February 8, 2015

10 Tips on Writing Historical Fiction

I remember when I first started writing historical fiction. It's a challenge, a fascination and a journey all wrapped into one. And let's face it - we are the kings and queens of the google bunny trail and we love every second of it. But there is such a thing as GOOD historical fiction and BAD historical fiction.

I'd like to hope that what I write is straight from heaven and written in gold dust, but truthfully, there's a lot of editorial. I've been at this for about six or seven years now and so, I'm hoping, with this blog post, I can pass on some of the tips and tricks to crafting a story grounded in the past.

First off: what is the goal? Well, I'd like to think that we're all aiming for something that's historically accurate AND interesting to read. It's a tough balance, but here we go...

1. Google is your best friend

Sort of. I'd say that about seventy-five percent of my research comes from things I've googled. Blog posts, state historic park websites, articles, images, and my personal favorite, google books. But that other twenty-five percent is those glorious, hard-copy non-fiction books. Images of America books are fantastic. I have one for the county I've set my current manuscript in and I've found all kinds of neat pictures and fun facts on local history. I use those books to do a lot of my world-building. Another favorite of mine, are local paperback history books and pamphlets. 

Things to search: period clothing, common food, common names, etiquette, transportation, city maps, languages and accents, cultural traditions, etc. 

Things to be wary of: realize that anyone can post anything on the internet. The links that pop up in your google search are not the absolute authority on everything. Be sure to check your facts or else those history buffs will come knocking down your door. I once heard author Sarah Sundin (she writes some fantastic WWII romance) say that an actual WWII pilot contacted her after reading one of her books to correct some of her facts. On the upside, he helped her fact-check her next book. But the point remains, CHECK YOUR SOURCES.

2. Beware of Bunny Trails

If we're honest, most of us are total history buffs and we can get completely lost in our research, venturing so far down the bunny trail that what is currently in your search bar has nothing to do with what you actually needed to learn for the scene you're writing. So remember to stay on task. 

SOMETIMES bunny trails can be great resources for new plot lines. I've definitely used something I never even thought about until I stumbled onto it during a google search. But nevertheless, bunny trails can be dangerous time consumers. Stay focused.

3. Different Time, Different Taste

One thing that drives readers nuts is when a historical novel feels contemporary. Never forget that time=change and the social customs of then are not the social customs of now. Even language changes. The phrase, "OK" (also spelled "okay") is not historically accurate for anything set prior to the world wars. "OK" as an acronym referring to the military term "Zero Killed." So it doesn't make any sense whatsoever for a victorian character to say, "I'm okay." Rather, they would be far more likely to say, "I'm all right," or "I'm fine." 

And food. This drives me nuts. In the Little House on the Prairie TV show, the children are fed PB&J sandwiches. Now, PB&J didn't become popular until the turn of the century. The show takes place predominantly in the 1870's and 1880's when Laura was a child and a teenager. She and Almanzo had up and left for the Ozarks around the time someone even thought to put peanuts in a coffee grinder to make a spread. 

And don't forget - men and women's dating/courting habits change too. 

Emotions and feelings are timeless, but social customs are not. So don't forget to change your mindset when you start writing. Only contemporary writers have that luxury. We're a bit more like fantasy writers in that we have to put ourselves in another world and live by that world's rules.

4. Your Novel is NOT a History Textbook

Now, in the middle of all of your research, don't forget that it's supposed to read like a story, not be the perfect place to geek out over the painstaking process women went through in order to sew a dress prior to sewing machines. 

If it's not relevant to the story - leave it out. 

I know this is hard. We put hours of time and research into our manuscripts. It seems logical that all those details we scrounged up should find a home, but sometimes, those little tidbits are better left on the back burner for another story - one where they will be relevant. 

So do a read though of your manuscript and check for information dumps. You're telling a story, not writing a history book. Make sure your historical details weave in naturally and aren't overwhelming.

5. You Have Options

One of the fun little facts about historical fiction, is much of your character's world is already set in place - if you want it to be. You as the author have the option of choosing your setting. Certainly, unless you are writing contrafactual history, based on your year and country of choice, there are fashion and social customs set in stone. BUT, you can choose a particular town to work with that does exist, OR your can create your own town. 

There are many historical authors that create their own hometowns for their characters. This gives them the freedom to craft their own city streets, restaurants, stores, neighborhoods and local people. It's a perfectly acceptable custom within the genre. Lauraine Snelling did this in her Red River Valley series set in Blessing, ND. Blessing is not a real place, but a fictional one. Still, it works for her series. 

At the same time, there are plenty of authors out there who chose a real-life location for their story. The Love Finds You collection is a great example of this. Authors pick a real life town and use the geography, people, stores, streets and general features of that town to build their world. Mona Hodgson did this with her Sinclair Sisters of Cripple Creek series. As you can tell from her series title, her books are set in Cripple Creek, Colorado. And she did something amazing with her real-life location. After some research on local history, she wove in the 1896 Cripple Creek fire into her plot as well as real-life businesswoman Mollie O'Bryan into her second book.

So don't forget, while many details are set in stone, there is definitely some wiggle room to have fun. But are the same time, details can add to the realistic feel of the story.

6. Music

I LOVE historical music. It really puts me in the mindset of the time. And since the invention of sheet music in the middle ages, you can actually find recordings of period music. Personally, I write books set in the victorian era, so something I did was actually look up popular music from the 1800s. I kept in mind what communication looks like, so I dated my music based on the twenty years prior to my current time, and didn't use any songs written and published to close to my setting so that the music would have time to circulate. With the invention of the radio, you can have a bit more fun. But with the victorian era, I have to be careful. But anyways... after I found a good list, I searched youtube and itunes for recordings and created a playlist from it. I listen to that playlist anytime I'm writing. 

And don't be afraid to incorporate those songs into your work. Laura Ingalls did and (I'm going to use an afore mentioned author again) Sarah Sundin mentions several popular hits from the 1940s in her books. "Green Eyes" came up several time in her first book.

7. Museums & Living History

Something you may or may not know... there are a TON of history buffs out there. If you do use a real life location, go visit and check out the local museum. Talk to the curator, ask questions about grocery stores, clothing stores, milk and paper routes, local disasters etc. These are some great factoids that you can use. 

But even if you're manufacturing your own setting, visit some locations that inspire your made-up setting. Some places like Sutter's Mill in Coloma, CA even put on Living History days. Volunteers put on period clothing and go through the motions of a normal day in that time period. It's a great way to get a grip on real life. If there's a blacksmith on duty, making horseshoes and courting candles, walk inside, open your ears and inhale deeply. What does his shop smell like? What do the furnace and the hammers sound like? Sensory details are great fuel for writing.

8. Get Over Your Introversion

A common trait among writers is shyness (I know, introversion and shyness are not the same, nevertheless, as a rule of thumb, they seem to go hand in hand). But to be blunt, shyness doesn't serve very well when researching. And if you have an aversion to old people, get over that right now. They are the ultimate authority on what life in the past was like. Find your grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. and ask them about what growing up was like for them. 

I has a conversation like this with my great-grandmother, who grew up in dairy-country in the 1920s, and learned a TON from her. She wrote down a short synopsis of what a typical week looked like for her family. I treasure that research. Primary sources are fantastic.


Everything aforementioned is great, it's what I always keep at the back of my mind, but most of all, never forget to keep track of your sources. If you don't, you'll have to go back and find it all over again the next time you need that little tidbit for your story. 

I keep a folder in my bookmarks bar with my favorite links. I also have a notebook where I write down anything someone told me personally (primary sources). And for factoids I've found online, I like to copy and paste the important details and photos into a word document that I save on my computer desktop (don't forget to back that up to a flashdrive or your email. 

Feel free to create your own system. But please... save everything.

10. Don't Forget to Have Fun.

Always remember that first and foremost, fiction is meant to be enjoyed. So enjoy yourself while you write. All of these things are important, but they don't mean a thing if you're not getting some kind of joy out of the process. God has created us with certain hobbies and loves that give us joy. To be sure, push through the low spots to get to the next moment of joy, but don't bring low spots upon yourself by loosing the fun in the process. 

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