One question I am often asked (as an academic historian who writes a YA/MG time-travel series) is "Are your books historically accurate?" It always makes me clench my teeth.
Let me put it this way: The Snipesville Chronicles are more historically accurate than Mel Gibson's movie The Patriot. Or, in fact, any Mel Gibson movie you care to name. But let's pick on The Patriot, shall we?
The studio publicists made a great to-do when The Patriot was released because of the much-vaunted historical research on which it had been based. When they listed the Smithsonian as their principal consultant, however, a little bell went off in my head. The sort of "accuracy" they had in mind, I suspected, was the kind that insists on getting the shirt buttons right, but rather misses the point otherwise.
Alas, I was right. My favorite moment in the movie is a toss-up between the scene in which the Brits murder an entire town's folk by locking them in a burning church (er, thanks for associating eighteenth-century Britain with Nazi atrocities, Mel) and the scene in which free black tenants (!) in South Carolina (!!!) (sorry, snorting here) beg the meanie Brit officer to let them stay with kind Master Mel. There's historical fiction, and then there's outrageous misrepresentation of truth.
I like to think that my books, unlike The Patriot, fall into the former category. But because they are fiction, after all, I do make things up. My characters aren't real, and neither, of course, is the time travel. I'm determined to write about obscure settings and everyday life, so I invent fictional towns like Snipesville and Balesworth.
But I like all my historical material to at least be plausible: My rule of thumb is that It may not have happened, but it could have. I am particularly concerned that my historical characters don't speak in anachronisms or express attitudes and ideas that actually come from more recent times. This means not only checking idiomatic expressions in the Oxford English Dictionary, but also developing the best possible feel for the period, by reading the experts (social and cultural historians), and by immersing myself in the primary sources, the documents that make up the raw stuff of history.
You will forgive me, I hope, for assuming that Book 3 (which is set in 1752) is the book of the series I am most qualified to write. After all, my PhD specialization is early American history, and I'm a recognized expert on eighteenth-century popular religious culture.
Yes...Well. Pride before a fall.
The book is almost done, so it was with great dismay that I learned from Georgia historian Dr. Jon Bryant (a friend and former colleague) that in fact, no, there is no evidence that any convicts were ever sent to Georgia. That's a myth that first appeared in the 19th century, and it has been repeated as gospel truth ever since, including by professional historians who rely on other sources. I had bought it, hook, line, and sinker.
This is a problem, to say the least, since my plot depends on that very assumption. My first inclination was simply to forge on with my plot regardless of the consequences (I know you don't want spoilers, so I shan't give details), and simply explain in the back of the book. Jon was as relaxed about this as I was, because we know that the best that historians can ever hope for is to piece together evidence in the right direction. And, after all, I am writing fiction.
But, being a good historian, I was still bothered. That's when I realized that ships can get lost: And, Jon assured me, there is precedent for at least one transatlantic eighteenth-century ship unexpectedly detouring to Georgia after a storm. (Go back a century, and we meet the most famous lost ship in colonial history, the Mayflower. But I digress.)
The lovely thing about history and the plausibility test is that there is always another story to tell. And as I am fond of saying, nothing I can make up is as interesting as what actually happened. Assuming, of course, we can figure out what happened.