Tag Archives: research

Writing Historical Fiction, or “Holy Cow, This is Harder Than it Looks!”

So you’ve decided to write a historical fiction novel.

You enjoy writing, and you adore history, so combining your two loves is a natural step. But before you take that leap into the past, there are a few things you might want to think about…

Writing Historical Fiction, or "Holy Cow! This Is Harder Than It Looks!"

What are you bringing to the table?

As most historical fiction readers know, there is already a LOT of choices out there. Take the Tudors for example. There are thousands of books on Henry the Eighth (famous for his six wives, two of whom he had executed), Anne Boleyn (his most notorious wife), their daughter Elizabeth I, her sister, brother, cousin, their favorite cat, ‘Persil’, etc.*

You should ask yourself: do you want to retell the story, add something new, or both? They’re all fine options, but if you want to attract readers, simply repeating the same story just won’t do it. You need an angle, something new to add to the story like Hilary Mantel did when she told the Tudor story from the point of view of one of Henry’s key advisors in her novel Wolf Hall. Or else you need a time period that’s not been done to death. Throw in an obscure historical figure, or the ‘secret’ history of someone you admire, and you’re off to a good start.

*Not a real thing

Pros and cons of writing historical fiction:

Pros:

  • The history & timeline already exist – you only need to add the story
  • The further back in history you go, the less records there are – more chance for you to fill in the blanks with your story and get creative
  • Most, if not all, research can be done from your living room (see point below on using the internet)
  • You’ll become an “expert” in a relatively short period of time

Cons:

  • Research! If you don’t enjoy research, historical fiction isn’t for you
  • Even though the history & timeline already exist, you will still need to plan carefully (historical fiction readers are a VERY keen and, oftentimes, very particular group; they’ll call you on incorrect dates and events, fabric colors, types of broom straw, and favorite Tudor cats.)

Probably the most important aspect of writing historical fiction; you can never do too much…

Research

You will have to do research. You should be able to discuss your chosen time period with ease when finished. As mentioned, historical fiction readers can be pretty demanding. Your historical details must be accurate. But not all of your research will make it into your story. Remember, this is a novel, not a grade twelve history paper. Throwing in too much historical detail just for the sake of it will turn your reader off. Three pages of detailed description on how a medieval ax is made is fine for a dissertation, but unless the information is relevant to the story, simply referring to an ax will be enough for your readers. You can call it a big ax if you want. A big, shiny ax is fine. But leave it now.

Having said that, details are a lot of the story when used well, and will create your story’s atmosphere. A few words of description of what the king’s goblet looks like, compared to one of his servants, won’t only contribute to the sense of time but also subtly illustrate the difference between two different social classes ie rich people, and people owned by rich people.

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Important descriptions you may want to include:

  • Clothing
  • Households/halls/rooms
  • Furniture
  • Objects common to the period

Keep in mind that not only clothing fashions change with the times, so does furniture, architecture, decorations, household items – getting these details correct is imperative and will draw your readers into your story that much more.

One of my favorite quotes, while written by a horror master, applies to historical fictions:

“Give me just enough information so that I can lie convincingly.” (Steven King)

The Internet is Your Friend. Except When it Isn’t

While researching your novel, you will come across two scenarios:

  1. too little information
  2. too much information
  3. way-way too much information

Too Little Information

The further back in time you go, the less documentation exists (I had two paragraphs in a history book to use when I wrote my Anglo-Saxon novel). Records almost always focus on the upper classes and church and are usually written by males. These time periods, while frustrating to research, DO allow for more license when writing the actual story. Many details of life can be inferred based on the history and events taking place at the time – just don’t take it too far!

Too much information

How do you sort through all of that information? Carefully!

When researching any time period from any country, try to stick to scholarly sources ie sites that include information from primary sources and a bibliography. These let you dig further into your subject if you want to check the original source material (ie original court documents, bills of sale, household accounts, church records etc)

Way Way Too Much Information

Yes, it happens. Good luck and edit HARD!

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Characters

Make sure your characters act as they should. For example, an 18th-century woman will behave differently in most situations to a 21st-century woman and will have different resources to hand. Ensure actions are appropriate to the time period (don’t have Queen Victoria humming Beyoncé). And, as mentioned earlier, ensure your characters are dressed right.

Speech

Depending on your time and place, you may decide to write a speech as your characters spoke ‘back then’. This is fine, but a word of warning: if not done it can pull your reader right out of the story. Tread cautiously! (My characters spoke Old Norse and Old English/Anglo-Saxon but I chose to use modern English with a few Old Norse swear words added at appropriate moments to add flavor and urgency to the relevant scenes).

Remember not to let modern speech creep in. A letter from a Nineteenth Century gentleman to his sweetheart might start ‘My dearest darling’ and not ‘hey babe’. (One expression that particularly bugs me is ‘okay’. American, from the mid-1800s, it should never be used in a medieval historical fiction novel!)

Pick a Date

While your novel may be a sweeping epic that covers many generations of the same family, start with a specific date.

  • It makes the research a lot easier (kind of obvious, that one)
  • It’s necessary if you’re telling the story of an actual historic figure
  • It helps to anchor the story in your reader’s mind
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Location

You’ve picked your time period and all of your descriptions of clothing, homes, rooms, and behavior are accurate but what about your locations? Cities, neighborhoods, and countries change as much as fashion so make sure your descriptions of locations are just as correct. What sounds are there? Horse and carts? Pigs being herded through a street? Pre- or post-industrial age noises? And what about smells? A modern London street probably smells a lot better than a medieval one (or does it?). I once spent eight hours researching whether or not there was a priory at Ulney in 14th century England. There wasn’t. But I put one in anyway. And I feel guilty about it every day. Not kidding.

One Last Thought

Writing historical fiction can be constricting. After all, the facts are laid out already, what more is there? But remember, while the facts are there, the story isn’t. Yet. That’s your job!


Kelly Evans was born in Canada of Scottish extraction but spent much of her life in London, England. She obtained degrees in History and English in Canada and continued her studies in London, focusing on Medieval Europe, landscape archaeology, and the Icelandic Sagas. Kelly moved back to Canada ten years ago, shortly after which her first short stories were published. She writes horror and historical fiction, sometimes combining them. When not writing she enjoys watching really bad horror movies, reading, and playing oboe. Find out more: website: www.kellyaevans.com, twitter: @chaucerbabe, FB: @kellyevansauthor.

The Routines and Research of a 10-Minute Novelist by Guest Blogger Carre Gardner

Today was a writing day. Not every day is, I’ll confess. I know this is bad writerly practice. All the best authors say you ought to, must sit down at the same time every morning, and not get up until you’ve produced 500, 1,000, 1,500 words.

I would so love to have that kind of life.

The Routines and Research
The Routines and Research

But I am a 10-minute Novelist. And between 12-hour shifts at the hospital, a house with 4 stories of living space to keep clean-ish, 3 teenagers, 2 needy dogs, and 1 husband—all of whom expect to eat actual food on a regular basis—I can’t always carve out time to sit down and write 1,000 words a day. I do what I can, when I can, and I try to let go of the rest.

Note to self: This is good advice, not just for writing, but for life.

Still, a couple of times a week, I do get to spend the day just being a writer. Today was one of them. 

I always read that writing routines are important to productivity, and I am not without mine. When I sit down to write, the first major, indispensable step for me is to check Facebook. After that: Twitter. Then Pinterest, and my 2 G-mail accounts. Next, I go back and re-check them all, in case I missed something. And then a third time, on the off chance that something urgent has come up that will require my attention and absolutely prevent me from having to being able to write today. When this—inevitably—doesn’t happen, the it’s time to knuckle down.

I start by pulling up The Twin Oracles (a.k.a.Google, and Thesaurus.com) in two separate tabs. I keep them both handy as I open the files I’m working on—files that will be an actual, written part of a book someday. As both websites begin to glow, and then to burn red-hot, I set to work. (I also, at this point, may begin to drink a bit of gin, depending on how close to 8 a.m. it is.)

The Twin Oracles are necessary, because like it or not, research is an indispensable part of writing even fiction. Most readers probably never think about how much fact-searching has gone into their favorite books. Writers may not realize it either, until they work with an editor like mine, who has an unsettling way of checking up on details I’ve never even considered. She asks about my characters’ birthdays. About weather patterns. Leap years. Divorce laws. The life cycle of tomato hornworms. Her ability to spot holes, and to keep them from ruining my credibility, is amazing. She is involved and invested in my book in a way that no one else will ever be.

My editor is good at her job, and I like her, and want her to think I’m a credible writer, so I try to turn in my homework when it comes to researching the things I write about. Just for fun, today I kept track of all the things I researched as I wrote (mostly compliments of The Twin Oracles.) Here they are:

Synonyms for parsimonious and proclivity.

A road map of the route numbers in downeast Maine.

The definition of inertia.

Thom McAn Women’s Cut-Out Wedge Oxfords, circa 1970 (which, thanks to the omniscience of the Internet, now show up every day in my Facebook sidebar.)

Synonyms for closet, meal, and anger.

A quote by Walt Whitman, which turned out to actually be by Robert Frost.

A tide table for September, 2014.

The life expectancy of cats.

Catholic hospitals in Boston.

The question, “When do pansies bloom?”

Synonyms for urge, feeling, pet.

Current rent rates for 2 bedroom apartments in this part of the state.

The technical definition of a thoracic surgeon.

All that netted me around 3,000 words, which is fewer than 10 pages of a published novel.

The conclusion of the matter is one that I will go to my grave arguing: writing is hard, hard work. It’s brain-draining, creativity-sapping labor that will sometimes leave you, at the end of your 500 or 1,000 or 3,000 words, lying in a limp, be-sogged mess on the sofa, with the remnants of a gin headache whispering at the edges of your ocular field (cf. vision; perspective; eyesight.)

Writing takes smarts. And time, and commitment. How amazing that so many of us do it—not because it’s easy, or pays well, or is even particularly rewarding.

It is truly a craft of love; a labor of the heart and, yes, also of the mind.

Carre Gardner lives in Portland, Maine, where she works as a nurse at a local hospital. She has 3 teenagers, a husband, and 2 dogs. Her first novel, “All Right Here,” was released by Tyndale House in June, 2014. The 2nd, “Better All the Time,” is due for release in April, 2015, and a 3rd will follow the next year.