It’s probably clear by now that I’m a big believer in trying to get the details right, particularly when it comes to alternate history. I don’t always succeed –– I lately confessed to making up Hood’s compartment layout –– but as someone who spent six years studying the past, I figure I’m duty-bound to try my best, and check my facts.
Invariably, this means research –– all sorts of different kinds of research. I’ve already talked about consulting the right historians, begging advice from professionals, and even checking the seasons in the solar system… but sometimes, you have to be more hands-on. Otherwise, you get things wrong.
In His Majesty’s New World, this happened with a detail that is, I’m pretty certain, irrelevant to everyone but me… but which serves as a cautionary tale nonetheless.
You see, when Mister Smith rode into the story on his Appaloosa mare, I had no idea about what rifle he’d carry for the series. Since he was a drifter who absolutely depended on his firearms to survive a frontier full of savages, that was a shortfall I really needed to get to grips with.
Of course I’d seen cowboy movies, and read L’Amour westerns, but with all due respect, it’s never wise to try to discern historical reality from other people’s fiction. You simply can’t know why certain props were chosen, or what specific shorthand references meant to refer to. As such, I turned to the internet, punched in ‘Winchester’ (the most ubiquitous cowboy rifle, as far as I’d heard), found a likely picture and went with the model number attached to it –– the 1894, to be precise.
Good enough; Smith carried an 1894 Winchester chambered in .45 Colt, which would fire the same .45 caliber ammunition used by the Colt 1911 ‘magazine pistols’ possessed by Emily and Caralynne. Simple.
And… everything about that sentence is wrong.
Fortunately, I caught the ammunition problem before we went to press. For those not familiar with firearms (as I wasn’t at drafting time in 2007), the term ‘.45’ can refer to a number of different types of ammunition. The .45 ACP round chambered by the 1911 pistol (that the Allies carried in the World Wars and after) is not at all the same as the .45 Colt ammunition fired by cowboy guns.
Catching this mistake early, I was able to fix certain problems that would have arisen in Grasslands –– basically, Smith sharing ammunition with people who wouldn’t be able to use it. Of course, ninety percent of readers might not have realized my error… but that’s no excuse. To those not familiar with the subject matter, I’d have been peddling bad information. For those who knew better, I’d have lost a lot of historical credibility. So for the mere expense of a bit of extra work, why not try to get it right?
Unfortunately, though, I didn’t catch every oversight in time for first printing. To this day, if you possess one of the original editions of Grasslands or Frontier, you can find evidence of what I mean. See, the ‘1894 Winchester’ –– carried by Smith in the first printings of those two books –– was never chambered for pistol rounds like the .45 Colt… or, at least, not until long after (we’re talking the 1970s here). Unfortunately, Wikipedia hadn’t made that clear to me during my first round of research, and I made the mistake of not investigating further.
As I grew wiser and more experienced, I quickly realized my mistake. Smith wasn’t carrying the 1894, but the nearly-visually-identical 1892, which was chambered in pistol calibers (not in .45 Colt, but I kept that round over .44-40 as a purposeful conceit for the series).
No readers ever called me on this, but as soon as I realized what I’d done, I knew I needed to fix it. Fortunately, this was just before we launched the Iceberg 2010 plan, so when we rolled out the new international editions of Grasslands and Frontier, all the 1894 references were fixed. Going forward, I certainly didn’t make the mistake again.
But for two books, across two years, I had been responsible for getting a basic detail wrong. It’s certainly not the only mistake I’ve ever made –– far from it –– but it’s one that I did catch, and that wasn’t an intentional conceit, so I went out of my way to fix it.
Granted, I may obsess over these particulars too much. I’ll be the first to tell you that a story lives or dies based on its characters, and you know by now that the folks who turn up in many of these plots don’t need my help to make decisions. But it’s precisely that fact which makes me so picky.
Imagine someone sets out to write the story of your deeds, but keeps getting the little details wrong –– says that you like the sound of rain on your windshield, when you actually ride a motorcycle; mentions you use BBM, when you have an iPhone; announces your appreciation for a steak dinner, when you’re a vegetarian. If the writer gets the broad strokes of your exploits correct, you might let those smaller things go… but wouldn’t it be more respectful if time was taken to get them right?
I owe my characters enough to want to take that time. And though I know Smith wouldn’t be miffed by someone calling his rifle an 1894, instead of an 1892, I feel better when I try to be as accurate with prose, as he is with his Winchester.
Neither he nor I are Stephanie Shylock, but I like to think that, most days, we can hit what we’re aiming at.