7. Immerse yourself in the period.
Research doesn’t have to be only about going through stacks of books and taking endless notes. Make this time fun for yourself. Visit local historical sites that are reminiscent of the period. Read books and listen to music from that time or place. Watch movies set in the period or documentaries about the era. I discovered the wonderful film Gettysburg while I was writing my American Civil War story, My Brother’s Battle. Watching the soldiers march and hearing the battle calls helped me to visualize the battle scenes while I was writing. I also bought several CDs of music from the era which I listened to while I was writing. I must have listened to the soundtrack to Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary a hundred times or more during the two years it took to write the book. I even bought a children’s paper doll book with Civil War uniforms and, yes, I had fun folding the clothes over the soldiers. As I was writing the novel I had no trouble describing the uniforms–or the garments under the uniforms. When I was writing my women suffrage novel, Victory Garden, which takes place from 1917-1922, I enjoyed watching silent films and listening to ragtime piano music since those were the entertainments people enjoyed then. The more you, the writer, feel as if you have traveled back to your time, and the more you enjoy your visit there, the more your reader will believe the journey.
Some final thoughts about writing historical fiction…
Whether or not we are historians by trade, writers of historical fiction are historians by choice, and we must take that seriously. This leads us to the question: How much leeway can the writer of historical fiction take with the facts? That’s the one question I’m asked most frequently, and that’s the one answer I don’t have. It’s up to authors to decide how they’re going to intertwine facts of the era with the characters and story they’ve created.
For writers who feel they need to change the facts for whatever reason, I won’t argue that it’s wrong to do; however, the former history teacher in me suggests adding a note about it in an Author’s Notes at the end of the novel. This way your readers (who are often familiar with your historical era) know that you know that you fudged some of the facts. I don’t think we should make massive changes to the history, but a tweak here and there can be forgiven if the story and characters are strong enough. Perhaps the task of the historical storyteller is to make the history interesting enough for readers so they’ll become curious and want to read some nonfiction about the era. That’s what Downton Abbey did for me. After I fell in love with the show, I began reading everything I could find about early 20th century England.
The primary job of the historical storyteller is to educate readers with facts about the past while entertaining them with well-written plots and engaging characters. The more joy we find in the process of writing our history-based stories, the more joy we’ll find as we share our stories. And that is why we write historical fiction after all.
This concludes Writing Historical Fiction 101, at least until I can think of some other advice I’ve shared with my writing seminar students.