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As most people can probably surmise, I am a lover of Historical Fiction, or to be more specific, Civil War Fiction. To me, there is nothing better than to discover a new novel set during the time of the “Great American Conflict”—I eagerly open the cover and delve right in, savoring the author’s words as if they were life-giving sustenance. Normally, if the author has correctly done his/her job, has tossed into the story the proper amount of historical details, the modern-day world around me completely disappears—those several hours I’ve spent with my nose buried in the pages become nothing less than a magical journey into the past. Therefore, the most unnerving thing that could possibly happen is when I come across a passage like the following—

Last year [the Confederate army] had met Grant at Chancellorsville, where Lee had won . . .

“WHAT???” I said to myself, “General Grant??? What about General Hooker??? This author is famous, has a slew of Historical novels on the shelf at Barnes & Noble, so it must be me, it must be, it must . . .”

Frantically, I read the jarring passage again and again, praying that somehow my eyes had played a nasty trick. Nope, I decided after the tenth rereading, my eyes were still working properly; it was, instead, the famous author—correction— the slipshod author who had, with that rather major error, shattered the fictional world and sent me crashing back to the present. The slipshod author who, with that tragic faux pas, had instantly lost all credibility. The slipshod author who has the audacity to claim professionalism, who has somehow “made it” in the publishing world while my thoroughly researched and re-researched and re-re-researched manuscripts are collecting dust in my home office.

At about that time (it usually happens sooner) the book violently left my hands, slamming into the nearest wall, while the author’s name etched itself into my brain as being someone whose vast library of published works I would forever avoid!

I kid you not, this actually happened to me earlier this year—I have the dent in my wall to prove it. The book in question? Crescent City by Belva Plain. The blurb on the back cover, supplied by a New York Times book reviewer, calls her the “Queen Of The Family Saga Writers.” Trust me, after how she wasted my time, I have several other choice monikers in mind.

Now I must ask, was I overreacting? I’m sure some folks would say “definitely.” They may be right, but Ms. Plain did something, that to me, is totally unforgivable . . . she allowed a grievous error in historical accuracy to slip through the cracks, thus tarnishing all of her beautiful prose and making her “historical accuracy” in Crescent City suspect. Yes, unforgivable!

The reason for my instant animus toward Ms. Plain? “Sour grapes,” some might conclude, seeing as how Ms. Plain is published and I am not. But in actuality, the answer is altogether different, and quite simple—as an author of Historical Fiction, my greatest fear is that a reader will one day find an error that will destroy the make-believe world I have so painstakingly attempted to create. I wholeheartedly believe that, as authors of Historical Fiction, we have a sacred duty to our readers to check and recheck our facts. Then, before we send the manuscript off to the agent or publisher, we must recheck them again. And even again, if we have any doubt. John Jakes knows it; Bernard Cornwell knows it; Eugenia Price, Cameron Judd, and a host of other Historical authors know it, and deliver the goods every time.

A close friend of mine, a decidedly non-Civil War buff whose opinion I nevertheless trust, did me the honor of “test reading” my first novel. One thing she said in her critique, I will never forget: “Not only did I enjoy the book, but I learned so much about the war.” Her statement was pure gold—thanks, Barb!—and since then, she has kept her eyes open for anything on television or in books related to the parts of my novel that intrigued her. In an essence, I had recruited a new Civil War buff. I had triumphed.

I am far from alone in my feelings. The other day, I had a lengthy discussion with a fellow author of Historical Fiction who admitted how she actually went so far in her research as to look up facts on vegetation growing in a specific area of the United States, praying she had properly described the “turning of the leaves” in her story. A kindred spirit, for certain. We laughed, of course, at our obsession with “getting it right,” but I know that neither of us will alter our habits. I also know that many authors of my acquaintance are equally haunted by this need for historical accuracy.

Then why is it that several recently-published works I’ve chanced upon are laden with faux pas? Is it simply that authors with “names” believe they are somehow excused from this—what I assume is an obvious—rule of thumb? Or are they simply too busy to check the facts? Or is there something more . . .

The following actually happened, although in this case, I will use no names, protecting both the innocent and the guilty.

At another website, I recently reviewed a short story by an unpublished author, who, for the first time, had stepped into the Historical Fiction arena. He fictionalized, of all things, the story of Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg, which fortunately (or unfortunately) for him, is my specialty. Within the space of 2,000 odd words, I counted more than 20 errors—some minuscule, some mammoth—but all which stood out like a elephant in a living room. As is my habit, I wrote a thorough critique, and, since it was my particular realm of expertise, felt obligated to detail the points of inaccuracy he needed to correct should he ever attempt to send out the story for publication.

His reply? A terse “thank you” before he launched into why he, as a writer of fiction, should not have to worry about the facts since it was, after all, fiction.

As one might imagine, his comment ignited a firestorm of controversy and indignation. Several “so-called” professional authors actually backed up his statement, encouraging him to continue on this (in my eyes, anyway) foolish path. In their opinion, it made no difference whether an author spelled Getysburgh (sic) correctly; nor whether the actual battle lasted 1 day or 3; nor whether, by the time of that battle, the war had been raging for 2 months or 3 years, since, to them, writing fiction gives one license to twist historical accuracy.

Needless to say, I was appalled. Just imagine, with that sort of convoluted logic, we could have President Garfield Goose sitting in the White House in, say, Pottersville, Michigan, declaring war on President Boris Badinoff of the Confederacy whose capitol is in Fairfield, Connecticut, and it would be perfectly acceptable.

But to whom??? Certainly not to myself, nor to the hundreds—nay—thousands of readers of Historical Fiction. What about credibility? Why encourage a new author to make these errors? Where do these supposed professionals come up with this utter crap?

I have no answers for any of these questions, but I wonder sometimes if this perplexing manner of thinking is a bit more wide-spread then I originally considered. Do these other authors truly know what they are saying? Am I wrong to dig through mountains of research and verify every tidbit? Is my author-friend who researched the vegetation simply wasting her time? Are any of us who are striving for 100% accuracy a stone’s throw away from the asylum of our future?

Perhaps the answer to all of these questions is a hearty “yes.”

If that is the case, then, Ms. Belva Plain, I humbly apologize for my earlier reproof. Now, I realize that you might have followed the logic of these authors—you might have intentionally made your “General Grant” statement in Crescent City because, rather than peruse a history book, you eventually decided—

“Hey, what the hell—it is fiction.”

© 1999, 2000, 2001 Trace Edward Zaber

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