Contributed by Betty Owens
It’s a little matter of history. If you’re a writer who is also a passionate historical reader, you’re already on your way to becoming a writer of historical novels. The best preparation for writing a historical is to read historicals––lots of historicals.
What time is it? Once you have an idea for your story, you’ll need to set the time. It’s best to use an exact date, even if it’s only the year. Find other books written in the same time period or era, and read them. Save your information–the titles and authors of the books you read. You may be able to use those in your book proposal.
If your “where” is an actual location, get a map. Use actual states, cities, towns, counties, streets, highways, etc., whenever possible. This anchors the story and adds interest. And be sure you have the right maps for the time. Don’t just pull a Google map and run with it. Some streets and even towns may not have existed during your story’s timeline.
Check your facts. Most writers will already know to do this. Don’t take any one person’s word for it. Follow your leads, and check several different websites (choose dependable, well-known sites). Use your neighborhood library or bookstore. And whenever possible, find and interview witnesses. However, don’t just trust to someone’s memories, check the facts. A glaring mistake can quickly nullify your credibility.
The story is the star. It’s not a history lesson, it’s a novel. Many writers, new to the historical market, make the mistake of overwhelming their storyline with facts. They try to cram every little bit of research into their story. Believe me, the reader is not impressed. If a reader has to wade through massive amounts of history to find the plot, most will usually either skim it, or put it down, and never pick it up again. You may never use all your research, but it’s good to have on hand.
Do your homework then write your story. Some writers prefer to dive right in to a story and do their research on the fly. It is a personal choice, but I prefer to have a background in the story first. This saves some rewriting. I will usually jot down my storyline, plot, characters, etc., and then do preliminary research to fill in the rest.
Even if you think you know the facts, check the facts. My latest WIP is set in a familiar place I thought I knew. But during my research, I found those memories incomplete. I learned some very interesting things that added character and detail to my story. This is often the case. Don’t assume you know everything. Dig out the lesser-known facts about a place, then you’ll have interesting nuggets to drop here and there in your story.
Don’t forget the accent. Slang and colloquialisms appropriate for the era, a British accent, a good southern accent, regional dialects––find the right balance and stick to it. A really good writer can do this without the reader’s noticing it. Sometimes the cadence is enough to evoke the feel of a regional dialect. Ever read a book like that? I have and it’s wonderful.
Most of all, have fun. If you had fun writing it, chances are, your readers will have fun reading it. And while we’re on the subject of humor, if it’s the type of story you can weave a little fun into, do it.
I keep a notebook containing all my research for a story. This includes the books I’ve read and notes on pertinent information I may have found in those books.
Here’s a short list of questions I try to answer before I begin:
- Fashions and household goods
- Religion, philosophical beliefs
- Attitudes, world view, current events for the time period
- Customs and technical details
- Class – (Income level) Upper, Middle, etc. – this is important
- Music – popular songs at the time
Webpages, Articles, & Books…Oh My!
Love this one!: http://etiquipedia.blogspot.com/
A couple of helpful books: