My writing a historical novel experience #1

One thing I’ve discovered since I started to write a historical novel is that it’s very easy to make a mistake.
Not just some nit picking historical error, such as for example: ‘The cavalry charge lasted for ten minutes and fifty nine seconds.’
Meanwhile, a historian, who is something of an expert on cavalry charges, might correct me by pointing out: ‘No it didn’t, it lasted for twelve minutes and fifty nine seconds, because someone’s horse stumbled and they had to start again.’
No, this was a commonsense error – something that my commonsense should have warned me was wrong.
Here’s the scene that I’m writing.
It’s 1868 and a sailing ship is anchored in the East river in New York City (a sailing ship wouldn’t normally be anchored in the East river, it would be tied up at the shore, or anchored further out in the bay, but for the purposes of the story it’s anchored in the river.)
Oh, and it’s after dark.
I have this character on the ship say to another character on the ship something like: “Look, there’s the Stars and Stripes, on top of the main mast.”
So far so good. I mean, all he has to do is look up and there’s the Stars and Stripes, on top of the main mast. It should be easy enough to see it, even though it’s probably eighty feet up.
So I finish writing the scene and move on to another scene.
A few days’ later I realise that I’ve made a terrible mistake.
How can he possibly see the Stars and Stripes, which is probably eighty feet above the deck – when its dark?
Do the ‘bright lights of the city,’ or a similar phrase, illuminate it for him? For example: ‘He looked up and sure enough illuminated by the bright lights of the city was the Stars and Stripes.’
Duh, how can they illuminate it?
This is 1868, not 2017, and there were no bright lights in New York City in 1868.
Well, there were, but I doubt if they were bright enough to illuminate a flag on top of a ship’s mast in the middle of the East river.
I managed to circumvent or ‘write around’ the problem, and in a few future articles I’ll explain how I did this and how to solve a few other writing a historical novel problems.

Other articles in the Writing a historical novel series.

Historical accuracy versus common sense

Author: Paul Gresham

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