | 6 comments

For twenty years before I started writing novels, I was a radio and television broadcaster in Los Angeles, having worked for all three national networks and the local PBS station during that “other” career. I find, eleven novels and two nonfiction books later, that the skillset I acquired in that former chapter of my life has stood me in remarkably good stead, whether I write contemporary or historical fiction.

Regardless of the genre, nothing annoys readers more than to see a misstatement or outright mistake in a book dealing with a subject that the purchaser knows about. Even worse, is to unwittingly to send falsehoods out into the Universe to the unsuspecting!

Author Harlan Ware

Perhaps my compulsion to do my best to get the details correct is because I come from a family of writers…my late father, his two brothers, my grandfather, and a host of scribes dating back at least to the end of the eighteenth century were writers. My dad, the late Harlan Ware, wrote novels, plays and screenplays, and some forty-five published short stories in the heyday of Colliers, Saturday Evening Post, College Humor, and other magazines that have disappeared in our digital age. However, he started his career at age eighteen as a newspaper crime reporter (Have you seen the film, The Front Page?) in an era when neophytes quickly learned the mantra “Who, What, Where, Why, How…and How Much?”

Dad used to point to our ancestor, William Ware, author of the 1897 historical Zenobia, with the remark, “He was writing about ancient times…so imagine how much research the poor guy must have done to get his facts right!”

Jane Maxwell, the 4th Duchess of Gordon

Ralph Lauren

Reporters learn early on that Truth is a defense again lawsuits for libel and slander, and likewise, people both living or dead deserve to be written about truthfully. When I was writing the contemporary sequel, That Autumn in Edinburgh, to my first historical novel, Island of the Swans, I tracked down a descendant of Jane Maxwell, the 4th Duchess of Gordon (1749-1812), who turned out to be the charming women, Catherine Maxwell, the 21st Lady of Traquair in the Scottish Borders (pictured in her dining room on the left). The Edinburgh novel also involved a character loosely based on the career of Ralph Lauren (pictured on the right), which necessitated that I read a number of magazine articles and two biographies, even though the majority of “Bernard Sterling’s” actions and personal traits were my own invention. To convince our readers join us in another world of our invention, we have to convince them we know what we’re writing about.

China Town

The point of all this is that for authors willing to spend the time to dig out the piece-by-piece facts of the setting, professions, background, or psychology (in other words, the “who, what, where, when, why, how and how much”) involved in a work of fiction, the end product will be richer, by far, than merely sticking with a cursory Google search or Wikipedia!

For this former reporter, there has been no substitute for going there; however, if that’s not possible, take the time and trouble to drill down deeply when you do an Internet search on a subject, time period, or environment. ‘Live’ interviews—even just on the phone–with people who know more about a subject that you do can be hugely helpful.

I’ve contacted fighter pilots by phone; genealogy experts by snailmail; museum directors in person (above see me interviewing Jason Dyer, the former head of the Sir Walter Scott house in at Abbotsford, Scotland). My advice? Be brave! Make cold calls to the experts. You’d be surprised how flattered they often are that you’re interested in their subjects.

Finding that perfect nugget of information or that needle-in-a-haystack fact isn’t rocket science, but it does require being a bulldog of sorts. This may not be news to many of you, but I check out specialized and regional libraries, historical societies, re-enanctment groups, house museums and shops (with their guide books, costume books, etc.); used books shops (including cookbooks, decorative art books, technical manuals, etc); specialized organizations, university librarys and museums that have rare books, personal letters, diaries, maps, wills and inventories, birth, death, military records, playbills, contemporary newspapers, magazines and periodicals. Keep a sharp eye out for those wonderful specialists in their fields you stumble across when you least expect it. (I met a military ex-drone mechanic at breakfast on a cruise ship when I sat down at an empty seat!) I even watch feature films on particular subjects– although be sure to verify any facts you glean from watching them! Always be on the lookout for the “telling detail.”

Contemporary or historical, I’ve found that weaving truth and imagination into a believable whole is the joy of the work we do. When we novelists bother to do our homework to “get it right” even when we’re making it up, we portray the meaning of life as well as the mere facts that surround it.

Ciji Ware, July 31, 2017

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Ciji Ware is a New York Times & USAToday bestselling author and Emmy-award winning news producer of 13 published works of fiction and nonfiction. A graduate of Harvard University in History, among her many writing awards: she was made a Fellow of the Antiquaries of Scotland (FSAScot) and won the Dorothy Parker Award of Excellence for Island of the Swans; was bestowed the Silver Gavel from the American Bar Association for magazine journalism; and was shortlisted in 2012 for the WILLA (Cather) Literary Award for A Race to Splendor. Her most recent novel is the contemporary That Spring in Paris, set in 2015–a spin-off from her historical novel, A Race to Splendor, set in the year following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and firestorm. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Visit Ciji at www.cijiware.com , www.facebook.com/cijiwarenovelist , and see her research photos for all her novels at www.pinterest.com/cijiware

6 Comments

  1. This topic is one about which I am passionate. It annoys me to find a character in a Regency novel wearing lace underpants (or, of course, any underpants), or to read a suspense novel in which the author thinks a Glock 17 is fully automatic. But for those who would never, ever think of calling or even writing someone for information, the Internet is a fertile field for research. For my current project, I was able to research online to find out how much a Model 1717 Charleville musket weighed, how tall it was, and the French military loading drill, because sometimes the experts write blogs. I was able to buy a DVD of John Rocque’s exquisitely detailed 1746 map of London and Westminster, so that when the protagonist had to run for it, he ran through alleys and yards and streets that were there at the time. Google Books supplied period cookbooks and other 18th century source material.

    • I totally agree that the Internet has been a tremendous boon to writers everywhere…and in my own case, has cut down by at least half the time it usually took me to produce a finished novel. I have to add, though, that there is something irreplaceable about “being there” when flood waters rose 23 feet, or walking through “Check Point Charlie” for the first time in Berlin without having to show my passport. My former life as a reporter has spoiled me, I know, because my bosses were paying for the plane tickets…but even in our own backyards, isn’t it a great feeling, sometimes, to dress in Regency clothing and be taught the gavotte–to get that feeling that “you are there?” I think we are so fortunate to be living in this time as writers…so many choices and so many different ways of getting to know the facts about the past. Loved your comments and research tips. Whether you physically go there, or drill down via the Internet–it’s often “going that extra mile” to ferret out the facts that grant your work “that telling detail” that makes your readers swoon with admiration! Brava!

      • Definitely, doing it in person gives a fabulous insight–when it’s possible. I myself have had experience of outdoor privies (used to be quite common on the further reaches of the AlCan Highway), dressing in the garb of several periods, sewing a dress by hand, and so forth. Spending 36 hours without electricity (gap between wiring project completed and being able to get an inspector out) gave me a bone-deep insight into life pre-electricity. We should all be aware of how we can use our own experiences to supplement research.

  2. I also strive for the most accurate information possible in my historical novels. As you said, readers don’t like to see mistakes in a story when they know about that topic. I sure don’t. I have a degree in history, so my pursuit of correct details comes from that training. I had never thought about the accuracy required in journalism as a training ground for historical writing. Perfect fit, though. Thank you for sharing this perspective.

  3. I suppose it was being at drama school which led to the obsession with historical accuracy. We had to do projects such as stage sets and historical costumes for period drama and I spent wonderful hours in the Victoria and Albert museum in London fixing details on cut and line, underwear and accessories to go with each character’s costume.
    Writing my historical novel about a novice Druid priestess was a little harder to get accurate information, as it was a period about 2000 years ago during the Roman occupation of Wales. but with Bangor university on our island home doorstep and museums full of Celtic finds it triggered the imagination.
    Then I came to write and was taken aback by the voice of the main character driving the story and adamant that I told the tale of her life as authentically as possible. She gave me Welsh words and terms I had not heard of, facts and visions of encounters and scenes. When I tried to stick to my plot she would interrupt and ask me to watch and listen to hear and see the past. I know that other writers have encountered such phenomena so I know I am not alone in this process.

  4. The website about the book Ceridwen helped me write is below.

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