Monday, December 22, 2008

Check the Facts

Recently I was reading a novel by a famous American western writer. The book was fun, well written and I liked the characters—but—in the first few chapters some historical inaccuracies just about drove me to drink. As a matter of fact I did crack open an ice cold Diet Pepsi. I understand it was a work of fiction but facts are facts and a work of fiction, if based on something real, should stay true to the facts.
Research is important in any short story or novel but when writing Westerns or Historical Fiction It is even more important to be very careful to write with historically accurate facts. It is easy to find conflicting information and dates and I always use the double check method. Using internet only sources can be especially exasperating, I have found information on Indian-Calvary battles to be especially hard to authenticate. If you have a great library near-by, like I do, use it. Recently I was doing some research for a non-fiction piece I am working on about the famous, Wagon Box fight in Wyoming. I started with some, over fifty year old sources, thinking they would be the most accurate—boy was I wrong. Two different books gave a completely different count of killed and wounded on both sides, although the story of the fight was pretty much the same. I ended up looking through a dozen more sources before I felt I had some approximate numbers I could work with in the story.
Below is a list of things to research carefully before publishing about the old west.

Clothes-no blue jeans or tee shirts in the old west
Guns-get a good resource and go out and shoot some different guns, it will really help
Language- not too many hosses, injuns and dad gum its
Dates- like Santa, look them up and check them twice
Transportation—how far can one horse go in one day?
Food-Did all the cowboys have steak for every meal—not really

Almost anything else is just about the process, sometimes slow and tedious, of writing. But to tell a great story—get the facts correct.
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