Details can make or break a story

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.

The very first Christmas card.

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.




About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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13 Responses to Details can make or break a story

  1. Vikki Yoder says:

    This was one of my favorite blogs!! I’m always open to learning more! Thank you!

  2. Marlin Teat says:

    Here are my thoughts on the subject. (Shameless plug – this is from the intro to an anthology of short stories I’m working on)

    “It is the privilege and the responsibility of the writer of historical fiction to be able to take something from the past and add something of his own. The strict shackles, which bind the “pure” historian, do not hinder the teller of stories. Yet the American Civil War storyteller is bound by one hard limitation from which many fiction writers are free – historical fiction must be probable even though history can be, and very often is, well into the improbable.
    The scenes through the characters move, the trappings of their lives, and their actions must be reconstructed as close to reality as we may make them. The creeks and rivers, mountains and farm fields are for the most part still there. The large events are well documented. The terrain of the battles and marches are studied and taught today, but we must show them as they saw them; a country always looks different when one is being shot at. The adventures, the things that happened to these men, we have from the memoirs of the old soldiers who wrote of their experiences and from old newspapers and letters. We must take no liberties with essential truths.
    While the pure historian has the ability to see through hindsight, the teller of tales must relate history as it occurs. These men lived and breathed and marched and fought and above all they didn’t yet know the results of their actions.”

  3. alicegristle says:

    Exactly! One of my favourite pet peeves! May I add that the adherence to details is important to any writer, regardless of genre? Consider a science fantasy epic, where an entire world has sprung from the writer’s mind. Even there, if the hero is seen holding a beamgun next to his head (the classic action hero pose), that’s a poorly constructed detail – such a pose is bad combat technique, after all. Details matter everywhere. 🙂

    Also, thanks for the brief history of ballpoint pens, that was great! In an alt-history setting, it’d be actually fun to have Goy pens. 🙂 May I ask what resources you use for historical research?

  4. joshlangston says:

    I’ve haunted libraries on two continents and museums on four. But it’s time-consuming and expensive. Nowadays I rely heavily on the internet, but I try to find multiple sources to confirm facts. It’s distressing to see how often different websites cough up the exact same text on a given topic, suggesting that restating a dubious claim will somehow make it true. Wikipedia is nice, but it’s definitely subject to flaws.

    I’m reminded of the long-standing “facts” surrounding the death of Edgar Allan Poe, much of which were made up by a jealous rival. There now exist a variety of theories about his demise, including the very real possibility that he had rabies. But, for too many years, everyone assumed his death came from drug and alcohol abuse, and one resource after another simply repeated the slander. All of which is to say historical research can be tricky!

  5. Betty says:

    Love it when you reach back into history.

  6. pcartist says:

    I am such a stickler about certain areas in writing. I’ll be reading, and I come along a misspelled word, and it literally acts like a stop sign. I forget what the writer was trying to convey, and I’ve lost my way within the story. My two pet peeve words of all, are
    privilege and judgment. From movie titles, television titles or books. I want to ask someone, “Who forgot to do the basic action of using simply spellcheck?” Now, if I could find some program that checks for proper tense.

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