When writing historical fiction, always cross-reference a fact with another source. In other words, if you find a fact in one history book, check with another history book to make sure it’s true there as well. She named a number of sources you can use for research:
THESE ARE PRIMARY SOURCES:
- contemporary periodicals (our own time) and period trade journals
- newspaper articles
- government studies (WPA, census info)
- personal interviews
- contemporary fiction
HERE ARE SOME SECONDARY SOURCES:
- textbooks (our own period)
- tourism pamphlets
WHAT TO WATCH OUT FOR IN TERMS OF RESEARCH:
- Wikipedia is notorious for misinformation. It’s a good jumping-off point, but if you’re going to use it at all, be sure to visit the discussion pages, to see what people are arguing about, as far as what facts aren’t trustworthy.
- Fan pages (like people who do reenactments of Civil War battles) can have lots of misinformation. Some of these people are just average Joes blogging about their opinions, not facts.
WHAT IS MOST RELIABLE:
- The Making of America Project is a wealth of information.
- Experts are out there, who are very happy to talk to you about what they love.
- Museums throughout the country (spy museums, voodoo museums, anatomy museums, etc.) are run by people who are happy to send you information on the area in which they specialize.
Don’t think that whatever you’re researching isn’t out there, because it is. And the amazing thing is that people who’ve already done the research love to talk about the research they’ve done.
It’s also a good idea to read the contemporary fiction of the period. For example, in New Orleans during the rainy season, women kept their shoes in a bag, because it got so muddy. Ms. Chance learned this by reading a novel written by a woman from New Orleans in the 19th century.
Your research is there to enrich your book, not the other way around. Try to remember that! The book shouldn’t just cough of up your research facts. Ms. Chance also draws ideas for novels from a question she has while researching. The questions asked from research drives her plot. An example: while researching a 19th Century fire in Seattle, a newspaper article had said, “The men stayed in tents down at the waterfront,” so Ms. Chance asked herself… “The men? Where were the women?” And that’s what drove the plot for one of her books.
Of course, you’ve GOT to know your subject, in order to derive a novel topic this way. Otherwise, you’ll bury yourself in research. (But as this class began, Ms. Chance also warned all of us, “Don’t bother writing historical fiction unless you intend to do tons of research.”)
People who say, “Historical fiction couldn’t have happened at any other place in history” don’t understand that history repeats itself. Granted, gold-rush CA was a very unique place and time. If you’re going to write about that, you’ve got to know the circumstances around that historical event, to write about it. However, people are still driven by similar motivations today. Draw from these ideas that repeat themselves as you work on character arcs.
However, you must also place yourself in your characters’ times, in order to draw that kind of picture for your reader. Ask yourself questions like:
- How would you utilize water, if you had to carry it from a distant source every day?
- How dark would it be if you had to read beside a gas lamp? Would you go to bed early because it was too dark to do anything?
- How would you preserve food for winter?
- How often would you wear the same clothes if you had to go down to a river to wash them?
When I read historical fiction, I care about how characters react to their traumas. Resolution to your plot needs to come from within the character. How do they react to their circumstances? If your character had an addiction to opium, how would he deal with that? There was no rehab. So what would he do? Would he drug himself silly but not try to solve his problem? Would he kill himself? Would he march off into the mountains and allow himself to go through withdrawals in a terrifying solitude in the wilderness? Would he find an African American witch doctor and try to use her magical powers to cure him?
To someone in the 19th century, witches were real. That sort of understanding is essential to the historical fiction writer. It helps determine what the character’s choices might be.
However, you must also cater to your audience. For example, people in the 19th Century used the word “Ain’t” in everyday conversation. But today’s readers don’t like to hear that. They want their historical fiction characters to rise above that, but it’s not historical. If you want to get published, you’ve got to maintain a universality. Make the characters period correct to some extent, but not to the extent that you alienate your modern readers.
Good historical fiction enters a conversation already in place. Don’t just give readers a tour of 19th Century London, building by building, street by street. Rather, bring something new to the table, that people didn’t know about 19th Century London with a little piece from your research. Everybody knows that gas lamps were used in 19th Century London, but who lit those gas street lamps? What was their nightly routine like? That’s what adds to the interest of the reader.
Be wary that the epic period pieces of the 1970’s aren’t big sellers anymore (Gone With the Wind-esque). And in terms of YA, you’ll find it easier to sell your historical fiction if you can add a paranormal element to it. So read the recent best-sellers in historical fiction, so you know what sells.
When working with dialect, make sure it’s not too difficult for your reader to comprehend. Don’t translate it, but limit the number of characters who speak like that.