Historical Accuracy in Writing

Hi Jim,

I was wondering how important you feel it is to portray history accurately, even in a fantasy universe?

Thanks,
Mike


Hi Mike,

It really depends on how close to reality your story is. If you’re doing a sort-of ‘what if’ story, you can pretty much do whatever you want… to a point.

I’d say no matter what the case, you really do want to get some things right. You’ll want to be careful and do your research regarding things like what sort of items were available at the time, the personas of any people you’d be portraying, and the circumstances around what historical events you’re talking about.

Writing about history, even in a fictitious manner can be damaging. Let me give you a few examples…

I hate this movie for a number of reasons. Fast forward to 1:50 and watch what happens…

The Japanese open fire on Civilians and medical staff at the hospital in Pearl Harbor.

Sorry to swear, but this is bullshit! 100% bullshit and it really pisses me off. This scene is an attempt to #1 Put the heroine in harms way, #2 Needlessly over-vilify the bad guys.

Look, the attack on Pearl Harbor was terrible and the Japanese military was guilty of a lot of things, but attacking the Hospital was NOT one of them. This is easily researched, easily found documented history that the Japanese did NOT attack the hospital, even when they had a clear shot, they would not open fire.

This understandably pissed off the Japanese, Vets, and historians alike as anyone who knew ANYTHING about the Pearl Harbor attack, knew full well that the Japanese pilots were under strict orders not to attack civilian targets, and survivors note that even when they had a straight line of attack, the Japanese did not once attack the hospital itself.

Michael Bay himself OPENLY ADMITTED that the scene was added because it made the attack seem more barbaric.

That… is just wrong and the excuse that this movie is fiction doesn’t protect it.

One other example… and this one is more the fault of a misreading of history and inaccurate reporting by the American Press… imagine, the American Press wrongfully smearing someone’s reputation.

Okay, this one is a little bit more tricky, so let’s dive into the actual history a little more…

At that point in time (Early 1900s), it was considered noble for the captain, crew, and pretty much everyone over 13 with a penis to go down with the ship while everyone else made for the boats. At the very least, this was the attitude of American journalists at the time.

As such, Ismay, seen as ‘another captain’ by many was smeared for being a coward and, again per the media, jumping into a lifeboat while women and children were still on the deck:

 

Unfortunately, this movie follows that narrative and further smears the reputation of Ismay.

Here’s the problem with this… Ismay was a passenger. He wasn’t the captain. That role fell to Captain Edward J. Smith. He was the man that failed to heed ice warnings, did not slow his ship when ice was reported directly in his path, did not issue a general abandon ship order, allowed lifeboats to leave the sinking ship partially filled, and even confused which ship he was on by ordering lifeboats to be launched from the promenade deck, which was enclosed on the Titanic. The Olympic had lifeboats there.

He is directly responsible for the loss of the Titanic, he is ultimately responsible for all the failures of the command structure on board, and the tragic life that was needlessly lost.

… But he went down with the ship.

Ismay on the other hand was seen helping and urging passengers into lifeboats and even helped lower them away. There are witness accounts to this. Further, witnesses say that he was actually ordered into the lifeboat as there was no one else in the vicinity.

‘Had he not jumped in he would simply have added one more life, namely his own, to the number of those lost.’
-High Court judge Lord Mersey,  British enquiry into the loss of Titanic

But because he survived, while Smith went down with the ship, Ismay is continuously smeared to this day. The clip I provided showing Ismay convincing Smith to light the final boilers is pure fiction. The boilers were already lit, and there is no evidence nor witness testimony that Ismay acted outside of his place as a passenger. He lived out the rest of his life in shame, labelled a coward.

Meanwhile, Smith has a statue in Beacon Park, Lichfield, Staffordshire, England. He is portrayed as a noble man in most works, and there are even unsubstantiated stories of him placing a child into one of the boats before swimming off into the night.

Do you see now the importance of getting history right, even in a fictitious universe? A quick look at the facts surrounding the history, and Cameron could have made the bold move of helping to rightfully clear Ismay’s name. Instead he followed the bandwagon and furthered the narrative that the man was a coward who jumped into a lifeboat willingly and left women and children to die.

My advice to you is to take as much license as you like when writing history into fantasy, just take care not to wrongfully smear anyone who doesn’t deserve it… and be ready for the historical nitpickers to pull everything apart if you didn’t get the history right.

Remember, the First Three Rules of Writing History:
Research, Reseach, and God Help You If You Don’t Research!!!



Readers,

Do you have a question about writing, publishing, my stories, etc? Please feel free to post a comment or email me.
jimthewritingwizard@gmail.com
I’ll use those comments to select my next blog post.

I have been writing for several years, have 4 published works, experience with publishing and independent work, so I can hopefully be of assistance.
Please note, I only do one of these a day and will do my best to respond to everyone, but it may take some time.

You can also add me on Twitter!

Also, feel free to check out my works of Fantasy and Historical Fiction, Available on Amazon and where ever books are sold. See the link below:

http://www.amazon.com/James-Harrington/e/B00P7FBXTU

Thanks friends!
Catch you on the flip side!

-Jim

 

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3 thoughts on “Historical Accuracy in Writing

  1. Really interesting article. It’s definitely true how sometimes good fiction can obscure historical fact. Some authors do take creative license with historical events to suit their purposes.

    Like

  2. AlanMiller says:

    Good examples. Wasn’t aware of the pearl Harbor movie inaccuracy but then I never saw it cause I heard it was dreck anyway

    Like

  3. jrlarner says:

    I think the problem is that ‘lay’ people/readers who do not know the history concerned think because it deal with real events or people it must be 100% true. They don’t seem to notice the ‘fiction’ part, so you do need to be careful.It’s nothing new though, many think Shakespeare’s Richard III is history, when it is full of errors and exaggerations for dramatic licence.

    Like

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