Have you ever watched a movie where someone missed an obvious mistake? Maybe you saw a Roman soldier wearing a wristwatch in some sand and sandal epic, or there were high tension power lines on the horizon of a Civil War scene. For the casual viewer, such boo-boos are a source of amusement. For the folks who did the editing and proofing of those films, mistakes like that could be career killers.
For writers, especially those doing historical fiction, similar blunders are possible, and the consequences can be similarly harsh. Independent writer/publishers can absolutely be fired–by their readers. And once a writer loses credibility with his audience, getting it back is difficult, if not impossible. Science fiction readers can be particularly brutal when it comes to recognizing errors of fact. But history lovers expect accuracy, too.
Suppose you’re writing a period piece set in the early days of the United States, say in the middle of Thomas Jefferson’s administration. The President decides to send a cheerful holiday greeting to the families of Lewis and Clark, the intrepid adventurers he dispatched to explore territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. Your fictional character volunteers to carry out the missive mission and procures a selection of greeting cards for the chief executive’s use.
Suddenly you’re on shaky ground, historically speaking, even though greeting cards have been around in one form or another since ancient times and were used back then by both Chinese and Egyptian well-wishers. Europeans didn’t get on the bandwagon until some enterprising Germans started using handmade and hand-delivered New Year’s greetings and Valentines in the 15th century. Actual Christmas cards didn’t show up until 1843, and that was in England. Mass produced cards didn’t make their debut until the 1860s.
That being the case, perhaps you’d be better off having Jefferson dictate letters instead, which your character can dutifully deliver. That process, by the way, offers the opportunity for mischief, mishap, and mayhem–any or all of which can befall your hapless player and thereby complicate your plot, always a desirable outcome.
And while we’re thinking about writing something during the Jefferson administration, let’s consider what sort of instrument your character might use to take notes. A pencil? A fountain pen? Stylus and tablet?
Pencils were common in the colonies long before there was a USA. Benjamin Franklin advertised them in his Pennsylvania Gazette prior to the revolution. Your character would likely have preferred ink. That would mean using a quill pen since reliable fountain pens weren’t invented until 1884.
The history of the ballpoint pen, by the way, is an interesting story in itself, for writers anyway. The first patent for a ballpoint pen was issued in 1888 to John L. Loud, an American banker. Loud, it seems, was better at banking than inventing, and his device didn’t catch on. That didn’t happen until 1938, when László Bíró, with help from his brother, invented the pen we’re using today.
With the advent of WWII, Bíró sold his interest in a company he started with Andor Goy, left Europe, and eventually settled in Argentina. There he was awarded a patent on June 10, 1943 (National Ballpoint Pen Day), and later made a deal with an Englishman named Henry Martin to promote the invention. Martin sold it to both the British and American governments for use by their air forces. Within months, the pen appeared on the commercial market as the Reynold’s Rocket. Though pricey at $12.50 each (or roughly $150 today), the pens sold like crazy–over a million and a half were rung up in the first half year of production.
Back in Europe, László’s former business partner, Andor Goy, sold his pen holdings in 1945 to Marcel Bich who created the now ubiquitous Bic pen. (Can you imagine running to the office supply store for a package of Goy pens?)
Though László Bíró never achieved fame and fortune for his invention, his birthday, September 29, is celebrated in Argentina as Inventor’s Day. Incidentally, the Argentine word for “pen” is birome.
Details are important; they may harbor stories we never dreamed of.