“The Beauty of Wynona” is the only historical fiction story I’ve written, so I’m certainly no expert on this sub-genre. That said, this story taught me a lot about writing such stories. “The Beauty of Wynona” is set in 18th century England. I’m no expert in that place or time period, so I conducted a considerable amount of research. By the time I finished the first draft of my story, I thought I had the world accurately portrayed. How easy it is to delude yourself.
When I sent the first draft out for comments, I received several comments about the historical setting. The general consensus was that I did a decent job of capturing the time period, but for some reviewers, a few things were off, e.g., how the various social classes addressed each other in conversation. None of these things torpedoed the story itself, but they pulled a knowledgeable reader out of his/her suspension of reality. Fortunately, these were easy to fix with some targeted research.
The most interesting comment that I received, however, was that my first-person narrator used terms that didn’t exist in the chosen time period. For example, my first-draft narrator used the word “paranormal,” which didn’t exist in the 1870s (it was first used in the 1920s). A variety of other terms and phrases also were not yet coined. Most readers wouldn’t notice (and in even this case no other reviewer commented) or particularly care about this discrepancy, but it was important to me that I get it right. Fortunately the critiquer provided a link to an online resource with just information I needed: the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
While they don’t always have every word I’m looking for, this site has become my go-to place for word origins, especially time period of first use. As a logophile (not in Merriam-Websters, for example), I’m fascinated with the origin of words, and sometimes I find myself just looking up words while I’m writing to learn their origin and date of first use. For anyone writing historical fiction, I recommend the Merriam-Webster site. It might be a small, nitpicking detail to get the language right, but I think it goes a long way to giving the story credibility, especially if you use a first person narrator.