Let’s start with the important distinction between “verisimilitude”—which gives the reader the feeling of being transported fully and seamlessly into a particular place and time—and “accuracy,” which aims at reproducing historical facts. Obviously, we do our best to avoid anachronisms—that is, introducing a word or an object that wasn’t around in that time period. Putting a Starbucks in 1870s London would diminish both the verisimilitude and the accuracy. But sometimes, verisimilitude and accuracy are at odds. For example, in a recent talk to members of Sisters in Crime (https://www.sistersincrime.org/), Susan Elia MacNeal (http://www.susaneliamacneal.com/) explained that in doing research for her WWII-era Maggie Hope series, she read Winston Churchill’s correspondence and discovered that he used “OMG” as an abbreviation for “Oh My God.” But she doesn’t include that in her novels because the reader would perceive it as teen-text shorthand and assume it was an anachronism. So while it would be “accurate” to include “OMG” when referencing Churchill, it wouldn’t heighten the sense of “verisimilitude.” And as authors, we are striving to immerse our readers in the story, to avoid introducing something that might jolt them out of it and cause them to question the veracity of our narrator.
Each post, I will be sharing one strategy I use for writing historical fiction. Of course, different methods work for different writers, so take what works for you and pitch the rest over your right shoulder, or into oblivion!
As an example, let’s take Collins’s The Woman in White (1860), which is set in London. Before I began my second book, A Dangerous Duet, also set in London during this period, I took a pen and paper and begin combing through Collins’s novel with an eye for objects, phrases, and vocabulary, transcribing them verbatim. After only the first two pages, here is my list, with my own notes in parentheses:
London pavement (*not sidewalks)
Autumn (*not fall)
My mother’s cottage at Hampstead and my own chambers in town
Father was a drawing-master before me
University of Padua
Gaiters and a white hat
Sea at Brighton, bathing in, bathing machine
Because I had an idea about my plot and main character, I transcribed only those words that I thought would be relevant, but I do keep a 3-ring notebook with growing lists of general 1870s vocabulary, along with specific, separate pages with headings such as “London Streets,” “London Home Upper Middle Class (servant titles, objects),” “Railway stations/travel,” “England – professions,” and so on. Using loose-leaf paper means I can just keep adding – and I use the back side for taping in photos or illustrations when I can find them. For “London Streets,” the list begins: costermongers, pavement, cobbles, chandler - smell of tallow (cheaper than wax), Macassar oil, apothecary, curb, macadam, haberdashery, milliner, horse leavings, bakery, umbrellas, hansom cabs (also cabs, cabriolets), Pantechnicon vans, gas lamps, wrought iron fences and balustrades (not on ground floor, first storey and up), bicycles, Metropolitan policemen (uniform - dark blue coat with brass buttons, hat that is reinforced so can serve as stool in a pinch, carry truncheons but no guns) …
The point isn’t to pack your book with as many of these words or phrases as possible but to have them at your fingertips when needed, so you can feather them in to create a delicious “otherworldliness.” That said, you don’t want to frustrate your reader. When using unfamiliar words—such as "truncheon," perhaps, or "antimacassar"—try to provide enough context that the reader can infer the meaning. Some readers have told me they prefer reading my books on kindle because tapping a word brings up the definition. I appreciated this nudge, and now I take extra care when using those era-specific words.
That’s all for this week. Come back soon for another topic and tip!