You’ve heard the old joke: I was a perfect parent…until I had kids. Before raising children of my own, my idea of parenting was simplistic – a few rules, an occasional band-aid, lots of love and my children would turn out fine. (Feel free to snicker, chortle or faint in amazement at my stupidity, here.) Of course, I eventually found out the truth – that raising children is harder than juggling knives – flaming knives – while on a tightrope, blindfolded, and singing the Star Spangled Banner, backwards, in Chinese.
Funnily enough, I had an equally simplistic view of how to write historical fiction: write a basic story, sprinkle in a few historical facts – maybe a famous person or two – and voila! Instant historical fiction!
I found out the hard way (which seems to be the only way I learn) that writing historical fiction is almost as hard as parenting. It’s layered. And complex. And fascinating. And definitely not for people in a hurry. I’ve decided to share some of what I’ve learned here. And whether you write or just enjoy reading historical fiction, I hope you will gain a deeper appreciation for the genre.
No Sprinkling Allowed – Contrary to my original viewpoint, I’ve found that a few historical facts does not a historical fiction book make! Historic facts have to be an integral part of the story – there must be a reason for them to be included. Books that use the sprinkling method read like a novel that had a history text leak onto a few of its pages. And, yes, they’re that compelling.
A calendar is your friend - If you chose to use dates in your story, check an online day-of-the-week calendar to make sure you don’t send your main character off to church services on a Thursday instead of a Sunday. Believe me, SOMEONE WILL LOOK IT UP AND WRITE TO YOU/YOUR EDITOR ABOUT YOUR GAFF.
Say WHAT? Have you ever read a book where a character uses a phrase or term that doesn’t fit the time period? Sometimes it’s not even a certain word but just the manner of speaking that doesn’t match the times. To avoid this, many authors read other novels set in the same time period, or, even better, read anything written during that era – newspapers, magazines, diaries, bills of sale, letters etc. Getting an ‘ear’ for the way people communicated is invaluable. The next step is reading it out loud, which, for some reason, makes these errors stand out. Another great source are the many ‘slang’ websites available, such as http://www.alphadictionary.com/slang/ on which you can research all the slang of a certain era or even all slang used for one word throughout the ages.
You’re wearing that? This is a question I often get from my teen daughters, but here I mean it to emphasize the importance of knowing the types, names and operations of clothes in your time period/setting. Though I am not one for describing a character’s outfit, a la Carolyn Keane (“Nancy looked smart in her powder blue, tweed car coat and leather driving gloves…”), I do like working clothing into a character’s actions to keep not only the feel of the time period but the vividness and believability of a scene. I could have a character “look up from putting on her shoes,” or she could “look up halfway through buttoning her shoes and wave the silver buttonhook as she spoke…” Details make all the difference. When your characters go outside, do they don a frock coat? Duster? Traveling jacket? Pea coat? It makes a difference.
Technology and Daily Life – Some things are so much a part of our daily lives that they are almost invisible to us, (think buttons, zippers, mailboxes, window screens) and it’s easy to overlook their presence in historical fiction. But zippers, for example, were not manufactured for public use until 1917 so if you read about a character zipping up his coat in the late 1800s, you know the writer did not do his/her research!
Also, keep in mind that what was common in one part of the country might not have been in another. For instance, in my WWII era novel, my main character (who lived in Seattle) goes to “Lincoln Junior High school” because where I grew up in Chicago, we had junior highs. My editor asked me to check to make sure Seattle had junior highs (and not ‘middle schools’ or something else) which had never occurred to me. Turns out, they did have Junior Highs but I learned a valuable lesson in the meantime.
These small, seemingly innocuous details can make a reader stop reading and maybe even start laughing. And you don’t want to turn your historical fiction into hysterical fiction.
Oh yes! Then there’s the small business of writing a compelling story, with great characters, a fascinating plot line…
But that’s another post all together.