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Getting the History Right in Historical Fiction by Deborah Heal

Posted by on February 27, 2015

Although my major in college was English, and I became a high school English teacher, my second love has always been history. Even as a child, I wished I could go back in time and see what the “olden days” were really like. When I first sat down to write a novel, it seemed logical to tell stories about a computer software program that lets the user “rewind” time to virtually experience what actually happened in the past.

I was a “later bloomer” in becoming a writer. I had little time to pursue it, because as an English teacher I spent the majority of my free hours grading the half-hearted writing of my students. It was disillusioning to discover that so many of them saw reading and writing as loathsome chores to be endured (or completely avoided).

I am no longer a teacher, and now I spend as much time as I like reading and writing—and amazingly I get paid to do so! Lately I’ve been encouraged by the state of the human race. I have found that there are still plenty of people out there who love to read and who actually appreciate my books. It’s wonderful when they take the time to post a review telling me so.

And apparently, I’m still a teacher. Although I wrote my Time and Again Trilogy and Rewinding Time Series primarily to be entertaining and uplifting, several readers have said nice things about their educational value:

What a delightful way to learn and experience history. It remind me how memorable education is when we delight in its method.

 Good way to share history and make it interesting for teens and adults.

 Deborah Heal’s books are wonderful, entertaining, and educational.

As a former educator, I am thrilled when readers talk about getting turned on to learning:

I’ve never been much of a history buff until now!

 I didn’t really know what to expect when I started this book as I am not a history fan, but this book was great and I plan on reading the other two.

 Interesting, even for a someone not interested in history.

I always do my homework before writing a book, but these reader comments encourage me to strive even harder to get the facts right. I don’t want anyone to throw my book across the room as I have been known to do with grossly inaccurate historical fiction.

In one Christian novel I read set in the 1850s, the characters use modern terminology and slang such as “dating,” and “teen” and “special needs child,” and the exclamation, “Hot Dog!” Worse, the young female main character butchered a hog by herself in the middle of the night after the carcass had been on the road for two days in subzero temperatures, all the while chasing away a pack of wild dogs with the gentle command to “shoo.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

I believe Christian authors especially have an obligation to produce a quality product. After all, we serve and represent the King. Apparently, I’m not the only one to be concerned about the subject. An article I wrote three years ago about poor quality Christian fiction still gets lots of hits on my website. You can read it here:

Now I don’t mean to imply that I have arrived as an author, but I do spend weeks and months reading about the time period, people, location, and events that I will be writing about. If I don’t have a familiarity with something (like say butchering hogs), then I take the time to find out about it. With the Internet, there’s really no excuse not to.

But even so it is sometimes difficult to tease out the historical facts and details that I need for a story. In Once Again: an inspirational novel of history, mystery & romance, I tell the story of the hardships of a man named James Garretson who was one of the earliest settlers in the Illinois Country. He and the other pioneers were forced to live in fortified log cabins called blockhouse forts and to post guards to protect themselves from Indian attack while they plowed and harvested the land. I don’t want to give away the story, but let’s just say Garretson’s family suffered more than their share of tragedy.

I was fascinated by their story, but I had difficulty determining the exact facts in several key areas. First, I wasn’t even sure of the correct spelling of his surname. More importantly, I didn’t know if the tragedy actually happened to him or his son James Garretson, Jr. A few years previous to the incident I write about, two young relatives were kidnapped by the Indians and held for ransom, but I couldn’t figure out if the girls were James Garretson’s nieces or his daughters. (In the end, I didn’t include that incident because I thought readers would think it outlandishly unbelievable that one family could suffer so much misfortune.)

You’re probably not as naive as I once was when it comes to history. But in case you didn’t realize it, history books sometimes get it wrong. Even reputable historians can disagree on events. John Reynold’s The Pioneer History of Illinois (1887) is one of the go-to sources for history buffs like myself. Reynolds was an early Illinois governor and a fine man, I’m sure. As far as I know, he never spent a single day making license plates in a prison workshop. (Sorry, that’s a little Illinois humor.) But in my humble opinion, the venerable governor got some of his facts about the Garretson story wrong. And then many subsequent writers, not noticing the illogic and inconsistency of some of Reynold’s statements, perpetuated the same errors in their own books.

You can read about why I think I’m right and Governor Reynold is wrong on my website here:

Only One Way Home, book 2 in the Rewinding Time Series, tells a small portion of the Cherokee Trail of Tears story, and I was fortunate to find several first-hand accounts which were immensely helpful as I tried to recreate the events of 1838. But even so, as everyone knows, eyewitnesses to a crime can tell vastly different versions of what they saw.

I always obsess about getting my facts right and worry that I’ll be guilty of perpetuating historical inaccuracies myself. But I have begun reminding myself that even though I write historical fiction, I am not, in fact, a historian. (And it doesn’t count that my main character Merrideth is a college professor of history.) With each book, there comes a time when I must end the research phase and begin writing the story. I tell myself to be content that I did my homework to the best of my ability. While Once Again and Only One Way Home may contain factual errors that I don’t know about, I am confident that they tell the truth about the pioneers and Indians’ experiences.

And if real historians read my books and smirk at their flaws … well, I promise I’ll correct them as soon as I get my hands on a copy of Professor Randall’s amazing software and can rewind time to see what really happened.

Let’s Connect!

Visit my website for descriptions of my books and the history behind the actual people and event they portray. All my books are available on Amazon dot com in Kindle and paperback. The original Time and Again trilogy are also available as Audiobooks.


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3 Responses to Getting the History Right in Historical Fiction by Deborah Heal

  1. Deborah Heal

    Hi again, Mary. Thanks for letting me visit.

I welcome your thoughts on this.