How many times as a writer have you heard the phrase, "write what you know"? One of the main reasons for this line of thinking is that if you are familiar with something to its very core, you'll convey it more smoothly to the reader. Well, that's true, well and good, but what about writing historical stories?
As a writer, you have an implicit contract with your readers. They give you their time, attention, and their money. You promise to give them, in return, entertainment, information, and perhaps even a new idea or two. But as an historical writer, you have an additional promise, and that is to sweep your readers back in time and take them to a world they may not have known even existed.
To do this, you must know the world you are writing about inside and out. Every little detail in your story must be historically correct, and in order to do this, you must RESEARCH. Now, many beginning writers will say, "Well, this is fiction, after all. I don't need to know every little detail. I can make it up as I go along, and no one is going to know." Uh uh. Mark my words, someone is going to know.
No matter how far back in time and history you go, some of your readers are going to be well-versed in it. Galileo didn't carry around a kerosene lantern because kerosene didn't exist then. Benjamin Franklin didn't zip up his breeches because zippers hadn't been invented yet. Little things no one will notice? Wrong! It's the little details like this that will hurt you, turn your readers off, and lead you into the biggest bear trap facing writers of historical fiction--anachronism.
Your research should fall into three categories: historical events, subplots, and lifestyles. What events shaped the years you are interested in? Was it a catastrophic event like the Civil War? Was it the way women were thought of and treated in the 16th and 17th centuries? By all means, use the dramatic events of the era in the story, but don't forget to look for the more obscure events or a new perspective just coming to light in those days. They could add the drama and even mystery to your story that you are looking for.
Now look for the subplots that can add to your plot, or help you develop a major or even a new character. If you do your research properly, and really dig into the history of the era, you can find things like a law against tinkers in Ireland that could provide you with a whole new plot device. Finding an old photograph of a man with a pet bear in a gold camp could suggest a new character to develop, or perhaps give you an idea of a new depth to add to your main character . The point is, the more research you do, the deeper you dive into the morass of history, the more little details you will find that will add to your story, illuminate some aspect of the story, and add historical authenticity to it as well.
The most difficult and time-consuming area of research concerns the lifestyles of the people in the era you are writing about. This is also a most important area. How did people live in those days? How did they dress, men, women, and children? ( Don't forget about the zipper incident ! ) What modes of transportation did they use, what businesses were they in, how did they cook their food? What foods did they eat? Don't forget that refrigeration is a modern invention, and that cook stoves didn't exist the way they do today.
When it comes to this type of research, sit down and write out what your lifestyle is, in terms of eating, cooking, cleaning house, wearing clothes, working, getting from one place to another, and so on. These are the things you need to look for in your research, because they are the important details of an historical story, so do your research extensively. Don't fall into that bear trap!
One more thing: speech. Dialogue is such an important part of any story, and you need to get the speech patterns of that era correct. Use the expressions people of that era used, but don't overdo it. People aren't going to talk like they do today, but at the same time, you don't want to have your characters speaking in so much regional dialect that readers can barely understand what they are saying. Be correct in the expressions and colloquialisms that people of past eras used, but don't over-burden your characters' dialogue with them.
Remember that every era has attitudes, philosophies, and activities that were specific to that day and time, so look upon your research as something that is necessary but can also be a treasure hunt that will give you color, excitement, and authenticity to your story.
Think about it.
Until next time,
That's a wrap.