Friday, July 01, 2011

Historical Inaccuracies Rule!

Try to avoid anachronisms
One of the challenges of writing historical fiction for children is to balance accuracy and fun. It's no good having a bazillion accurate facts if the books are dry as dust. And it's no good telling a ripsnorting yarn if your story isn't at least 95% accurate.

In my Roman Mysteries I was meticulous about getting historical details, events and people as accurately as possible, but I made my hero – the 10-year-old detectrix Flavia Gemina – as independent as any 21st century schoolgirl. Maybe more so. I needed to make Flavia and her pals accessible so that children could identify with them and enter the world and so absorb the details of the period. It was a balancing act, challenging but fun. I tried not to let too many inaccuracies creep in, but one or two per book were necessary. 

Virginia City re-enactor
I have the same problem with my new Western Mysteries series, set in Virginia City, Nevada Territory, in 1862. To me it is deeply thrilling. I have the Civil War, Indian battles, the Salting of Silver Mines, Runaway Slaves, Mark Twain & other priceless primary sources. Plus Virginia City is still there and chock full of museums, mine shafts, lively saloons (!) and historical re-enactors. But it's still going to be a hard sell to children aged 9+ in the UK. To them this time and place is deeply unsexy. Their grandfathers liked Western movies for heaven's sake. How uncool is that? 

So, in a bid to make the period immediately engaging and fun, I went to five of the most famous visual images of the Western: blazing six-shooters, the Stetson hat, sheriff's badges, swinging saloon doors and WANTED posters. The problem is, all five of these iconic artefacts are basically myth. Especially in Nevada Territory in 1862. But I decided to indulge myself with two of them. 
the author with replica Colt & badge

Myth #1 - Blazing six-shooters
This is the image of 90% of the Westerns you see on TV or in cinemas. The myth is so strong it has spawned Cowboy Fast Draw as a new sport, especially popular in states like Nevada and Arizona, where almost anybody can carry a loaded firearm. I had huge fun in May at the Genoa Cowboy Festival. I got to fire a revolver at targets with wax-filled cartridges. Anything under 1 second is considered good. The champions can draw, cock, fire and hit the target in under half a second. 
Denied! At the time my books are set – 1862-63 – cartridges were brand new. Most guns needed to be painstakingly loaded with black powder, cap, ball and wad. (I've tried this, too.) With this kind of ammo, misfires are common. When you DO hit something they often set the victim's clothes on fire. How often do we see that in movies? In old westerns, a bullet means instant death. In reality people often survived after being shot multiple times. That myth I can bust. Accounts of real historical shootouts are exciting, shocking and sometimes even amusing. 

Sheriff Tom Peasley
Myth #2 - Sheriff Badges, etc. 
Think of Gary Cooper in High Noon, dropping his badge in the dust as his response to the refusal of the town to acknowledge its authority. Or Henry Fonda in The Tin Star, where the sheriff's badge symbolises his redemption. Surely that's not a myth?
Denied! During my last research trip to Virginia City I learned that lawmen did not wear badges until 1874, a full dozen years after my first book is set. Nor did marshals, sheriffs or police (yes they had them too) wear any distinctive uniform for many years. So how did you know you were facing the law? Fascinating. I'm going to use the reality here, too, as it could provide lots of drama. But I'll carry on wearing my Virginia City Deputy Sheriff's star to parties and book launches.
The Duke in his hat

Myth #3 - Stetson Hats
Ten-gallon hats, Stetson hats & cowboy hats! Think of Steve McQueen and his disgustingly realistic-looking sweat-stained hat in The Magnificent Seven. Or John Wayne and his famous white(ish) cowboy hat. (right) Surely those are a legitimate icon of the 1860s? 
Denied! Most men in Virginia City wore something Dickens would have worn. Mr. Stetson didn't sell his first hat until 1865, a few years after my books are set. Mark Twain, (my vocabulary source for 1862), describes himself as arriving in Virginia City with a slouch hat, a soft felt hat usually of brown or black. That's the type of hat my character is wearing on the front cover of my book. So in my books my male characters wear plug hats, stovepipe hats or slouch hats. And my women are almost universally in bonnets. The dude on the black and white carte de visite up above is Tom Peasley, a famous Virginia City Sheriff from 1866.  

Myth #4 - Swinging Saloon Doors
Is there anything more iconic (or fun) about a wild Western town than The Stranger swinging in through those butterfly doors? The piano player stops, the room goes silent, everybody turns to stare and you can be sure there will be a fist-fight or a shootout before long.
Denied! One scholarly resident of Virginia City tells me that saloons there never had the famous swinging doors so beloved of Western movies. One reason may have been the hurricane force wind fondly known by the locals as the "Washoe Zephyr". It was strong enough to blow off tin roofs and carry away small mammals. 
El Indio

Myth #5 - WANTED posters
Think of all those great Western movies where the WANTED poster tells you exactly what the bad guy looks like. One of my personal favourites is in Sergio Leone's For a Few Dollars More, where the evil laughing baddie El Indio is freeze-framed mid-cackle and the image becomes his WANTED poster. 
Denied! My Nevada historian friend assures me that WANTED posters from the 1860s and 1870s were probably printed handbills with a plain verbal description. I have a replica of the WANTED poster for Lincoln's assassin up on my wall and she's right. Exclamation points, yes. Pictures, no. 

But swinging saloon doors and WANTED posters are iconic images from the Western genre, so I've decided that both of these particular myths will appear in my book and on my website. I want to tell readers – especially young readers – that this is a series about the Wild West, with cowboys and indians; gambling and drinking; horses and mules; guns and knives; action and excitement. I can do that instantly with saloon doors and WANTED posters.
So the naughty swinging doors became the portal to my website and the illustrated WANTED poster became the cover image for the book.

Wisely used, historical inaccuracies can be the spice to bring the past to life, but like spice they should be used sparingly and knowingly. The historical author should know exactly what she is doing and why. Inaccuracies through ignorance are not allowed, so if I get something wrong, don't be afraid to tell me! 

The Case of the Deadly Desperados is the Telegraph Family Book Club choice for June. Read the review and see questions for book group discussion HERE

1 comment:

  1. What a fascinating list of 'true and false' Western iconography! I totally agree a writer has to use the odd anachronism here and there - but only after careful thought... Looks like you had a lot of fun researching the series!