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Historical details

by Sonia
(US)

My question concerns historical details. Sometimes, historical detail is so exotic or unfamiliar that it may raise an eyebrow or two. For example, if I write, "the fascists' green shirt", a reader might say, "Wow, hasn't this author ever heard of the Blackshirts?"


Then, would it be appropriate to footnote details as exotic as that? Of course, one has to be on guard against pedantry, and there is such a
thing as Google for the curious reader, but I would be afraid of turning off a reader by committing what might be perceived as a serious mistake. How do you handle this?

ANSWER

Yes, historical details can pose tricky challenges. You want to be accurate, but you don’t want readers to think you’re misinformed. I understand.

In most historical novels, the publisher will encourage author’s notes at the end of the book that make it possible to address oddities or anything the reader might wish to know more about.

I would not recommend footnotes to clarify historical details if the story is intended for a general reading audience, and not specifically for academics.

You will spend a lot of time to successfully create a fictional world filled with historical details. If you do your job well, readers will immerse themselves in that world. Your goal is to have readers forget about reality and “live” in the world of your story for the time it takes them to read it.

For this reason, it’s important to avoid anything that will nudge readers out of the fictional world and remind them that they are back in Omaha, or Calgary, or Seattle, however momentarily. A footnote explaining why one term is used and not another would stall the reading.

If historical details need explanation, you might devise a way to seamlessly work the explanation into the characters' actions and dialogue. But first consider whether the explanation is necessary because often it is not.

Readers fully immersed in a story will willingly “suspend their disbelief,” so it’s more important to create plausible characters involved in purposeful action that engages readers.

If an interesting character has a strong goal and is trying to attain something, readers will latch onto that goal. They will hope that the character succeeds, and their main focus will be on the steps the character is taking to achieve his or her goal.

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