3 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting My Historical Fiction Novel
Sometimes, I feel as though I belong to a different time, one of long letters, porch swings, local lore, and clay pipes. I've been told I have an "old soul" and it's probably my nostalgic nature that draws me to the pages of history.
As a teen with the new found freedom of a drivers license, I frequently drove to the library and historical society to check out heavy books, stick my nose up against display cases, and read the local newspaper archives.
Sometimes little stories would jump out at me…
An Indian woman whose family was poisoned…
A millionaire heiress who lived in a prestigious hotel but died in squalor…
A police chief who was shot in his living room and the crime was never solved…
Although these are sad stories, I find their inconclusiveness fascinating. Why was the family poisoned? Why did the heiress hide away and die alone? Who killed the policeman and why?
Often, I write to make sense of events that have not been given an explanation, to scrape together a full picture and give it a happy ending.
The following are three things I wish I'd known before starting my historical fiction novel. Had I considered these questions in the early drafts of my first two books, I might have saved myself years of rewriting.
1. WHEN your story is about dramatically effects WHO your story is about
A fascinating theme often found in historical fiction is how a MC (main character) is a product of his time and yet longs to overcome the obstacles of his time to find happiness, justice, love, security (and so on).
Let's look at some main characters from the classics...
In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor and Edward long to be together, but a youthful promise he made to another girl prevents him from telling Elinor how he feels. This may seem like a small obstacle to a 21st Century mind, (just break it off and marry Elinor!) but in the 19th Century engagement was taken very seriously and must be honored.
In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby longs to be with Daisy, but because he is a low-born soldier, she marries someone of her own station. With Daisy as his guiding light, Gatsby makes his fortune and sets out to win her again, but Daisy's own selfish vanity becomes his undoing.
Explore the following questions...
Who is my MC? When do I want my story to take place? How do the restrictions of this time period affect what my MC wants? How does my MC ruffle feathers? Why does he choose to keep quiet or rise up in the face of injustice?
Let's look at the PBS series Poldark as an example. The protagonist, Captain Ross Poldark, returns to his childhood home in Cornwall to find his father dead, his childhood sweetheart betrothed to someone else, and the family mines nearly bankrupt. Talk about high stakes! Although a high member of society, he hates the pomp and circumstance of those who share his class and longs to provide jobs for the poor. In fact, his hatred for upper-class politics and his inability to curb his tongue often land him in a heap of trouble.
The writers of the show, understand the unjust world that Ross lives in and convey that harsher reality to a modern audience with several key scenes early on. Watching Ross oppose the social norms of the 1780s episode-after-episode is absolutely riveting--creating the perfect set up for an epic man vs. society struggle.
Other key questions to ask when choosing a time period
Is there a true historical event I want to take place during my novel? Will that event serve as an inciting incident, midpoint or climax? It doesn't have to be an epic, history book event; zoom in and find a little slice of history that your audience might not know!
2. Inspiration is found in unexpected places
In 2010, while flipping through my grandma’s Reminisce Magazine, a photo of two sisters captured my attention. The caption on them was only a few lines, stating that they were famous showgirls in the mid-1920s. Believe it or not, this single picture sparked such curiosity in me, that my imagination began to run away, I wrote down scene after scene, and eventually, a novel was born.
Read old newspapers
Stories that never find their way into the history books are in the newspaper! Newspapers zoom in close to a variety of things such as local events, advertisements, and society and advice columns.
Scanned old newspapers can be found online and archival computers at historical societies.
Read books & watch documentaries
If you are writing about a time period that still has a surviving generation, don't pass up the chance to interview them!
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any surviving flappers to interview, but I did visit with a family whose grandfather was apart of a Jewish gang in the 1920s. I was able to find a 1980's recorded interview where an ex-flapper shared what it was like to work in a Chicago nightclub.
Read books published at the time
Read novels by authors who were famous in the time you are writing. (I read a lot of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Mary Roberts Rinehart.) Not only will you know what your characters might be reading, you’ll also get a sense for how people talked, mannerism, and cultural expectations. DON’T rely on movies for these cultural vibes, they are often full of historical inaccuracies!
Study the art of the time and look for exhibits that feature the time period you are writing in.
3. No detail is too small
Even if you’re not writing diary style, I recommend making notes of the dates as you write (even if you delete the dates later). This will make your writing more accurate when describing weather (was it really the hottest summer on record?), major events that your characters would have heard about (presidential inauguration?), the progression of the moon (don’t write that there was a full moon at the beginning of June in 1889 if there wasn’t one).
What kind of fabrics did people wear? (Many blends weren't invented until the 1950's, be accurate to the time period!)
What products were invented? (Believe it or not, store-bought pre-sliced bread wasn’t invented until 1928.)
What slang was popular? ("Where you headin' toots?")
What songs were popular at the time?
What foods did people eat?
How did they wash their clothes?
What topics were taboo in upper society?
What were hot-button political topics at the time?
With a mind full of questions and the right resources, your book will overflow with a historical richness even you didn’t expect!
When I feel stuck in book plotting, it’s usually because I’m not feeling confident enough in the subject I’m attempting to write about. So, I’ll go off and research for a few weeks. Often, I’ll stumble across a something that I didn't know before. To borrow the cliche, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and it is these true events that get my imagination whirring again.
Happy Monday & happy writing!