I’m excited to invite Maryann Miller to the blog today to talk about being historically accurate in writing fiction! It’s absolutely fascinating. Maryann’s also giving away a copy of her book Boxes for Beds, so keep reading!
Making It Real
by Maryann Miller
Thanks so much for inviting me to be your guest today, Julie. I’m happy to be here to write about historical accuracy in fiction. Getting it right is so important in books, television and film. People don’t like to be tripped up on their trips down memory lane because something is glaringly wrong, like a car in the wrong time period, or someone using an electric coffee pot when they were not invented yet.
In film and television there is a special person to handle continuity – making sure that the right things are in the right place at the right time. In television series such as Vegas, which is set in the 60’s, the continuity person makes sure that any modern vehicles are out of the scene about to be shot, as well as ensuring that everything else in range of the camera fits the era.
We writers have to do that for ourselves, although a good editor can help us spot discrepancies.
When I was doing research for my latest book, Boxes For Beds, which is also set in the 60s, I found a lot of accurate information that I could use. Primary to the storyline is the fact that the mob controlled Hot Springs, Arkansas from 1920 to the early 60s. I had to make sure that the mob had not been chased out prior to 1960, and I was glad to discover that they had not.
The central character, Leslie, is a single mother who was never married and attitudes toward unwed mothers were not the same as they are today. Girls who got pregnant prior to the later 60s were often ostracized and forced to give their babies up for adoption. The stigma of being “a scarlet woman” did begin to ease somewhat in the mid-sixties, so to be sure that subplot would work the story had to be set a few years earlier. I chose to use 1961, which was well before attitudes started to change.
That created a bit of conflict with another sub plot that centers on the Civil Rights movement. One of the reasons that the sheriff does not like Leslie is that he thinks she is “One of those Yankee do-gooders come here to tell us how to treat our nigras.”
To tie the two sub-plots together I needed some of the sit-ins and other attempts to break color barriers to take place in Hot Springs and the fictional small town of Pine Hollow before they did historically. While the Civil Rights Movement started in the late 50s, not much happened in Arkansas until 1964. That was too close to when the mob was chased out of Hot Springs, for my comfort, so I decided to have fictional sit-ins take place in Pine Hollow in 1961. I wrestled with the decision to play loose with that bit of history, but finally decided that I would, as long as I made a full disclosure in the acknowledgements so the reader would be prepared.
All three of the plot elements – the mob control of the area, attitudes about unwed mothers, and the Civil Rights movement – were integral to motivations. When babies are kidnapped in the small town of Pine Hollow, the sheriff, who is controlled by the mob bosses, is under pressure to solve the case without calling in the Feds. A convenient scapegoat, Leslie, has just moved there from New York. Locals are already speculating about her and her daughter and the lack of a man around.
The book was just released the first week of March, and so far readers have not been upset at my altering the true historical events. For that, I am very thankful. I made every effort to make all the other details accurate, including the electric coffee pot.
Do you alter history or true facts in your writing? Is total historical accuracy important to you as a reader? What will you accept and what won’t you accept?
Maryann Miller has won numerous awards for her screenplays and short fiction, including the Page Edwards Short Fiction Award, the New York Library Best Books for Teens Award, and first place in the screenwriting competition at the Houston Writer’s Conference. She has been writing all her life and plans to die at her computer or out in her garden in the beautiful Piney Woods of East Texas where she lives with her husband, one horse, one goat, one sheep, one dog and four cats. The cats rule.
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Many thanks to Maryann for her guest blog! Remember, to be entered for a chance to win her Boxes for Beds, leave a comment below!