It is often the “small stuff” that loses me in historical novels. Just once the author writing that a character in 13th century England used a spinning wheel or that the knight left the castle riding his destrier is likely to find a novel hurled at a wall. (They used a distaff and spindle and it’s like riding a Sherman tank to the grocery store) If you throw in that a longsword is so heavy a normal woman couldn’t lift it, I’ll probably stomp on the novel, also.
Well, maybe I’m more emotional than some readers, but a lot of people know the difference. If you get the small stuff wrong, it doesn’t matter how right you are on the big stuff, you’ve lost your credibility with me.
It is hard to research, I admit, and writing historical a historical novel can take on a life all its own. I advise always at least handling a weapon you are going to write about. The Society for Creative Anachronisms and reenactment societies can be very nice about letting you pick up their weapons which are generally good copies. You can also find classes in using swords which is, by the way, quite different from fencing.
Otherwise, here is where I do sometimes depend on the Internet. It doesn’t take much of a search or much time to find out when spinning wheels were introduced in England, for example, or what spinning methods were used. There are blogs devoted to horses, although I might argue–as a horsewoman–with some of their ‘facts’, you will sound a lot more credible. There are also some books aimed at writers on these topics which can be a good investment if it’s something you include a lot in your novels.
Sometimes the search for details can be rather amusing. In my recent novel (still unsold *sigh*) about the Scottish hero Andrew de Moray I wanted to refer to the smell of gorse which grows quite commonly in Scotland. To me it smells very much like–coconut. In 12th century Scotland, he would NOT make that comparison. I posted on a forum (mainly with US members) asking for help and received the reaction: What the heck is gorse?
Visualize me as bemused. I finally decided to describe it as a “spicy” scent. But I could have said it smelled like coconut if I hadn’t sweated the small stuff. Hopefully, an editor (my agent is a fiend for such things) would have caught it. But if they let it slip through–like the idiot on his destrier which could have easily ridden down the children in the village square not to mention was about as expensive as a Ferrari–it is me who would have looked both lazy and ignorant, not the editor.
Because SOMEONE would have noticed.