SEVEN THINGS I’VE LEARNED WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION
As I work on my next novel, set in 1911, I am amazed, though not totally surprised, how much work goes into preparing to write a simple scene. I have to consider every aspect of what is possible during this time period. Did they have cars? What kind of clothes did they wear? How did they speak? What speaking terms did they use? How did they move about the country? What was the political climate? What buildings were there and what has been torn down? How were women treated? Could a woman study art, and if so, where could she do it? How would people respond? And what if I want to add a well-known character to the story. It’s not like I can sit down with them and get to know them. They’re already dead.
At this point, you may be wondering, “If it’s so hard, why not write something contemporary?” That’s a very good question, and for this, I have a very simple answer. “Because this is the story that wants to be told.”
You may have met my main character, Maggie, in River of the Stick Wavers as a 70 year old artist. I wanted to tell the story of how she came to be an artist, and to do that, I had to take her back in time. Nothing else will do at this point. So, I had to ask myself, “Is this story going to hold my interest for the long term?” The long term being possibly 3-5 years if my last novel, set in 1963, was any indication. One can never know for sure whether a story will carry me through to the end. But one thing I do enjoy is research. Although, having said that, putting together of all the information that I will have to gather to cover the time between 1911 and 1919 will be a challenge. Should I allow this to stop me from writing the story?
Some days, I wish it were simpler. Especially when I’m having a hard time focusing on what’s needed to give verisimilitude to the story. Each decision has to be plausible so that the reader doesn’t get bogged down in questioning the validity of the story. But I have learned a few thing along the way that will enable me to write historical fiction.
- KNOW MY CHARACTERS: Getting to know my characters helps me to understand how they will play against each other. In the case of including a well-known person, reading letters and journal entries gives me a feel for how they would speak, and how others feel about them. There’s still an element of risk involved. But if I consider it like an actor playing a part, then all I have to do is to try to uncover the essence of the person, or my interpretation of what that person was like.
- THE INTERNET IS MY BEST FRIEND: It’s incredible how much information is available on the internet. From the letters of a long dead famous person, to the details of how to maneuver in a canoe, the internet is my friend. It has helped me to find the books I need, where I can take art classes so that I can have first-hand experience of what it feels like to paint, and how to get where I need to go if I want to visit the setting of my novel to learn what it feels like, smells like, and looks like to be there.
- RESEARCH: I have found that research helps me to tell my story. If I’m not sure where I’m going, events that have already taken place help me to create a framework. Like World War I. How can I tell of story that set in 1911 to 1919 without at least mentioning World War I? It impacted on people’s lives every day. So that has to be included. It could be a motivator for how people react when they came home. The war also brought with it a flu epidemic that killed millions all over the world. One thing is always connected to another.
- READ AND REREAD RESEARCH MATERIAL: I have found that it’s important to immerse myself in the details of my story. This may mean reading my research material again and again. I find it helpful to underline important information that I may need again so I can easily locate it. Reading my research also gives me ideas for a scene which I put on index cards so that I can simply shuffle through them when I’m in need of a new idea to add to the story line.
- USE A STORY BOARD: With a story scope of 8 years, I have decided to take a lesson from Walt Disney, who used a story board to help organize himself. I break down the story into years and the events that fit into that year, so that I can see everything at a glance. In this way, I will be able to see how things are connected. And it will make it easy to check back on important facts to see if they’re correct.
- BREAK THINGS DOWN INTO MANAGEABLE PIECES: While a story board is a great idea to break down my story into manageable pieces and to organize myself. I’m finding with this novel that I don’t want to write in a linear fashion like I did with Stick Wavers. Instead, I’m writing in bits and pieces, like putting a zig saw puzzle together, feels like the right thing to do. That’s probably because this time I’m writing about major incidences in a person’s life over a number of year, not the details of a single summer like in Stick Wavers. I trust that my mind will be able to make the connections as I go along to make the story cohesive.
- CREATE A DETAILED OUTLINE: Another new development for me with this book is to create a more detailed outline. With Stick Wavers I had a pretty good idea of the story I wanted to tell. But now that I’m writing over an 8 year period and including a lot of things that actually happened in history, and to make sure that people are in the right place at the right time, I needed to start with an outline that included information about historical events and how they might impact on my characters. In this way I will be able to fill in other details of my character’s lives around the historical events.
It all sounds simple enough right? Just connect the dots and everything will be OK. How I wish that were true. But it’s OK that it’s a challenge. Each book demands something different from me. That prevents things from getting boring. Easy to say, I know. Sometimes, writing is just plain hard work. But it is the one thing is my life that I love, outside of my family. I don’t want to do anything else. It’s the one thing I always come back to when I get waylaid by life. And while it is difficult work, it’s also exciting. I love the research so I get to learn a lot. With each book, I become a better writer, and writing defines who I am and gives my life meaning. And unlike those of you who can retire from work, it’s not something that I ever wanted for myself. This way, I can write until my hand cramps up, my eyes get all rheumy, and my body is hunched over the keyboard, and that’s just fine with me.