Signing books at a local fall festival in Atlanta, I was asked (yet again) if my books are historically accurate. I weaseled out of that in my usual way, boasting of my doctorate in history. Believe me, he wouldn't have wanted to listen to the alternative: a lengthy lecture.
The truth is, the books aren't inaccurate. They are my best representation of life in the past, under the circumstances--I'm writing for readers as young as nine, so some subjects are glossed over, others ignored. I'm writing outside my primary area of expertise (early American popular religious culture). And because my novels are fiction, and time-travel at that, I have some latitude.
That said, most of what happens in the novels happened to someone. And if I don't have evidence that something happened, but it's reasonable to surmise from the historical record that it could have happened, then I sometimes include it. To give an example from Don't Know Where, Don't Know When (Snipesville 1): Some child evacuees were used as exploited labor in World War II Britain. Some evacuees were black. But was a black evacuee ever exploited by his or her host family? Was a billeting officer ever guilty of trafficking kids, as I depict? I don't know. That's what makes it fiction.
Another reason I can't be 100% accurate in my novels because, basically, there's so much historians do not know, or that we don't agree upon. Look Ahead, Look Back draws on my memory of the thin sources available for the period, including some drawn from backwoods South Carolina in the 18th century. Is the book then inaccurate? With empathy and imagination and broad knowledge of what sources exist, I did my best, and so far, I've had no complaints from the historians who have read it. The word "accuracy" makes me nervous, all the same. Short of becoming a time-traveler myself, I'm limited by the sources, but liberated by being a novelist. I freely admit that what I write is what journalist and Roots author Alex Haley called faction.
I've been thinking about this since the release of the movie Denial (2016), about the libel case by British writer David Irving against Emory historian Deborah Lipstadt, who had accused him of denying the Holocaust. The case turned on establishing that, indeed, the systematic murders of 11 million people under the Nazis did take place. The movie is based on Lipstadt's book on the subject, but I'm reading another book on the case, written by an expert witness for the defense, Cambridge historian Richard Evans.
Evans's book, Lying About Hitler, will, I hope, help me deal better with that frequent question about accuracy. Historians know how complicated an answer is required when someone asks, "Is it accurate?" But fundamentally, the answer for a work of history should always be yes--with lots of qualifications and nuance, sure--but yes. It may be to the best of our knowledge, and according to the historical record, but it must not deliberately misrepresent the body of available evidence. For my works of fiction, despite the time travel, I also do the best job I possibly can to ensure that what I write is not at odds with the evidence we have. I'm not held to the same exacting standards as I am in writing history, nor can I be--but I do try to get it right. This might also help explain why it has taken me ten years to complete The Snipesville Chronicles series. I am also starting to include notes in each book. Would you be interested in my providing further commentary on the web as time permits? Is there anything in the books that you would like me to discuss?