Monday, September 12, 2011

Erica Vetsch on Writing Historicals

Since many of you have expressed an interest in having guests talk about "genre specific" issues, I've begun querying various authors and asking them to share their expertise with us.

I've mentioned on here before that Erica Vetsch was my first writing friend. I had the privilege of reading an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) of her latest, A Bride's Portrait of Dodge City, Kansas and it prompted a couple questions.

She'll be here today and tomorrow answering those. And, dear woman that she is, she's offered to giveaway a copy of Bride's Portrait. To get yourself entered to win, you may either ask Erica a question or tell us everything you know about 1870s wet-plate photography.

Just kidding.

Leave comments today and tomorrow to get yourself entered twice. U.S. Residents only. Contest closes September 20th. Blah, blah, blah. Here's Erica:

Thank you, Stephanie, for having me back here at Go Teen Writers. I love the community you’ve built, and I’m honored to get to talk to all the talented young writers here. 
I write historical romance for the Christian market, and my current release is A Bride’s Portrait of Dodge City, Kansas. I’ll be using this book as an example today, but the principles should hold true for any historical fiction.

How do you write historical fiction set in a real town? 

Writing about a real place is both a blessing and a burden. The blessing is: it’s real which lends authenticity to the story and there are lots of resources out there to gather information from. The burden is: it’s a real place where people live, and it’s important to get the details correct. So how do you find the info you need?

Start with the Internet. It’s amazing what you can find online to point you in the right direction. One caveat here: be sure to verify any information you find online with another credible source. A wise researcher confirms information with at least one outside source. 

Head to your local library. For Dodge City, I researched maps of the period, newspaper articles, and biographies of folks who lived in Dodge. I used several sources to give me a feel for the setting, and where sources disagreed (and they will) I went with the version that best fitted my plot.

If at all possible, visit the place you’re writing about. Take lots of pictures (if the museum allows it) and be sure to take photos of the museum signage so you can have all the details of an exhibit without having to stand there and write it all down. If you can’t visit, you can contact the local county historical society for answers to questions you might have.

At this point, I’m going to give you the golden rule of historical research. Research is like an iceberg. Only 10% of the awesome, cool, fascinating, amazing stuff you learn about your setting should make it into the novel. The other 90% needs to stay below the waterline. If you go into your research understanding this, it won’t be such a wrench when you realize you can’t put everything in the story without sounding like a history book. Remember, the story is about people, not the setting or time period. Less is more.

How do you capture a profession without it reading like info dumping?

In A Bride’s Portrait, my heroine, Addie, is a photographer. I’m not a photographer. I knew nothing about 1870’s wet-plate photography, so I researched it. I found books, websites, and videos on the history of photography. I researched things like chemicals, development processes, and the hazards of flash-powders. 

Then I followed the golden rule of research and pared down the iceberg of information to the 10% that pertained to the story. Instead of stopping the story for a step-by-step explanation on antique camera photography, I eased it in a little at a time, making it active instead of passive. Addie interacted with the cameras, chemicals, and props as part of her everyday life. Using this technique keeps the story about the characters instead of the profession, and keeps the plot moving without halting to explain what the characters are doing. 

Erica will be back tomorrow to talk about writing clean when your locale is dirty...


  1. Awesome! I love researching, but I don't write historicals. I'm always amazed by historical authors. Wow!

  2. epic! I LOVE historical novels!:)

    -Elisabeth Greenwood

  3. Oh, the iceburg! I've never heard such a perfect analogy for that golden rule. LOVE IT! =)

  4. I love the iceberg analogy too. It's like worldbuilding for fantasy writers, except with fantasy, you get to make everything up :)

    I love the cover of "Bride's Portrait" and am looking forward to Erica's next post!

    - Ellyn (ellyn (at) gibbscorner (dot) com)

  5. Hi, Jessica! I have to pull myself away from the research to write the stories sometimes. It always pulls me in.

    Elisabeth, thank you for commenting! Do you write historical fiction?

  6. Hi, Roseanna, I'm sure the iceberg analogy didn't originate with me, but I don't remember where i heard it from.

    Hi, Ellyn (I love your name, btw) I've never tried my hand at writing fantasy, though my kids LOVE it. The rich setting and other-worldlinest of fantasy is as daunting to me as writing historical fiction is to some other writers. :)

  7. Great stuff! I love to read Historical Fiction, though the idea of me writing it is a little daunting. History was my favorite subject in school and I always loved hearing about the people. What they wore, what activities they took part in, how they talked. All of that was so interesting to me. The fact that you can weave stuff like that into your books is amazing, and I give you props. ;)
    I would love to read this book, and I agree with Ellyn, the cover is great. :)

  8. Hey, Clarebear, history was my favorite subject too! So much so that I became a high school history teacher. :) That's probably why I need the golden rule of research so much. I want to throw it ALL in. :)

  9. I'm into writing Historical Novels so this helped me alot. So often I feel like I don't know where to start, my need for information is so overwhelming! So thanks Ms. Vetsch for the tips, they gave me ideas of how to start :)
    How do you get the feel of the historical setting, while keeping it relateable to today's readers?

    crazi.swans at gmail dot com

  10. I'm the same as Faye, I would love to start writing historical novels but don't know where to start!

    I have written a children's story set in the 1870s though and I thought that was really fun!:)

    - Elisabeth Greenwood

  11. I love the cover! I would love to write a historical novel but I don't think I have enough patients for something that long.


  12. I absolutely LOVE historical writing and it's great that I can learn more about it here :D


  13. I loved this: "...I eased it in a little at a time, making it active instead of passive." *Lightbulb flashing.* This makes so much sense! I've had the unfortunate experience of reading some books where the author didn't get this and I was confused within the first few pages...and I've had the privilege of reading books where this was practiced. It so works!! One example that comes to mind is the River of Time series by Lisa T. Bergren, where the MC, Gabriella, knows how to wield a sword. Yet the book isn't bogged down in explaining cuts and swipes (obviously, or I would be calling them by their proper name instead of cuts and swipes). :)

    Thank you, Erica, for saying that! Totally clear to me!

  14. Three cheers for historicals, Eria! Especially ones that deal with photography (one of my very favorite hobbys, minus writing, of course) How did you decide to make Addie a photographer instead of say, a woman sharpshooter? And everything I know about 1870's wet plate photography...absolutely nothing.

  15. Hi, Faye, One way to get the feeling of the setting into the story without turning off today's readers is to have the character interact with the setting instead of just describing it. Rather than run down a list of objects in a room, have the character start a fire in the stove, touch the bottom of a sad iron to test if it is hot, throw the dishwater out the back door.

  16. Hi, Elisabeth, one place I often start when brainstorming story ideas is history books. I find some catastrophe or major event from history and try to come up with a story. My first novel is based on a shipwreck that happened in 1905 Duluth, Minnesota. I just started thinking of what that night must've been like and what the people both on the ship and on the shore must've felt, and Zap! I had a story idea. :)

  17. Hi, Rachelle, Lisa Bergren is really good, isn't she? She writes great historical fiction.

  18. rainbowjoy...the idea to make Addie a photographer came while I was reading a book about cowboys in the Old West. It seems nobody loved getting his photograph taken more than a cowboy fresh off the trail. I needed a reason for my heroine to be in Dodge City that didn't involve her working in a brothel or dance hall, so when I realized there were lots of photography studios in Dodge, I grabbed onto it for Addie.

  19. Oh my! I love this cover art! Thank you for the chance to win it!

  20. I love the cover too,
    Sounds like a good book.

    And thanks for all the great advice.