Why Write Historical Fiction? Why Not?
My journey into historical fiction began with a novel by Deanna Raybourn, “Silent in the Grave.” I applauded her first novel because it raised historical fiction to the next level. It was the first time I’d considered writing in that genre. I also loved the friendly banter and flirtatious feel of Rhys Bowen’s “Her Royal Spyness” series, so I considered doing what Lucas and Spielberg did—make a movie they’d enjoy seeing themselves. I wrote a book I wish I’d written. Close to 240,000 words combining (hopefully) the haunting darkness of Raybourn and the witty banter of Bowen. Being a pantser, it was only when the darn thing was finished that I realized two things: it was way too long, and it was going to take a hell of a lot of research to make it work.
So my first novel became my first trilogy. I’d always been interested in history—the Cradle of Civilization, the Dark Ages, Salah ad-Din, Attaturk, WWI, Roaring Twenties, FDR, you name it. I loved it so much, I even took history as my electives in college. But 1898 in Devonshire? Now, five years and two writers’ groups later, I’ve learned an awful lot. Still, I’ve drawn on the advice of two other writers to say yes, you can write historical fiction, but you have to do your research. I adored the idea of plopping two main characters into a period of history that changed the face of Europe. But…what did they wear, how did they speak, how did the culture changes around them influence their lives?
Paula Brackston, a British historical fiction writer, warns the writer to be careful not to become so enmeshed in research that you put off writing the story. Also, as you write, you’ll come across other areas that may require related or more detailed research. She admits the internet can be a wonderful source for research, but you might be overwhelmed by the amount of information available. Also, credibility is often in question. You may become bored by the repetition of identical information in article after article. Often one thing you read will peak your interest, and you’ll look into that only to discover yet another thing of interest. And so on, and so on, down the rabbit trails. Don’t lose your focus!
Brackston lists two sources of information when conducting research. The primary source should be something that existed at the time—i.e., an article of clothing, a letter, furniture, newspaper articles and magazines/periodicals, old encyclopedias, passenger lists aboard steamships or ocean liners showing names and prices, train tickets and histories depicting when tracks were laid and where, museums, antique shops, libraries, documentaries and film. Your secondary source might be something someone has already written that takes place in the time period and/or region you’re interested in for your own book. If the author has listed his/her resources and you need to look further, you may want to check out where they got their information.
What do you look for? First, basic information regarding clothing, means of transportation, social mores, food & drink common to the time and country, weapons, art, architectural styles, and the political makeup of the state, province, or area where your story takes place.
Brackston purchased The London Illustrated News published in 1917, which she found on ebay for around £15; it was filled with pictures and descriptions. These sorts of publications may be found as early as 1850. Picture books and travel books may have information you’re looking for as well and can be purchased secondhand. Facts and figures are great to sprinkle in to give your reader authenticity, but it’s as important if not more important for you, the writer, to get a “feel” for what the world was really like for your characters.
Natalia Leigh has an entertaining Youtube video “How to Write Historical Fiction” about visiting an actual library. For her novel “Pistol Daisy” which takes place in 1880 in Colorado, she not only researched weapons, but also wars, natural disasters, political leaders, wagon trails, and available technology (electricity, plumbing, telegraph, telephone). The Civil War was still a big deal—it had only ended 16 years earlier so, while it had little or no impact on her main character, it impacted her parents and grandparents and the world around her. One point Natalia makes is not to expect the results of your research to be perfect; just incorporate the small details to enrich your story and know the larger background and how it might have affected your main character’s life. Some writers of historical fiction become experts in fields that interest them; however, the majority of your readers will appreciate small details and probably won’t notice little errors.
One area Natalia mentions, which I found a problem in my own research, concerns vernacular. Ellington Hall takes place in 1898 in Devonshire, England, but it’s written for an American audience. I reached a compromise between British and American language at the turn of the century, incorporating a Scottish accent for a minor character and a Louisiana accent for another. You need to be conscious of whether or not people used contractions, slang words, proper speech, or dialects. These concerns may also be connected to settings and regions in a given country. You may want to look up the origins of words and when/where they came into usage.
Ideally, you would visit the locations of your book and/or speak to someone who was around during the time period of your story. Small details from people who were alive at the time can add a huge personal feel of authenticity to your writing. If your period of interest predates them, these older people may still recall things their parents told them. You can find some gems just by spending an hour or two talking about the past, which most elderly people love to do anyway.
Which leads to my last piece of advice: take your time. Zipping through research only means more research later on to correct it or even validate it. An added note of organization—keep all of your research in one place, be it a physical folder or a computer folder or a series bible. If you use sticky notes and you’ve run out of room on your forehead, transfer them asap into the computer or into a notebook. I have one huge notebook labeled RESEARCH. Works for me.
Write something you’d love to read. Before you know it, you’ll start feeling right at home in that other world, and that’s when the fun starts.