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Historical accuracy and getting it right with John Heldt

In the acknowledgments of his novel Altar of Eden, author James Rollins observes that he has “never been a firm believer in the adage ‘write what you know.’” “What’s the fun in that?” he asks. What’s the fun, indeed?

Much of the joy in writing fiction is exploring times and places you don’t know. I know that was the case when I wrote my debut novel, The Mine. Though I had visited most of the Pacific Northwest locations portrayed in the book, I had never visited them in 1941. And, as one committed to historical accuracy, I had an obligation to at least try to get the particulars right.

In seeking answers about a time that preceded my birth by twenty years, I turned to a number of sources: libraries, archives, yearbooks, newspapers, oral histories, books, movies, and, of course, people, including experts in various fields. As a reference librarian, I knew the fastest way to get an answer to a question was simply to ask.

So when I needed to know what kind of wildflowers my principal characters might have seen on a hike and picnic at Mount Rainier National Park in late July, I asked a ranger. He sent me a 700-word reply on the flora and fauna of the park, much more than I could have possibly acquired on my own. I quickly learned the difference between a mountain anemone and a mountain arnica and that the two bloomed at different times between mid-July and mid-October.

Sources at the Selective Service System and the U.S. Army Center of Military History provided similarly useful insight into the peacetime draft of 1940-41. And a staffer at the Washington State Library explained the history and boundaries of a dry zone in Seattle, where the sale of alcohol was severely restricted in and around the University of Washington even after Prohibition.

When experts and institutions did not have ready answers, I got creative and sought information from unconventional sources. In one scene in The Mine, a character has to travel 600 miles from Seattle to Helena, Montana, in a few hours. She can’t do it on a train, or even in a car. Not on an icy two-lane highway. She could travel that quickly in a plane. But would she have had access to a passenger flight between those two cities in December 1941? I obtained the answer from a man in Sweden, of all places. He collects and digitizes historic flight schedules, including those for Northwest Airlines from 1941, and provided all that I needed via email.

Gathering information, however, is easy compared to deciding how to use it. My principal characters are movie fans, and I wanted them to watch Sun Valley Serenade in July 1941. But the film, which contains riveting footage of the Glenn Miller band playing “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” did not appear in American theaters until late August. I chose not to compromise and went with other flicks.

In another situation, my editor and I debated for nearly two days whether flat-screen televisions existed in 2000. They did, at least by name. Sony introduced the Trinitron in 1998. What might seem like a trivial detail to some was a big matter to me. I did not want historical inaccuracies to distract readers and diminish their enjoyment of what I knew was an enjoyable story.

Even with the best information and the best advice, of course, it is possible to get it wrong. A reviewer in April gently reminded me that women in 1941 would not have worn dungarees in social situations, presumably even on a mountain hike. She is probably right. But it is also true that some women wore jeans at that time. Levi Strauss & Co. introduced Lady Levi’s in 1934 and the product proved wildly popular, though mostly with women working on ranches in the West.

The beauty of fiction is that you can sometimes bend the rules. Not break them, but bend them. While authors should strive to avoid anachronisms and inconsistencies – no one wants a Pilgrim, for example, who speaks like a Valley Girl – they should recognize that many individuals defy the norms. They are, after all, individuals, people with their own minds and agendas. That is what makes characters in fiction interesting. They often say and do things that their contemporaries would not.

The Mine features several characters that say and do things that defy the norms, from Joel Smith, my time-traveling protagonist, to Grace Vandenberg, his refreshingly strong-willed girlfriend, to Ginny Gillette, their trailblazing, independent-minded friend. But the book also features a commitment to accuracy and authenticity that I think fans of historical fiction will appreciate and enjoy. I encourage readers to give it a look.

     Manic Readers page                                                                                    

     Amazon author page

     Goodreads

     John’s blog

    USATODAY.com review

     Buy THE MINE

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