What if I get it wrong?

Among the many titles I like to give myself (quietly and mostly when thinking to myself) is “historian.”  History has been a passion of mine for my entire life.  As a kid I would create projects that focused on history.  Throughout school, if I were given the chance, I would turn my assignments towards historical topics.  I read historical-fiction, and historical non-fiction like mad.  I ended up with a BA in history, and an MA in religion — with a thesis focused on a historical figure.  And I have now been accepted in another graduate program, where I will pursue an MA in History (starting this fall).  I dream that, someday, I’ll have a Doctorate in History, that I’ll work in a museum or as a history professor, or perhaps a historical consultant or… the possibilities seem nearly endless.

Hey!  Look!  A historic marker... can we stop a minute?
Hey! Look! A historic marker… can we stop a minute?

I have driven my family crazy with requests to pull over for every roadside “this event happened here” sign that I could find, and have structured entire vacations around historical topics.  Sure, I have my favorite eras, locations and people, but to be honest I have yet to find a historical person, place, or thing, that I haven’t been happy to explore.

And I love to research.  To find more resources that I can use, more information.  I peruse bibliographies for fun, and love detailed footnotes that lead me to all sorts of other, passingly related, topics.  I have the ability to lose hours wandering through the internet, or library, or whatever resource may be on hand, gathering links, or titles, or anything else to “look into later.”

But I have this fear that has kept me from writing historical fiction.  Even though there are some stories that I think may belong as historical fiction, and others that I would like to write, I find myself stalling out in the face of the possibility that I will get it wrong.  That I will not be able to rid myself of modern slang and modern sensibilities enough to write a character and scenario that is realistic.  That I will make a mistake and, gasp, someone will call me on it.

It’s horrifying.  Seriously.
And I know that I have to get past this block if I want to write historical fiction.  I have to be willing to make mistakes – and trust that I can ask other researchers to help check my work.  I’m doing that for a number of projects.  I’ve been asking a friend who actually knows about sword-fighting to help me with research/resources so I can write a more realistic sword-fighting scene in my fantasy novel (not that it would be hard to get better than the current text: “she watched as he [does something that makes it clear that he’s no good at sword fighting, yup]…”), for example.

And perhaps this is reflective of a larger fear.  I hate to say it’s a fear of being wrong (because I know that I am wrong at times, just how often probably depends highly on who you ask), but perhaps a fear of being unable to capture a sense of true authenticity.  I would hate to pour so much time and energy into something and then have it pulled apart because the facts didn’t add up.  I worry about this enough when I am writing in a fantasy world and dealing with something I don’t know a lot about (like earlier-mentioned sword fighting, or farming, or royal court etiquette).  And in fantasy stories I can always have an escape-route… argue that this is the way it works in this land.

But in history, I can’t do that.  What happens if I include some turn-of-phrase that wouldn’t have been in use?  Or have someone referring to something that hadn’t happened yet?  Or I just can’t stay true to the historical sensibilities?

And how do I go about overcoming this fear?  That is the real question.  How do I find a way to be willing to make mistakes, to trust that my editing process (and my research) will help me keep from making (at least glaring) errors?  And how do I let go of the sense of needing to be right and not making a mistake?

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 This is my monthly post as part of the Insecure Writer's Support Group -- I am very much looking forward to being a part of this community!
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29 thoughts on “What if I get it wrong?”

  1. It seems you’re on the right road – researching the time period, reading other work about/from that period, and showing it to a non-judgmental friend who also knows the period.

    You might be overestimating the risk in your mind. If (when) you make a mistake, that does not make you a fraud. It doesn’t invalidate a lifelong passion for writing, history, and smashing the two together. It doesn’t make you less of a historian, or a writer, or a scholar, or an Eclectic Alli. Einstein was wrong about some things, but he’s still hailed as one of the most brilliant minds of his (or any other) time. So don’t be afraid to be more like Einstein!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s a legit fear and honestly, not just in historical novels. I’d say it might take a little more effort, but write it and work out the inconsistencies in editing. If you love it so much, you have to write it.

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    1. I agree, it isn’t just with historical novels that I face this fear, but I think it’s a bit easier to stick to “what I know” in non-historical. Or perhaps I’ve reigned in the fear a little more on the non-historical front because I’ve done more of that at this point… at least, more of it that I’ve shared with others.
      Thank you!

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  3. I have an elegant metaphor for this, and I have no idea if I’ll get the words out right. I’ll do my best.

    Everyone’s story is the same: roman, highlander, pirate or queen. We all live, laugh, cry, fall in love, die. The rest is just “costumung”. Write the story first, fix the costume later.

    Think of it like a movie it play- first you need the idea/script, then actors learn their roles, refine them til it’s “right”, scenery and music are tweaked as well-but it all starts with the first draft.

    Figure out who and what, play around with why, then when have bare bones to mess around, work on perfecting when and where.

    Or, as you said, trust the editing process to do its job. And the only way that’s gonna happen is by putting it in action.

    I guess what I’m saying is: go ahead and make your mistakes. Try it. Fail it succeed as you will, and get it “right” through lots of practice. :)

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    1. Good points… I like the image of thinking of it like a movie or play… then getting the actors to learn how they are supposed to act (getting the characters to talk right), etc. Helpful

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  4. Reblogged this on Raevenly Writes and commented:
    I recently started working on a just for fun collab project that is not only real world historical, but set in the past within the fantasy world’s timeline as well.

    SO MANY DETAILS TO KEEP TRACK OF.

    When the original author wrote her book, she did SCADS of research for accuracy, most of which was never really included. It was more for her sense of the world/characters.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I have a blogger friend, Michelle, who writes historical fiction and she does a lot of research. That’s what you have to do. Don’t stress out. Just write it out and work on the details when in editing :))

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I also have a problem with getting lost in the research, and letting the story fall completely aside (another topic I plan to write about at some point). “Don’t stress out”… that should be my mantra, along with “stop over-thinking!” :)
    Thanks!

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    1. Just write it… good advice. Then comes the challenge of trying to find the right fact-checker. I do find it interesting that I am far more willing and comfortable taking on the role of fact-checker/consultant for other peoples historical work than I am in writing my own.

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  7. I’m a lover of history as well. My first written book is a historical YA set in ancient Egypt. It sits gathering computer dust at the moment, but I understand your fears about getting it right.

    Do the best you can, make it as accurate as possible, and there is nothing wrong with putting it into context for today’s readers. I found myself making up my own slang for that time period. Lol

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  8. With your historical knowledge, I’m confident you could write great historical fiction. I understand why you’re scared (I’ve never attempted the genre either, and for much the same reason), and I think the only way you can gain the confidence you need is to try it. If you never try, you’ll never know what you’re capable of creating. Good luck!

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    1. “If you never try, you’ll never know what you’re capable of creating.” True that… I suppose reminding myself that, before I did it, I didn’t think I could write my thesis (heck, even as I was writing it, and after it was done I questioned my ability to do it), and yet… there it is.
      Thank you!

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  9. You have a passion for research and “all-things-historical.”
    So I’d say that’s half the battle won.
    You’ll never know what you are capable of if you never try!
    That saying popped into my mind: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time… :)
    Writer In Transit

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  10. We fear because we want to get the story right. That’s good for the story, maybe not so for the writer, lying awake at night with all those thoughts. :) Either way, fearing is caring, meaning you’ll get it right because … you care.
    Silvia @
    SilviaWrites

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  11. Excellent saying to remember.. though I don’t think I’d want to eat an elephant…
    I think it will also be important to figure out how to balance my passion for research and, you know, actually making the story happen…. :)

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    1. And I have certainly noticed issues, or questioned the accuracy of things that I’ve read in historical works… and it hasn’t lessened my enjoyment of the story any (usually… unless it’s a real glaring issue, or a poorly written story to start with). Something to certainly keep in mind :)

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  12. I love research, as well, and would love to some day write historical novels. But, like you, I do fear that I’ll slip and get something wrong, and that I’ll be called out on it. Still, the books mill about in my head, so someday they’ll happen. In the meantime, I’ll keep researching those and writing my fiction.

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    1. Give it a try! All the feedback on this post is motivating me to go ahead and try to get the story out — even if it will need serious editing to make it fit the time it belongs in. But writing it in a way that might actually work in the time I think it belongs just needs to happen!

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