Historical Accuracy vs Artistic Choice

So I’m on the fence about a design decision… I’m trying to write a fictional story set in a real past Americas, starting just before the civil war and continuing onwards from then. The problem lies in me wanting to insert something that rolls off the tip of your tongue easily and leaves a mark, rather than having to bother with say WHEN a town was established, or whether or not that town saw any river traffic for that time period. Or for that matter, what type of ships.

And I just know there’s gonna be some history buff whose sole purpose in life is nitpicking out any such pointless details, and it will just gut me. Like twisting a knife between clenched teeth or err…some such. Or at least annoy me to high heaven. For you see, while the story is fictional, I’m trying to make a point. A social commentary type of thing. And I worry that that point might be lost, or at least diminished if I take too many liberties with the already established and recorded history.

It’s easy to say, oh that president spoke to that person on that day, because not every day of a person is recorded, and certainly not every hour. It can’t be disputed by anyone with access to Wikipedia is what I’m saying. Even something like a really big event could be said to have been covered up or intentionally misrepresented/unintentionally misremembered. But when it comes to things like when a certain technology was invented/implemented or settling towns, those things are usually properly recorded, and it wouldn’t make much sense to have all of them be coverups or similar.

So, what are your thoughts? How much inaccuracy is too much? Will you swallow the camel but choke on the fly?

Usually when I’m dealing with a historic period that might be problematic or hard to research I create a fictional place, usually a nameless one, to make clear that I’m taking liberties.

Anyway, about historical inaccuracy.
Stuff like Toilets in a medieval setting are too off.
Tomatoes and Cucumbers for the same setting are wrong too, but more acceptable.
pre-Julius Caesar Rome with arching bridges, wheelbarrows and horse collars usually doesn’t even catch my attention.

Its sincerely more about the writing than the historicity, if it the image doesn’t feel odd the people won’t usually notice.

TL;DR: It depends.

The more clearly fictionalized, silly, or otherwise not beholden to reality the setting is, the more leeway it gets, while the more it’s presented as historically real, the less it gets before suspension of disbelief collapses.

Even that’s not hard and fast though, because relevancy and shorthand plays a role. For example, if you have Irish medieval peasants growing potatoes, I might give you a pass even in an otherwise highly realistic setting, as it’s clearly shorthand for “these people are dirt poor and probably starving” thanks to The Great Famine giving potatoes a certain cultural connotation for Ireland.

On the other hand, a somewhat silly, but still relatively realistic fictionalized Romanesque Emperor eating corn is going to, at the very least, greatly annoy me. And in that case calling it maize only makes it worst, because you’re showing enough knowledge of history that you really should know how wrong you are. (And if you call it something like naadą́ą́, personally I’m going over to something like just fricken bewildered, and I’m going to be wondering if you’re not planning up to something.)

I’d say, make sure to get the most recognizable specific names and places right, like Gettysburg and Lincoln.

Other than that, just don’t put obviously too-high-tech stuff in there - the civil war was still in the infancy of american railroads, and steam-ships had only just begun catching on. There was no telegraph or phones, no automatic weapons, no cars, no electricity or modern medicine.

I think if “what type of ships” is too much to research, I have to ask from the standpoint of the detail nuts what purpose setting it specifically in a “real past America” serves, as opposed to a world very like that but not Bourbon County in August 1855.

I’m not trying to suggest every little detail has to be exactly perfect - it’s difficult enough to do that with exhaustive research, but there’s “Okay, so maybe Robert E. Lee didn’t use this exact phrase”, and then there’s having the 5th New York’s Gatling guns stop Pickett’s Charge.

“What type of ships” is coming off as having to ask if the author cares. I’m fairly sure you meant that just as an example of “small details”, but those are the kind of small details that do make it possible to believe you’re actually showing a place that could have been in 1855 even if you don’t get the number of kernels in a given piece of corn right.



The message, “What hath God wrought?” sent later by “Morse Code” from the old Supreme Court chamber in the United States Capitol to his partner in Baltimore, officially opened the completed line of May 24, 1844.

This is something that as a(n amateur) historian I would expect to be recognized in a work covering this period - the telegraph was used extensively in the ACW.

Okay, so I’m posting from the perspective of some random guy on the internet and didn’t do any research at all before making my post, but I suspect that’s the kind of thing I would have looked up if I was ACTUALLY going to write something on the Civil War. And that it starts to get close to the kind of “nitpicking” mutonElite is concerned about.

I admit that it’s a major piece of technology that you really need to get right if you’re serious about writing a story. But the “you are being inaccurate!!” attitude is what I’m talking about here. Just look at Hollywood, they still tell entertaining stories despite, for example, almost completely ignoring orbital mechanics in Gravity.

Aaand I’m getting off-topic and combative. Sorry, shutting up now.

History Student whose sole purpose in life is nitpicking out pointless details and writing meaningless posts (or as my professors call them, “response papers”) about them here!

Generally speaking, exact dates aren’t too important. Unless the exact chronology of your story exists in contradiction to major historical events (meeting Lincoln in Connecticut on the day of the Gettysburg Address, for example), there’s really no need to count hours. I wouldn’t worry too much about it, unless you’re setting your story around major historical events, in which case, you should probably put some effort into getting those right.

In any case, you’ll never manage perfect historical accuracy, even if you put in years of research, especially if you need to bend the records for the sake of your story. Not only are there going to be blank spots in the historical record, there are also ongoing academic disputes regarding certain points of contention. The respective strengths of armies in major battles, for example: the defeated side tend to inflate the size of the winning force to make their defeat more excusable. The victors tend to inflate the size of the losing army to make their own victory more impressive. You even see this all the way up to the Second World War, and to some extent, in less scrupulous media outlets today. The historical record isn’t an objective thing, rather a record of the past as recorded by subjective witnesses, and studied by subjective experts with their own biases and prejudices. While there’s a consensus on a vast majority of major historical events and trends, there are still the ragged edges, and what might seem fine to one historian, might stand out as a glaring error to others.

What’s more important is what some media critics call “historicity”, or what can be described as “look and feel”. This is the part of history that often gets ignored, because it doesn’t show up on standardised tests, but it’s also what you should be concentrating on if you’re looking for authenticity. It’s a hard thing to quantify, but I suppose the best way to sum it up is to divide it into three questions: “how did people live?”, “how did people think?” and “how did people exist in relation to each other?”

The first question is probably the easiest, because you’re dealing mostly with material affairs: what technologies are available, what’s been or hasn’t been built, what’s in fashion, what is considered outdated, or too gauche. If you’re setting your story in a specific time, you’d want to study how people worked, what people ate, how they worked, what they wore (there’s a special hell for people who assume any style of clothing will do for a specific historical setting just because it "looks old). There’s plenty of examples of all this stuff widely available though, and generally speaking, it’s pretty easy to fill in any blanks in your knowledge with a simple google search.

Directly related to this is the second question, and this is more important to you as a writer than as a historian: The past truly is a different country, with different mores, manners, and personal priorities. It’s important that you take that into account, but it’s also rather difficult to pull off: while some of the details (like period dialects) can be fudged for the sake of comprehensibility, you’ll want the general patterns of behaviour and manners down: things like the ways people sign their letters, or greet each other on the street help establish “this is the past” to a casual reader, and “the author did their research” to a more studied (or anal-retentive) one. In any case, you’ll definitely want to do some research on how people any particular time thought of themselves, the world, and the people around them, which leads onto the final question: how individuals see themselves and others within their society.

People don’t exist in a vacuum. Perhaps the most important part of a person’s thought is how they view not just other individuals, but the broad categories of people outside their personal sphere which they have no personal experience or empathy with: who would a given person consider acceptable to associate with? Who would they find below them, or above them, and how would they treat those people? Find out the different ways which people of different genders, races, and social stations interacted with each other. Likewise whether you plan on actually implementing historically accurate attitudes of racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism is entirely up to you, but keep in mind that a lot of the ways which people interact with each other are informed by these prejudices on an unconscious level. If you want your historical fiction to fit together, you’re going to need to take that into account.

Just some thoughts, feel free to take them or leave them.

PS: @Elfwine
As a huge naval history nerd, I would go ballistic if someone messed up by say, putting hermaphrodite cruisers or galleons with overbuilt castles in the 1850s. It’s that sort of error that really throws off the history buff.

Generally, it helps to determine what the big things you need to get right are, and what things will get a pass simply out of obscurity or the simple expedient of “it’s still plausible, there are rare historical examples.”

I’ll shut up now.



Yes, it can be a great story. It can also be a great story and accurate.

The two are not mutually exclusive concerns, and with something like this, this is not some obscure factoid - or at least it’s not an obscure factoid to people who know enough about the ACW to be checking for historical accuracy. Getting it wrong messes up the, as Cataphrak put it, “historicity” and thus the story…

I’m not trying to pick on you, but your statement there gave a great example of why I prefer being a nitpicker (and to repeat myself) - missing the historicity hurts my ability to enjoy the story, it’s not incidental to the value of the story anymore than characterization is.

@Cataphrak Yeah. I think the main thing on the finer details is to get them close enough to right to be within a rounding error of the truth, as it were - but referring to Major General Buford at Gettysburg is the kind of error that if you were doing the research you would get why it would set a nitpicker like me off, so missing it bugs me more than whether anyone spelled “Bobby Lee” with an -ie or an i.

One can be “Sure, I suppose”, the other is a subtle but meaningful slip up.

Using the “you, a person being addressed” you.

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XD Wow, a real can of worms huh. I can see it won’t get any easier going forward. Buuuut, I wasn’t suggesting that I fudge the big stuff. At least not the way I see it. I was hoping to fudge things like the founding and population numbers of towns.

Or rather, sorta make the silent assumption, not claim it outright but juuuust look the other way in a, nothing to see here folks kinda way. And unless you ARE a history buff or living in that very town and happens to know the exact date of the founding and all that; I would be VERY, VERY surprised if you noticed anything.
And rather than having some derelict barge traffic a river, I’m looking to put more of a traditional cruise riverboat on it. Again, it’s in the ballpark, but not dead on the numbers. For instance, that river stretch and the two particular towns did see SOME river traffic, just not enough to actually warrant a line of public transportation. It’s just that for that particular river stretch, and the available towns by the river, those two I’ve selected READ the best.

For the sake of clarity, one of the towns only ever saw 1 single boat dock during that time period, so it wasn’t really as big a place as I’d want it to be at that time, and the other isn’t formally founded until 9 years later. So isn’t exactly a metropolis either. They just happen to have much more interesting names (by FAR) than the towns that were actually big enough to see a bit more traffic.

As for research, I find that it mostly serves to stifle my creativity, but I don’t want it to get too inaccurate either, and as you can see, I have looked up a lot of stuff already. I was planning on including something like diary entries, so the exact date will be there to see. I will include some big events (hopefully done right), but mainly they just serve as a backdrop to the overarching plot, which isn’t as grounded.

As a historian who loves historical fiction, I think you might want at look at this a bit differently.

The important thing is not whether something actually happened, but whether it could have happened.

Let’s say your MC is in a fictional small town on the Mississippi just before the Civil War, and you want the MC to have a chance encounter with Ulysses Grant. (Maybe they’ll meet again later when Grant is a general, and this meeting will somehow advance the plot.) That’s entirely plausible because Grant was living in St. Louis at the time, and you could invent some reason for him to travel the river. He wasn’t in your town in real life, obviously, but he could have been. Why would he come to your town? He was in bad shape financially at the time, so maybe the reason has to do with money…

Now you have possibilities for plot and character development, and it doesn’t matter much whether any of it actually happened. Research should inspire creativity, not stifle it.

On the other hand, if your MC and Grant get invited to a dinner party, you had better read up on Victorian dining etiquette, or your dinner party scene will come off as lazy and unrealistic. You don’t have to be a history buff to tell when an author is getting that sort of thing wrong.

Fortunately, this period is very well documented. There are books written specifically for fiction authors who want to set their stories in mid-1800s America (my local library has one), and they are fantastic. Throw in a few little details here and there. Maybe include a historically accurate description of someone making coffee. That sort of thing can go a long way.

I would try not to rely too much on sites like Wikipedia. They are fine for cold, dry facts, but they won’t help you bring your setting to life.

Got a name for that book perchance?

@MutonElite Here it is:

Michael Varhola, Everyday Life During the Civil War. Writer’s Digest Books, 1999.


Much obliged. Thank you. :smile:

I got to say that’s some fantastic advise you game.

If you’re going to do historical fiction you got understand the social history. It doesn’t have to be 100% accurate as they say but you have to understand the reality of the time So the world feels plausible. I think the hardest thing to get down would be honestly the way people talk. We only good idea back from letters at best. But at same time to help people viewed each other from different social classes the difference between race and gender and specially in America where we are for all of awkward perspectives.

I’m going to start off by saying @Cataphrak and @BabbleYaggle both say a lot of what I would.

What I am going to do is talk about historical focus - this is what I believe will make or break your story:

You want to use a historical place like Dodge City but you want to make the founding of Dodge City, 1843 instead of 1872 - this is the crux of the question.

My answer to you is this: Is your Dodge City in 1843 the center of a thriving and wild cattle market, where long-horn are all taken in from all over and processed, packed into trains and then shipped to Chicago and New York while everything else in your history was real-life historical?

If so, then I’d be really bothered by this - my mind would be yelling to me that the Railroads, the cattle-runs and the Urban markets of New York and Chicago all were not there in 1843 … and so-forth.

If instead your Dodge City of 1843 was a town like any other in that part of Kansas in the 1840’s and you are using the setting to establish fictional characters that could realistically been there during that time - I’d be ok with this.

Likewise with things like toilets - @MKVP says they wouldn’t be o.k. with that but since Elizabeth had established water closets during her reign, I personally would be o.k. with more advanced models (but not modern) of such early designs being in that era … but if you are talking about the early 12th century then, I’d be looking for Jakes or slits or trenches and such …

I really think the best thing to do would be to get a demo out in the wild and then find various testers like @Elfwine and such that have a good historical knowledge base and see what they find o.k. and not.

Theory is so hard to discuss at times.

Edit - I just realized this thread was more then 2 years old. Sorry to contribute to a necro.

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