Writing Historical Fiction Part 3

Read all about it. 

Track down as many primary sources as you can—sources written or created during the time period you’re studying: journals, diaries, autobiographies, news film footage, interviews, photographs, speeches, books (both fiction and nonfiction), research data, even art. I still remember the afternoon I spent at my local university library looking up old newspaper clippings from the early 20th century when I was researching Victory Garden. It was fascinating to see what had been written between the years 1917-1922, the days when the women’s suffrage movement, World War I, and then Prohibition were happening. I was also fascinated to see how propaganda was used then, which wasn’t so different from the way it was used during World War II. Here’s a funny thing you learn when you’re researching history: the more things change, the more they stay the same. I even enjoyed reading advertisements from the period because it gave me a sense of the culture then. On the surface everything appears so naïve and innocent in the early 20th century, the Coca-Cola ads, the blemish cream ads, the shaving cream ads, especially when compared to today’s commercials, but looks can be deceiving. Reading primary sources gives you a finger on the pulse of the times. What were people thinking and feeling then? As writers of historical fiction, it’s our job to find out so we can share it with our readers.

You can also read secondary sources such as books by historians, biographers, and social critics about your time. Read other historical novels set during the time too.  Read it all. Even if most of the information doesn’t end up in your novel (and most of it won’t), it’s knowledge that will act as a backbone for the information you do share in your story. What you know will inform your writing, and the more of an expert you become through your research, the more expertly you will carry your readers into your chosen historical era. As writers of historical fiction, it’s our job to paint the scene of days gone by for our readers to visualize and understand. The more of an understanding we have about the era, the more interesting we can make it for our readers.

7 thoughts on “Writing Historical Fiction Part 3

  1. Hi Ruth! I know exactly what you’re talking about. Sometimes it’s the information you weren’t expecting to find that adds so much depth to the story. I found the poem “To My Dear and Loving Husband” when I was researching 17th century literature. I wasn’t familiar with it, but it turned out to be exactly the connection between my characters that I needed.

  2. I found some of the most remarkable things while doing research. Just as one example, I managed to track down the name of a play being performed in New York the month my characters were visiting there. Then I tracked down the script–and lo and behold, there was something in the drama that paralleled their personal drama. It made the in-theatre dialogue between them so much richer!

  3. That’s the wonderful thing about reading–everyone is allowed to like what they like, and there are enough wonderful books out there so there’s something for everyone. I’m so glad you like the way I like historical fiction. The history is definitely important to me!

  4. I was hoping to not really make anyone think I was coming from left field on this since I am not a writer like you.
    I really love your brand of historical fiction and am glad you took this topic to discus.

    Peace & Love

  5. Thank you so much for your thoughts, Rene. I think you echo what other readers out there think–that historical fiction should be about the history. The reason I write historical fiction is because I have a fascination with that time and I want to bring it to life for others. I haven’t read The Bloodletter’s Daughter, but after your recommendation I will have to read it.

    I’m so glad Her Loving Husband’s Return helped spark an interest in the Internment Camps for you. And thank you for your kind words. I really appreciate it.

  6. I liked your suggestions. It is great to know you have used them, and they are just not theories.
    May I make a suggestion to all those who write historical fiction? Please do not make it a Romance. There can be love, and that can even be the central theme, but to make it a romance novel takes away from the history part. I have read a lot of historical novels, and I will tell the truth: if it is a woman writer (and I am a woman), I will usually skip it. I find men are more concerned with history and getting into depth of the period and place. I have found a few really good women who write historical fiction, Meredith being one of my favorites. In general though, I find there is way too much romance in many of the supposed historical fiction novels, which it makes it hard to find a good book. I just find that if I want a romance novel, I know where to get them. I want a historical novel to show me the people (fiction) in the selected place and time. I just finished The Bloodletter’s Daughter, and it was very good in bringing out the characters, but also showed the villages and big cities of the time. Also the book shared real places, real people, and real events. Meredith’s do this as well, yet she is also able to weave a love story through it all. She actually got me interested in Interment Camps, which I never knew about. Just like I looked up the places where the Ottomans were fighting, where the village was of Marketa, and some of the actual historical events which were presented in The Bloodletter’s Daughter.
    The book Constantinople is also very good placing many characters in a real historical setting.

    Bottom line: if I want romance, I will buy a romance novel. I am very interested in historical fiction, and to have it mostly about a romance, with a little bit of history, isn’t what I wanted.

    Peace & Love

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