Any well written novel needs to be researched, particularly an historical novel. If you get the details wrong, your readers are never going to let you forget about it. If cholera arrived in a particular year in a town, and you’re just a year or two out with the date, believe me, someone will know about it. So you need to do your research.
Here are some points worth remembering when writing historical fiction.
- Write what you know, but also write what you don’t know… research it!
Some writers get so bogged down in research that they don’t get to actually write their novel in the first place, or if they do, the research impedes their progress. I met a journalist once at a writer’s luncheon. After we exchanged some background details about one another, she turned to me and said, “You know I envy you?”
Puzzled, I asked her why. She said it was because I could write both non fiction and fiction. Something she had difficulty doing herself. As she came from a newspaper background, it was difficult for her to write fiction as she was constantly researching and fact checking, as a result, she couldn’t seem to write her book.
I think that just about sums it up. Research is great, but too much research can bog down both the reader and the author. After all, it’s enough to mention a few details about a particular historical item, rather than the reader knowing its total history, that would bore them to death.
For me, what works well, is writing and researching as I go along. For example, I might spend an hour or two reading a local history book and it then gives me ideas to later slot into my novel in progress. I read one book last year which contained details of people’s misdemeanours and sentences. I read about one washer woman who hit the bottle when her husband left her, she then turned to prostitution as she fell upon hard times. I used that idea for a character in my novel. The Wash House became a character in and of itself as further characters and plot ideas sprang to mind.
- Don’t rely on the Internet alone.
There’s a lot of misinformation online. If you find some valuable information on one website, double-check it on at least another couple of sites. Better still, visit the library and check there too. Whilst it can be helpful to include dates, you don’t want your novel to read like a school history book. The Battle of Hastings might have taken place in 1066, but the reader doesn’t need a day and date on every page of your story to make it interesting, in fact, doing so would make it most dis interesting!
- Use correct language for the time period.
Many modern words, particularly slang ones have slipped into our vocabulary. You wouldn’t get a Victorian or an Elizabethan ‘twerking’ or yelling, ‘OMG!’. It can be helpful to ask one or two people to proofread for you, as sometimes modern words can slip through into your work without you even realising it. For me, it kills an historical story stone dead, if the wrong words are used, ones that didn’t exist back then. It makes for a highly improbable story and makes me wonder what else the author has got wrong.
- Know the type of dress worn at the time.
Study the mode of dress for that time period. It can be helpful to watch historical TV dramas and visit museums to see how women and men dressed during the time your novel is set. Afterall, the way the characters dressed would have impacted on how they walked and acted. A Victorian woman who had to wear a corset would have been far more confined than a nineteen twenties flapper girl, for instance.
- Join historical societies, genealogical groups and other groups of interest in your area and also online. What you don’t know, you can always ask others about. Also, mixing online with other historical authors is helpful as what some of them know is amazing. You might ask a question about the Victorian nurse, for example, and within the hour, receive several replies from various people.
- Make a friend of your librarian.
Not only can a librarian help you with research by pointing you in the right direction regarding appropriate books, but often libraries have reference rooms which contain old censuses, access to old newspapers on microfilm, etc. A library holds a wealth of information.
- Understand the importance of faith and religion during the particular time period you’re writing about.
For example, following genealogical research, I discovered some of my ancestors were Mormons. A book had been written about Mormons in my town and after further research, I realised what conflict there was for people of that denomination in my town. They were stoned in the streets when they tried to preach and called ‘Saints of Satan’. Many who took up the faith emigrated to Utah. These facts later became woven into my latest historical novel, ‘Black Diamonds’ to make it as authentic as possible. Although my novel isn’t about my own Mormon relatives, it’s about characters who are a lot like my ancestors were.
‘Black Diamonds’ is the first in a series of historical novels which begin in the year 1865, on the day of the Gethin Pit Explosion in Abercanaid, Wales. Further titles include, White Roses, Blue Skies and Red Poppies.