by Leslie H. Nicoll

If you want to be a Macaroni, you have to be a stickler for historical accuracy. Not to scare anyone off, but to me, half the fun of writing historical fiction is doing the research. I love looking up things and learning new tidbits of information. Doesn’t everyone?

This is on my mind because I just finished The Help by Kathryn Stockett. While it was a very good book and I enjoyed it very much, there were a couple of historical anachronisms that I picked up on instantly. Imagine my amazement when I got to the Acknowledgments and Postscript and the author actually admitted to them! Worse, she did not give a reason for why they were included and why she did not change them.

The errors, as she states, were, “Using the song, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin,’ even though it was not released until 1964 and Shake ‘n Bake, which did not hit the shelves until 1965.”

Certainly Bob Dylan is an iconic folk singer, but there were plenty of folkies on the radio waves in 1962 and 1963 (the principal time of the action in the book). If she wanted to stick with Dylan, why not use “Blowin in the Wind,” released in 1963, which certainly addresses issues of freedom and change. Peter, Paul and Mary would be another choice, with hits such as “Lemon Tree” (maybe not too applicable, although the character listening to the music does have a rocky-to-non-existent love life) or “If I Had a Hammer.” My point is, while “The Times They Are A-Changin” is compelling, I don’t think it is compelling enough to rewrite history to include it.

Then there’s the Shake ‘n Bake error. Shake ‘n Bake is mentioned three times in the book, in two different scenes. The first:

Miss Celia puts a raw chicken thigh in, bumps the bag around. “Like this? Just like the Shake ‘n Bake commercials on the tee-vee?”

“Yeah,” I say and run my tongue up over my teeth because if that’s not an insult, I don’t know what is. “Just like the Shake ‘n Bake.”

So the maid is teaching her employer to cook and the employer (Miss Celia) is all about shortcuts and making it easy. Fine, but does it have to be Shake ‘n Bake, three years before it was invented? How about a Duncan Hines cake mix or Betty Crocker brownie mix? Or, it the author wants to subtly address issues of race and class (the overarching theme of the book), why not have her suggest Aunt Jemima pancake mix? That would certainly be insulting to the maid, Minny, moreso than Shake ‘n Bake, which didn’t even exist.

The other time Shake ‘n Bake is mentioned in the book is in this line, “Wondering if, for no good reason I started thinking about Sears and Roebuck or Shake ‘n Bake, would it be because some Illinoian had thought it two days ago. It gets my mind off my troubles for about five seconds.” Just draw a blue line through that Shake ‘n Bake. No need to even include it.

As I said at the beginning, I enjoy doing the research for writing a historical story. I just finished a 33,000 word novella (due to be published in six months). The story takes place in the era of World War II and after.  Some of the things I learned while researching various facts for the book:

  • Western Union delivery methods, in both the city and the country. In the city, they had delivery men who rode bikes. Out in the country, the Western Union operator was responsible for delivering telegrams, usually in the afternoon after receiving the telegrams in the morning.
  • Gone With the Wind premiered in December, 1939, but did not go into wide release in the US until 1941. For six months in 1940, it was in shown in “reserved seat, roadshow engagements,” a format for showing movies that was very popular in the 1940s and 1950s, but is non-existent now. (Note: Gone With the Wind doesn’t even show up in the book. The characters go see The Wizard of Oz, instead, which came out in the summer of 1939.)
  • In 1942, the Queen Mary was transporting more than 15,000 US servicemen to England, in preparation for the D-Day invasion. Off the coast of Ireland, the Queen Mary collided with—literally sliced through—one of her escort ships, the HMS Curacao. The Curacao quickly sunk and 338 men perished; only 102 of the crew survived. This tragedy was not made public until after the war ended. Even now, it is sort of hushed up. It is not a proud moment in British and US naval history.
  • US families who had loved ones killed in Europe in WWII did have the option to have the soldier’s body sent home to the US for final burial, although it was a complicated and time consuming process that could take years.
  • Gay bars in New York city in the early 1960s were dingy, dark, dumpy places that served overpriced drinks, didn’t meet basic sanitation codes, and were run by the Mob. There was a crackdown on all sorts of “undesirable activity,” including known homosexual hangouts, in New York in 1962 and 1963, as Mayor Wagner was trying to “clean up the city” for all the visitors who were expected to come to New York to attend the World’s Fair. Reading about gay bars got me off on a tangent about bath houses and I learned a lot about those, too. In the end, my character didn’t even go to a gay bar, he just went to the bar in his hotel. The logistics of getting him from Madison Avenue and 45th Street to Greenwich Village, location of most of the gay bars, was just too convoluted.
HMS Curacao

HMS Curacao

Those are just a few facts off the top of my head—I could come up with plenty more. My point is, if you are going to step up to the plate to write historical fiction, then you need to accept the fact that part of the writing process will involve research and fact checking. If you skip this important component of the process, you run the risk of making finicky readers—like me—unhappy.

Kathryn Stockett, shame on you.

Leslie H. Nicoll writes fiction under the pen name of E. N. Holland. Her novella, Our One and Only, will be included in the military history anthology, Hidden Conflict: Tales from Lost Voices in Battle, due to be published in January 2010 by Bristlecone Pine Press and Cheyenne Publishing. You can learn more at her Facebook page, or LiveJournal,