Five Research Tips For Writing Historical Fiction
In his essay, “Two Cheers for Presentism,” the historian David Bell writes, “The past, it has often been said, is a foreign country: weird, wonderful, and strange. Great historians give a visceral sense of this foreignness, showing that what looks familiar at first sight is really anything but, and revealing, with an anthropologist’s eye, the many wildly different forms the human spirit and human societies can take.” Novelists, too, need to approach the writing of historical fiction with an eye and ear to that “visceral” foreignness—to the wonderful and strange quality of the past, and to the different forms the human spirit and human societies can take. At the same time, as with the study of history, the writing of historical fiction, if it is to be relevant, must speak in some powerful way to the concerns, attitudes, values, and beliefs of the present. Bell goes on to say, “[History] is an always-unfinished conversation between past and present.” The writer of historical fiction must take up that unfinished conversation, present the wonderful strangeness of the past but do it in such a way that the present can relate to and gain insight from that past.
To create that foreign yet true world of the past, the historical fiction writer needs to research their subject extensively. With this in mind, the following are some basic research tips for writing historical fiction. I offer examples from my own novels because I know them from my own research and from what I learned, and the mistakes I made, in writing them. I’ve published four historical novels with Harper Collins and St. Martins, and have two others historical novels being represented by my agent right now.
1. Read everything you can on your subject
It’s important to know the historical era you’re writing about and to feel “comfortable” moving around in it. By comfortable, I mean that you feel you know what it’s like to wake up in that time period, to get dressed, to move through the day as your characters would. Read not only about topics directly related to your novel but also widely within the period. Find out what the people of the era ate, what they wore, how they spoke. For example, if possible, get your hands on a dictionary of the period; I used this when writing my novel The Garden of Martyrs (set in 1806 in New England, the novel is closely based on an actual murder case of the period; since it involved Irish immigrants, I read several books on Irish language and expressions from the early 19th century). Read both nonfiction and fiction. Nonfiction can provide facts and a framework for the period, but fiction (especially that which is contemporaneous) can provide details of life, language, and ways of thinking about the era from those who lived it. My novel Soul Catcher, set in the 1850’s, is about a slave catcher chasing down two runaway slaves. I found myself reading everything I could about slaves, runaways, the law (including the Compromise of 1850). From newspapers, I found runaway slave ads; from the internet I was able to get pictures of shackles; from a dictionary of the period I was able to cull words and phrases used during the time. For more recent historical fiction (i.e., the early 20th Century) a great resource is Newspapers.com.
2. Research not only for historical verisimilitude but to give shape to your plot and depth to your characters
While research does provide texture and verisimilitude, it can also help you develop your plot and deepen your characters. A small detail culled from reading about the history of the era might give your character an expression, a personality trait, an item of clothing which authenticates that character. Or research might lead to an entire shift in plot. For example, in my novel The Garden of Martyrs, I was doing library research when I stumbled upon an actual court transcript of the trial that would form the central plot of my novel. With this in hand I made a complete shift both in the plot and in the major characters—I added a central character and cut another completely (perhaps the latter will find work in another of my novels). Without the transcript, I would have written a completely different—and I believe—less successful novel.
3. Field research: go to places, walk the streets, talk to people
Besides “book” research, it’s important to “walk a mile” in your characters’ shoes. That is, if possible visit where your story takes place, where your characters lived and breathed, with whom they spoke and interacted. For example, my novel A Brother’s Blood is about a WWII German POW camp in a very remote part of Maine. The prisoners worked as loggers for an American paper company. I visited the setting of the actual prisoner camp, walked around its perimeter and saw its foundation stones, from which, along with photographs of the camp, I was able to get a better sense of what it was like to be a prisoner there. I was able to see and smell and feel what my characters did. Also, because of this trip I came in contact with a retired American logging supervisor who actually worked with the German prisoners during and after the war. He sent me a five-page letter detailing his work with the prisoners. From the letter I was about to deepen both my characters and my plot. Likewise, when writing my novel Soul Catcher I visited the site of John Brown’s farm in upstate New York, because that was where one of the runaway slaves would be captured. While standing in the woods near the Brown property, I imagined the specific scene of the capture, who was present, and how it unfolded.
4. Research is as much for yourself as it is for your reader
Research not only provides your reader with details of and a feel for the period, it permits you, the writer, to inhabit the world of your characters, to feel comfortable and confident moving about in that world. Remember, your character is defined by what he or she does for a job, what they eat, think, their ambitions, their fears, their passions—that is, very fabric of your characters’ world. For example, Augustus Cain, the protagonist of Soul Catcher, is a slave catcher, and thus I needed to know what he required to do his job. The basic tools of his trade would be a gun, a horse, the ability to track a runaway, and as despicable as it sounds, shackles to put on captured slaves. To cite just one example: his Walker Colt revolver. While I’ve shot and handled hand guns all my life, I knew very little about the pistols of the period, which were black powder, single-action, muzzle-loading. So I had to learn (mostly through YouTube videos and talking to gun experts) how to load and shoot a Walker Colt. Feeling comfortable doing this allowed me to have my character handle his gun with the ease of a professional.
5. Know when to cut
Finally, as with any novel details and facts are important in creating a sense of place, time, and character. And while historical details may often be interesting and provide texture, they are NOT the story. Sometimes it’s important to know when to cut details that, while fascinating in themselves, don’t move the story forward. In an early draft of my novel Beautiful Assassin I put in so much backstory and details that I found interesting about female Soviet snipers, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Manhattan project (but which had little to do with the story I was trying to advance), that the novel ballooned up and I eventually had to cut nearly 150 pages. Like many of my undergrads doing a research paper, since I had done the research, I wanted to show everyone just how much of an expert I was on the subject. I’d lost sight that a historical novel is, first and foremost, a novel like any other. Facts and details about the character, the setting and the plot are important, but they are subservient to the story. Don’t be afraid to cut those historical details that are only there for show.
I’d love to hear from other writers of historical fiction which of these tips they find helpful, as well as tips you might have learned in your own writing or research.