We grow up being told to “write” what we “know”, but history is the unknown.
You have to learn almost everything about a period and the social
customs just to get your characters out of their beds, (or off of their
skins,) and feed them breakfast.
Rule #1: Sweat the Small Stuff.
The authenticity of historical fiction depends on your knowledge and
use of historical detail. It is not enough to say a character walked
down the street. The reader has to be able to see the street, see the
conveyances; he has to smell the smoke from the factories or the sewage
in the gutter. If there are street vendors, he has to know what they’re
selling. This is a new world: the reader can’t fathom it unless you
give him images. These should be accurate and not recycled from old
Here are two suggestions apart from the usual methods of research.
1. Find experts on the topics you need to learn about. It’s easier
to track down someone who knows about sheep ranching in the 1890’s or
the origins of the New York subway system, and to call them up when you
need to know about scabies or the early methods of blasting tunnels,
than it is to find, in documents or on the internet, the exact answer
to every question that comes up in the course of writing a book. If you're going to write a scene involving a train wreck in 1891, get some books
on train wrecks, read enough to know what you’re talking about, google
the authors and find out where they work. Call them up and see if
they’ll talk to you. Latch on to the friendly ones. “What about the
couplers?” you can ask them, having read enough to know that faulty
couplers were a major factor in train wrecks. “If this is 1891, what
kind of couplers would we have?” I once needed to know about Mormons in
Mexico. I googled “Mormons in Mexico,” found a woman who had written a
dissertation on a Mormon settlement near Juarez and tracked her down
through the school. She spent two hours on the phone with me describing
vividly the Mormon settlement that my characters needed to visit.
Dozens of experts on a wide range of topics have generously helped me
in similar ways.
2. If your story takes place after catalogs were in use, get hold of
reprints of old catalogs. I have an 1895 Montgomery Ward Catalog that
has descriptions of, and prices for, almost every personal item used by
people of that time: hardware, books, stationery, toys, guns,
toiletries, wallpaper, stoves, laundry equipment, harnesses and
saddlery -- the list goes on and on. It represents the lifestyle of
Rule #2: Dump the Ballast.
In order to write authentic historical fiction you must know a period
of time well enough to disappear daily through a wormhole to the past
and arrive at the location of your story. There you must understand the
customs and use the manners perfectly enough to be accepted by people
walking the streets (if there are streets) and to dress yourself, and
make a living. This said, the major trick of writing good historical
fiction is not in compiling research or knowing the details, but in
knowing the details to leave out. Try to avoid overwriting. Keep
perspective on what will interest the reader. Historical fiction
writers tend to be overly conscientious and excited by minutia: if you
succumb to excess, and put in too much detail, then go back later and
take some of it out. Think of your novel as a boat that is about to
sink from having too much weight on board: some of the loved items will
have to go. Toss them over with impunity! Throw them out! If a rare,
surprising statistic, or a moving anecdote, or an obscure reference you
saw to an interesting thing that happened in the county adjacent to the
one where your story takes place, does not advance your plot or provide
your reader with important information about your characters, then it
is irrelevant to your story and must go overboard.
Keep in mind that the care, and time, it took to assemble all that
you have just thrown out has not been wasted. It was necessary to
gather these facts and assess their worth in order to know which ones
Rule # 3: Keep Your Conscience Clean.
If your characters are based on real people and you are using the
names, be reasonably responsible to the originals. You are probably
going to have to fill in a lot of gaps in the historical record: you
may know from the record what a person did and when he did it, but not
why. It’s the “why” that defines his character. Ask yourself: Am I
getting this right? Am I getting it close to right? Am I doing this
person a disservice?
Rule #4: Resist Judging Your Characters.
We live in the 21st century with certain shared values: our society
disapproves of prejudice and chauvinism and provincialism. But your
characters are people of their own times; allow them to be bigoted or
politically backwards. Don’t pass judgment on them, don’t apologize for
their mistakes, and don’t attempt to make them all into free thinkers
who are ahead of their times. You have to be able to see the story from
their perspective, even if it offends you. If you judge your
characters, you will date your book. Years from now when your own moral
sensibilities are antiquated, your book will be too.
Rule #5: Watch Out for First Person.
I put down three books recently because I was annoyed with the first
person viewpoint, which came across as self-absorbed. Unless you’re
writing in the form of letters or journals, make sure any first-person
character has a good reason to be telling his story. People tend not to
like people who notice themselves too much or describe themselves or
seem overly aware of how others perceive them. Anyone relating a story
about himself -- what he said, what he was wearing, what inflection he
had in his voice or what gesture he made as he spoke some pronouncement
-- we dismiss as annoying and self-important. We feel the same about
characters. There are many beautiful books written in first person, but
know the challenge of this before you start out, and be sure to give a
credible reason why your character needs to tell his story and why he
deserves an audience.
Rule #6: Don’t Get Bogged Down by Back-story.
It is easy to be overly dutiful and bore your readers with too much
background information delivered too soon. There is no surer way to
lose your reader than to answer every question before he wonders about
it. Don’t explain everything up front or set things up too thoroughly.
Instead, let your story unfold dramatically. Clarity will emerge
eventually. The trick is to delay telling back-story for as long as
possible. You will find that most of it is never needed. It percolates
up through the real story when the real story gets going.
Rule#7: Anticipate a Long Process.
Historical novels usually take several years to write, as they require
research at every turn. You won’t always be able to anticipate what
you’ll need to know for a scene, and will constantly have to be
returning to your references. This is entirely different from writing
Take, for example, in my part of the world, a trip from Austin,
Texas to the nearby town of San Marcos. If you are going to write a
present-day scene in which your character makes this trip, you will
simply need to put him into a vehicle -- a pickup, or a Volvo -- and
head him south for forty minutes on the flat terrain of interstate 35,
passing strip malls and fields and the town of Buda. He will then take
the exit marked “Wonder World”, named for a local cave and visitor’s
center, and arrive in San Marcos. The only research needed to write
this scene will be to drive the route yourself.
But if your character takes this journey in 1906, you will have to
learn a few things before starting him out, and learn more things along
the way. First of all, you need to know where the road is, and what’s
on either side of it, and what kind of conveyance your character is
driving. If it’s a flatbed wagon, what’s pulling it -- a horse, a
half-lame mule, two mules? How often do mules need water? How much
traffic will there be? Any cars? What kind of food or luggage do you
have along? And what if a wheel breaks, and you have to fix it, and you
cut yourself with a rusty tool -- how do you disinfect the cut? Do you
even know about disinfection? When did people figure out where tetanus
came from? And -- assuming that you eventually make it to San Marcos,
what’s in San Marcos, anyway? As for the Wonder World exit -- when was
the cave called “Wonder Cave” actually discovered?
But here is where the magic comes in: you begin to think, “Wow. The
discovery of Wonder Cave. Now that would make a scene . . .” And then
suddenly you have a story, and a book to write. The only problem, of
course, is that you will soon find out that Wonder Cave was discovered
in 1898 instead of 1906, so you will have to move your story back eight
years and find out what sort of vehicles they drove in 1898 and along
what road, and the rest of it, or else joggle the facts and sacrifice
credibility in the name of literary license. Or ditch Wonder Cave.
Writing historical fiction is like trying to get to San Marcos when
you have no car, you don’t know where the road is, and you have never
in your life harnessed a half-lame mule to a flatbed wagon.
Assume it is going to be a while before you arrive.
None of these rules, obviously, is iron-clad. I’m sure there is a
brilliant counter-example somewhere for each and every one of them. I
hope you find them useful. Good luck! Happy Travels! God’s speed.