Getting it Wrong

Post written and copyrighted by Doris McCraw

doris curiosity

I confess I have a hard time with the history some people write. I realize they are trying to sell books, that they believe what they are writing,making assumptions, but they can get it wrong.  I spoke in the last post about ‘When it Ain’t Right’. Now I just have to talk about ‘Getting it Wrong’.

I shall use examples from the lives of three different people from history: Katharine Lee Bates, Helen (Hunt) Jackson and Wm. Barclay ‘Bat’ Masterson.

Photographic portrait of Katherine Lee Bates, ...
Photographic portrait of Katherine Lee Bates, author of “American the Beautiful”. Image believed to be in Public Domain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Starting with Katharine Lee Bates. Ms. Bates, who wrote the poem “America the Beautiful“, and was a teacher at Wellesley College. She is strongly associated with Pikes Peak and Colorado Springs. The truth, she only spent six weeks in the area while teaching at the Colorado Springs Summer School. Because some of the classes were on the Colorado College campus many people assume it was Colorado College summer school. Wrong.  In addition she lived with her friend from college Catherine Komen, it is said she had relations with Catherine. If we use standards of today we would make that assumption, but without ‘proof’ it remains just that, an assumption that does not take into account the ‘society and action’ of the late 1890’s.

Helen Hunt Jackson
Helen Hunt Jackson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Helen (Hunt) Jackson, never used these three names together in her lifetime. Recently I read a book that said that Helen was having an affair with a married man and when he died she pursued her second husband.  That would make a great fictional story, but I have my doubts about how the author validated such a statement. Just because you are friends with someone, take a drive or spend time with them, does not necessarily mean you are lovers.  That is taking a personal and or current social concept and forcing it onto an earlier time. There was also a story that Helen’s first husband was having an affair with Emily Dickenson, who was a childhood friend of Helen’s. No real evidence that this is true, but without checking the sources of that information a historian could perpetuate the lie.

US Marshal Bat Masterson, c. 1879.
US Marshal Bat Masterson, c. 1879. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Finally Mr. Masterson. Here is the Old West hero in all his glory, at least according to legends. He was quick on the draw, fearless, etc. In truth, it seems that Masterson only had one shoot out in which he shot it out with another one on one. Most other incidents were in the line of duty as a law officer or in fights with Indians. He was more interested in boxing matches and gambling, from which he made a decent living. He died in New York at his desk at the newspaper office where he had written a column for a several years. Fortunately for Mr. Masterson he has a gifted biographer who really tries to tell the story based on facts with assumptions based on the time and circumstances of the time that Masterson lived.

If you are going to tell and write history, be aware of making assumptions based on little or no facts. We can’t help but filter the information through our own experiences, but to be good, try to leave yourself and ego from the page. Otherwise, use history as a tool to create great fiction, but be sure to label it as such, otherwise you are ‘Getting it Wrong’ in my opinion. 

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18 thoughts on “Getting it Wrong

  1. You are so right and again thanks for the history lesson. I love these colorful characters. I always loved Westerns, but I think a lot of those were fiction. I’m also thinking everyone thinks the last two posts are one in the same. Cher’ley


    1. Oops. The Sunday post by someone else didn’t make it. Don’t know how to differentiate.

      I am glad you enjoy these. I also love the West, Westerns and Western History. Doris


  2. Well said Doris! Of course stories take on a life of their own as the tale goes from person to person. Weeding through all that can be tedious, but as authors we need to be mindful of our facts. Thank you for another great history lesson!


  3. Would you share titles/authors of the books about Helen Hunt Jackson that you refer to? If you would, I’d be glad to give you my email address. In 1985, I wrote a master’s thesis on the writing of HHJ’s Ramona. I found nothing in the literature up to that time that hinted at intrigue of any kind (Emily Dickinson?!?), but of course, a lot of research has been published since 1985, when mine stopped. Oddly enough, I discovered practically nothing of substance written about Ramona. Critics and historians mentioned the novel most often in relation to Jackson’s work on behalf of the Mission Indians, and many articles contained flagrant errors. Ramona appeared to have received the same treatment Emily Dickinson’s poems received for a while: readers were more interested in the author than in her art. Analysis of the book was a pleasure, since practically none had been done by anyone else. (Disclaimer: At least that I could find.)

    I’m delighted to have been pointed in the direction of your blog. You’ve inspired me to dig out my thesis and remind myself of what I once knew.


  4. I also think it very important to stress that any historical writing I do is my own interpretation, based on as many reasonable facts as I can find. I dislike reading something that seems to be sensational without real facts and evidence. I cna see you bleie storungly too, Doris. Thanks for such a perceptive post!


    1. Believe it or not I understood your post. I loved it, Nancy. Fiction is fiction, although most historic authors (the good ones) do work to get it right. But those who are ‘writing’ history as historians…well we know how I feel. Doris


  5. I think this might be why I abandoned the historicals I wrote. I am paranoid about getting the facts wrong. Maybe I should just put an author’s note in them to tell readers that some facts have been tweaked for story purposes and offer them a list of books at the back of the book that they can read to get the real history.


    1. Cindy, I have a friend, Ann Parker, who writes historical mysteries and she does that. You might want to see how she does it, for I would love to read your books based on history. Doris


      1. I would love to get my historicals out there. Two are medieval. One is renaissance. I’ve learned a lot about writing since I wrote them so I can improve them quite a bit now. Hmmmm. Maybe once I get a bunch of stuff off my plate.


  6. Doris, once again you have given us great information to ponder. I love your historical pieces and your encouragement to “get the writing right!” I recently watched an old western tv show about Bat Masterson; fun and funny to see the 1950s versions! I can’t wait for you to put a fictional history book together!! I’d love to read what you’d create!!


    1. Goodness Gayle, I hadn’t thought of a historical fiction. Short story yes, maybe a collection of short stores. Now to get to work. (Grin). Thank you again for your encouragement. Doris

      Those old 50 & 60 Westerns are such fun. Love them also.


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