23 September 2016

Writing the Historical Mystery

      We at SleuthSayers are delighted to announce our newest regular member, O’Neil De Noux. He is a New Orleans writer with thirty-two books in print and more than three hundred short stories published in multiple genres. His fiction has received several awards, including the Shamus and Derringer and the 2011 Police Book of the Year. Two of his short stories have appeared in Otto Penzler’s Best American Mystery Stories anthology (2007 and 2013), and he is a past Vice President of the Private Eye Writers of America. Please join me in welcoming my old friend O’Neil De Noux.
— John Floyd

by O’Neil De Noux

Accuracy vs. Fiction

      Joseph Pulitzer wrote on his newsroom wall – “Accuracy, Accuracy, Accuracy.” Excellent advise for journalists but fiction writers are not journalists and we do not write history books. Historical accuracy is important in the historical mystery but is it more important than your story? I say no.

When we write historical fiction we are writing FICTION. I have a degree in European and Asian History and have had historical articles published in academic journals. I’ve also penned fifty historical fiction short stories among the 300-hundred plus short stories I’ve sold.

In writing academic historical articles, I strive to be as accurate as humanly possible. Nearly all history graduate students take a class in HISTORIOGRAPHY, the study of historical writing. They know unless you are an eye-witness to an historical event – and that’s one person’s subjective observation – then you must rely on first hand accounts of other contemporary witnesses or second hand accounts complied by other historians. So why worry if you get a minor detail wrong in your historical fiction as I did when I had a character wearing a Banlon shirt several years before Banlon was introduced? Oh, yes. Someone caught me and I had to miss recess that day.

Historians in critically-acclaimed history books also get things wrong. Ever read history books of the Napoleonic Wars? British Historians and French Historians paint nearly opposite histories of the same period. It’s almost funny.

Back to my first statement - when we write historical fiction we are writing FICTION – I have fudged on historical accuracy to write a better story because, in my opinion, historical fiction is like someone’s name. John Smith is a SMITH, part of the SMITH family, not the JOHN family. Historical Fiction is FICTION and fiction outranks history, otherwise you’re writing a history book.

Fiction writers make up stuff. We make up characters and events, sometimes with an historical backdrop.

Artistic license was taken when I wrote my historical-mystery THE FRENCH DETECTIVE, set in 1900 New Orleans. As a New Orleanian I know the term po-boy did not originate until the 1929 streetcar strike. The muffuletta sandwich was created at the Central Progress Grocery Store in 1906. I used the terms anyway. I’ll probably get a detention slip.

Additionally, I updated the arcane language and dialogue of whatever period I’m writing for a 21st Century audience. I could not have the characters speak as people spoke at the beginning of the 20th Century. Actually, a great number of the people in THE FRENCH DETECTIVE spoke French or Italian at the time. So I wrote the book for a 21st Century audience. There goes another recess in the playground.

In my 1950 novel HOLD ME, BABE, I have a scene where a father gives his daughter a hula hoop and the scene works well. The hula hoop didn’t come about until 1958. I noted it at the beginning of the book to save some smart-mouth from emailing me how I’m wrong.

At the opening of my short story “Death on Denial” which appeared in FLESH & BLOOD: DARK DESIRES Anthology, Mysterious Press (2002) and was chosen for the BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2003 Anthology, Houghton-Mifflin, I put the following quote to set up the story: “The Mississippi. The Father of Waters. The Nile of North America. And I found it.” Hernando de Soto, 1541. de Soto never said that. I made it up because it’s a story. IT’S FICTION.

In my short story “General Order No. 28”, which appeared in ELLERY QUEEN MYSTERY MAGAZINE (May 2004 Issue), I quoted the order penned by Gen. Benjamin Butler. I was fortunate to have a photograph of the printed order and therefore quoted it verbatim. I didn’t have to make it up. I did, however, make up just about everything else in the story. Bottom line – do not be restrained by historical accuracy.

One more example and I’ll shut up. After his success with “A Streetcar Named Desire” on Broadway, Tennessee Williams had occasion to return to New Orleans where he was accosted by an uptown dilettante who chided him for his description of the streetcar lines. She told him if Blanche DuBois took the streetcars as described in his play, she wouldn’t end up on Elysian Fields Avenue. “They simply don’t run that way,” said the dilettante.

Williams replied, “Well, they should.”

PS: Y’all do know Hitler and Goebbels were not burned alive in a movie theater as depicted in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS.

I have to sign off now. I’m due in the principal’s office.

O’Neil De Noux


  1. Welcome, O'Neil! And I pretty much agree with you. I've also fudged things and I think that's acceptable of course. It just depends how far we bend them to fit the narrative. Some things don't bother me while others do. And there's always someone "out there" to point out our transgressions...

  2. Interesting column, O'Neil, and a great debut! I love the clarification of what "historical fiction" is, but not as much as I love the title "Death on Denial."

    By the way, I incorrectly said you were in the 2007 (not 2003) edition of Best American Mystery Stories--my mistake. Make room for me in the principal's office.

    And welcome to SleuthSayers!

  3. Welcome to Sleuthsayers!
    I did love Tennessee Williams' rebuttal. Too much accuracy is the mark of small minds- at least in fiction !

  4. Most of my stories have contemporary settings. During the past few years, though, I've written several stories set in the past or that included scenes set in the past (the 1950s, mostly, but also the 1930s, 1940s, and 1960s) and I constantly find myself struggling to balance essential fact (important for understanding the story) vs. non-essential fact (window dressing and scene setting). Luckily, because I'm not delving into the deep past, most of what I need is easily obtainable once I figure out how to phrase the Google search.

  5. I've written both history and historical fiction and strive for accuracy in both. But with the tricks memory plays on man we have to realize the better part of history is story. So I don't have a problem with a writer fudging a little to make a story better. Good post, O'Neil.

  6. Good to see you here, and it was good to see you, however briefly, in New Orleans.

  7. O'Neil, great post for your debut. Enjoyed it and got a few laughs out of it. Welcome to the SleuthSayers family.

  8. Welcome to the gang, and a really good post. Fiction is fiction, which is why I told my History of Japan class that we were NOT going to watch "The Last Samurai" with Tom Cruise. :) Or, for that matter, we didn't watch "Gladiator" in Western Civ...

  9. Welcome to SleuthSayers, O'Neil, and thanks for an interesting post. I enjoyed the examples you included and think the stand you take makes good sense.

  10. Great debut, O'Neill, and it was good to see you in New Orleans. I think you make a valid point. Story should be preeminent, and if minor details are changed to make a story better, is that really so different from rearranging a little geography, as many have done?

    Look forward to your future posts.

  11. Welcome to SleuthSayers, O’Neil. Glad to have you with us.

    I had to critique an antebellum story set on a plantation. The author portrayed a house slave drinking from a tin can, a scene that jolted me. Metal cans as we know them didn’t appear until around WW-II although an early prototype that held many pounds of meat was used in WW-I. The writer, however, insisted she had it on good authority that cans were in common use then. Perhaps she had some knowledge I did not.

    Rumpole, in one of cases, has to deal with a beloved historical romance writer. Rumpole is dismayed that she intermixes vastly disparate events separated by a couple of hundred years or so, but she is much admired by the public and especially the judge who’s a bit moonstruck by the lady.

  12. I've written a number of historical novels and always enjoyed doing the research. I don't enjoy anachronisms in the novels I read and I try to avoid them when I write my own fiction. However, there are things we just don't know or need to make up. As you point out, we're writing fiction not nonfiction.


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