Avoiding amateur writing mistakes (Hist-fic edition)

These are some of the things I’ve either been guilty of myself or seen in other historical books or films. Speaking from my own experience, these are honest mistakes pretty much everyone goes through. Some can also be applied to other genres.

1. Packing in everything but the kitchen sink syndrome. Prime examples are the TV miniseries The ’60s and The ’70s, which forced in every single major news story, social movement, political event, piece of pop culture, etc., of those decades. What are the odds every single person in one family or group of friends would be involved with every single thing that happened in a decade?

2. Not enough historical detail. So many of my earliest drafts had almost zero connection to their respective eras. This is the opposite extreme from gut-loading your story with every single thing that ever happened in that decade.

3. Clichés. E.g., thinking a 1920s story has to revolve around flappers, automatically setting your story about immigrants to the U.S. in the Lower East Side, or being unable to think outside of the Imperial Russian Court.

4. Gossip Girl in period clothes. I see too much of this in YA historicals published in the U.S. in recent years, and was guilty of it myself as a preteen. At least my excuse was extreme youth. Just make your story a contemporary and be done with it. Don’t pretend it’s a historical yet give all your characters very modern values, speech, and ideas, with cheap, lazy window-dressing like an occasional mention of popular music or news stories.

5. Assuming everyone in that decade had monolithic experiences. E.g., assuming every single person in the Sixties was a hippie and anti-war protestor. If your story’s set in a small, rural town far from a large city, that’s highly unlikely to reflect your characters’ reality.

6. Vague, generic, underdeveloped ideas. It’s good to have a general idea of where you want to go and what you want to write about, but even episodic stories that are deliberately slower-paced and more about character development need to be hung on some kind of arc. It’s not enough to aimlessly write about 1840s Boston, 1920s NYC, or 1780s Charleston.

7. Only focusing on the biggest events of a decade. While I’d look askance at, e.g., a 1940s historical where WWII is barely mentioned, or a late 1960s historical with no mention of Vietnam, it shouldn’t be the book’s entire focus. People had other things going on in their lives, and there were plenty of other major historical events! Your book doesn’t have to revolve around Vietnam, flappers, or the Spanish Inquisition.

8. Using contemporary hist-fic to waltz down memory lane. There has to be a real reason your story’s set in the last few decades, beyond happily name-dropping all your fave bands, movies, and TV shows, and rattling off jokes about then-current events. Don’t force all your memories and fave raves into the story.

9. Reading too much and understanding too little (i.e., failing to research important details). E.g., seeing a list of movies from a certain year, and having your characters see them months before they were in theatres, or having guys of all ages randomly being drafted to Vietnam. When I discovered how the draft lottery really worked, I had to make Ricky two years older than Adicia in Little Ragdoll. That important storyline wouldn’t have worked had they been the same age.

10. Assuming your setting’s modern-day demographics were historically true as well. Just recently I discovered Atlantic City had quite a large Jewish community in the first half of the 20th century, a far cry from its modern form. There were dozens of synagogues; many kosher restaurants, groceries, bakeries, candy stores, and restaurants; religious schools; and Jewish hotels and other businesses.

11. Perpetuating popular misunderstandings. E.g., having everyone married by 18, and marrying your female characters to men several decades older. Outside of royalty, high society, and the American frontier, large age gaps weren’t that common, and most women weren’t married till their twenties.

Are there any other amateur mistakes you’d add?

6 thoughts on “Avoiding amateur writing mistakes (Hist-fic edition)

  1. “Writing about ice-skating” – or an unfamiliar sport in general – reminded me of some of my errors.

    Those are some of my writerly mistakes too, Carrie-Anne.

    And there’s a whole lot of “not understanding that things are different in different countries” / relying on expatriates and second/third-generation migrants in my own writing.

    Thinking, for instance, about the differences between the US and Australia recruitment in Vietnam.

    And that “don’t criticise what you don’t understand” from Bob Dylan.

    It is also okay to write about stuff you don’t like about that era/time.

    And what a moment it must have been to discover Atlantic City and its Jewish community back then.

    Other amateur mistakes include dialogue and not punctuating it correctly.

    And getting the genre wrong like computer games/role plays before they were really popular. And songfics/musicals.

    Because the format of a historical novel is often very conservative – maybe being too experimental/postmodernist? And it’s great when you can pull it off.

    Thinking also of association football – I represented games as being much more high-scoring than they are in real life especially among pre-teens and teens.


    • True, Clee!

      And also things you want to do which are stronger/more powerful in consequence than the error/avoidance.

      Yes, we writers do learn from failure.

      And Clem Bastow [Australian author] talked about THEME as the big thing along with SUBSTANCE and STYLE. Especially because it tells us about the author.

      Maybe do it from a reader’s perspective and an author’s perspective.


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