No, this isn't about verb tense. You can all breathe a sigh of relief. Today I want to talk about what a reader can reasonably expect in the way of historical accuracy from a writer.
I know there is a genre called "historical fiction" where real-life figures play roles in fictional stories, or where fictional characters play roles in actual historical events. In this genre, I am led to believe, readers expect a pretty well fleshed-out historical world, with loads of period detail and all of the story events must align properly with real-world events. Have I got that right? I don't actually read historical fiction; I merely report what I've been told.
I have, at this point in time, about five books pretty well planned out for future writing. All of them take place in the past. My last book was in the late 16th Century, my current book is in 1749 (in and around Maryland, USA), my next book will likely be set in England and then Antarctica around 1915, the book after that will be around Baltimore in 1910, and the one after that will be set in 1790. Possibly at some point I'll finish a book abandoned a decade ago called The Metaphysics of the Rat, which is set in 1612. So I'll be spending my writing life in the past.
While I do a ton of research when I'm writing about historical periods and places, I've come to realize that for me at least, when the needs of the story conflict with the realities of space and time (which is to say, real history), the story trumps actual fact. Although I don't write in the historical fiction genre, people have sometimes told me that this attitude, that a work of fiction--if it's not overtly some sort of alternative history--should be accurate in historical fact. That a writer should just make sure his research is deep enough to represent the places and times he choses for setting in a way that informed persons won't have cause to point to the work and say, "Wow, look at how dead wrong this is."
On the one hand, I do believe that you should know enough about your period and place that you don't put a cell phone in Magellan's hand or locate Madrid in Italy. On the other hand, if there was a massive earthquake in South America in 1950 and you want to incorporate that into your story set in 1948, I say go for it. The average reader just wants a compelling story, I think, and will let you gloss over facts if the truth of the characters is there.
So what's your opinion on this? Should a writer be sure of every one of his facts when writing about historical periods? Should someone like me have historians vet my stories against their professional knowledge? And when the story and the history are in conflict, is it incumbent upon writers to change their story to fit actual history?