I have mentioned the importance of factual accuracy in previous essays, but I believe it’s worth devoting an entire essay to.
If you are going to use specifics in your writing, you need to ensure that they are accurate, right down to the caliber and word. Many Western readers are well versed in the history of the Old West and an inaccurate fact jumps off the page at them. And if they find your mistake, and they will, be prepared to receive emails and Facebook posts pointing out your error.
In my first Brock Clemons book, Coyote Courage, I made the mistake of using the word “adrenaline.” I’m not sure why I did—I remember it nagging at me at the time that I should do a little research on it, but I didn’t. The book wasn’t out two days before I received an email explaining to me…
“Mr. Harris, I enjoyed your book, though I am disappointed by your use of the word ‘adrenaline.’ Adrenaline was not discovered until 1895 by the Polish physiologist Napoleon Cybulski. It was first used in America in 1896, long after the late 1860s, which is when your book takes place. It would seem…”
Lesson learned. Research and proofreading improved.
The real danger lies in weapons. And yes, I got that. If you simply say, “Black Bart pulled his revolver,” you should be OK, as long as it’s after 1836 when Samuel Colt applied for the first American patent on a revolver. Otherwise, Black Bart would have had to be using a sixteenth century Xun Lei Chong, and I’m guessing he wouldn’t have been.
Perhaps the most popular revolver for the quarter century starting in 1850 was the 1851 Colt Navy Revolver, but it’s important to know that they were manufactured as .36 caliber, even though later many were converted to .38 caliber. They were not the .44 caliber you sometimes see attributed to them. By the way, if you like way “.44” reads, take a look at having your character carry an 1860 Colt Army Revolver.
Locations are another one where a little research ensures you get it right. Let’s use what is now known as Colorado as an example, since it is a common location for Westerns. Denver wasn’t founded until 1858. The Colorado Territory (with the same boundaries as present day Colorado) wasn’t organized until 1861, and Colorado didn’t officially become a state until 1876.
You should know that the Pony Express was quite short lived—from April 1860 to October 1861.
The first transcontinental telegraph wasn’t completed until 1861, followed eight years later by the first transcontinental railroad, when on May 10, 1869, Leland Stanford (president of the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California and, later, the founder of Stanford University) drove the gold “Last Spike” at Promontory Summit.
And last, know your Indian tribes. The Cherokee, a favorite of Western writers, were a Southeast tribe. Well-known Southwest tribes included the Apache, Pueblo and Navajo, but if your story takes place in the Great Plains, the most likely Indians to be found would be the Comanche, Cheyenne, Blackfoot, Crow or Arapahoe. Or, if you’re setting your story in the Pacific Northwest, you would want to use Tlingit or Nez Perce.
In the end, it’s your story and your book, but if you want to keep the reader involved, and you use specifics of dates, weapons, locations, tribes, etc.—make sure they’re accurate.
Now, what year was it when the 1866 Winchester Rifle was first manufactured?