Thursday, April 19, 2012

When You Can’t Find a Time Machine: How to Approach Historical Fiction


by Rachel Coker

I write historical fiction. I’m pretty sure it’s the one genre I’ll always come back to. Even if I take a break from time to time and dip my toes in the world of sci-fi, fantasy, or contemporary fiction, there’s something about a trip to the past that will work for me every time.

I love immersing myself in another time and culture. Filling my story with glimpses into life in foreign eras, whether it’s music, movies, fashion, or books. It’s interesting and exciting.

That being said, it is also hard. Why? Because I have yet to find a working time machine that operates outside of a cheesy teen movie. I haven’t spent a single breathing moment in the 1940’s, or Ancient Egypt, or the Wild West. So, obviously, it requires some work to create a realistic story in those settings. Work and research.

Ugh, now I’ve done it. I’ve made you think of school, which you were trying to forget about in your anticipation of a fun-filled weekend. But research is something that most definitely exists out of school, and is especially important if you want to be a successful writer.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are writing this wonderful, thrilling, touching novel set in the 1960’s. Everything is good and fine. You have a great plot line, charismatic characters, and a fantastic ending. But what about all the filler details? When your main character wakes up in the morning, would she reach for blue jeans or a dress? If she started her car, would it have a radio in it? Would her windows have screens, or would she sit on the sill with them flung wide open? If someone called her on the telephone, could she take it in her bedroom, or would she have to stand there wrapping the cord around her finger?

Every time you start a story set in another time period, there are so many little details to think about. And honestly, it can really make your head spin. That’s why I suggest research. But not just the boring school type! Sure, it’s important to know who was president at the time and what was going on in the world, but it’s equally important to understand what kind of shows were playing on T.V. and what kind of cereal was most popular at the breakfast table.

Those are the details that make or break a book. They ground us and make us feel like part of the story. Immersed in that culture. And they are the kind of details that can’t be found in a history textbook. So this is where the interesting part comes in, okay? You get to do fun research. For me, research means watching black-and-white movies, listening to old music, picking up vintage magazines at thrift stores, and talking to my grandparents and their friends about life when they were kids. I have gotten some of my best information about life in the 40’s, 60’s, and other eras by just talking to people who have lived through it. Asking them what it was like to walk to school or sew their own prom dresses.

The same thing could also work for the nineteenth century or earlier, though! Just look for journals kept by adventurers or preachers or pioneers to discover what life was like in their world. Look for old Sears catalogs to discover what toys kids might have enjoyed and what technologies would have been available in that time period.

When it comes to historical writing, there is no one-size-fits-all mold. The research that works for me may or may not work for you. But I’d like to encourage you to think about the smaller details of your character’s life and discover what that would have been like. Look to magazines, movies, journals, and newspapers published in that time period and lose yourself in that culture. You may have never stepped into the 1930’s, but after a while, you’ll start feeling like you know it so well that Fred and Ginger might as well step in for tea sometime! ;)

Just to get your imagination rolling, I thought I’d list some things to think about and research for your historical novel:
  • Where does your character shop? At a big department store? At a milliners? Does her mother make her clothes? Would she have modern conveniences like zippers and denim, or is she laced into a corset and all buttoned up?
  • How many vehicles would a typical American household have during this time? Would your characters parents each own separate cars? Would walking or biking be more common than driving? What kind of cars would they own at their price range?
  • Think about the technology. Would they have running water? Heated showers? Cordless telephones? Televisions or radios?
  • What kind of cereals would be popular at that time? Would your character be more likely to reach for Cracker Jacks or Fruit Loops?
  • Fast food chains may or may not have been around in your story. Where would your character go if she wants to grab a bite to eat? A drive-in diner? A cafĂ©? A home-style family restaurant?
  • What would homes do in the winter? Was there indoor heating, or would they have to rely in fireplaces, heavy blankest, and wool socks to keep warm? What about in the summer?
  • Who were the key movie stars of the time? What dreamy star would make your character’s knees go weak? Whose hair did she try to emulate? What movie would she want to watch over and over again?
  • What kinds of things did kids do for fun? Before video games and shopping malls, how would teens have spent their time? From drive-in movies, ice skating rinks, state fairs, and tractor rides, what would your character do on the weekend?
  • What was the role of women in that era? Would your character’s mother be more likely to work in an office, or stay at home? Would girls be encouraged to go to college and pursue careers, or marry young and have children?
  • Does your character go to church? What are some hymns she would have known? Would she be expected to sit rigidly still, or would she enjoy a more laid-back atmosphere?
I’m sure you can think of many more examples to explore and think about, but that was just a little glimpse some of the things to consider when writing historical fiction. It may seem like tedious, hard work, but trust me—it really can be fun! :)


By the way, thanks to everyone who ordered my book last month! It was so much fun to hear back from everyone who enjoyed reading Interrupted, and hear your opinions of it! If you haven’t yet, I would encourage you to check out my blog, or like me on Facebook!

24 comments:

  1. Wow, I'm writing a historical fantasy story and this is so helpful! I can't wait to look up this stuff. :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Awesome post! I would love to write a historical fiction, but with school still in session I have no time to research. Possibly this summer maybe...hmmm

    ReplyDelete
  3. This was such an encouraging post! My WIP is set in 1863 and I can't count how many times I've wished for a time machine!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great post! I love HisFic, and most of the research that goes along with it is something I enjoy. Grant it, I do tons of research no matter what genre I am writing in.

    ReplyDelete
  5. That's the thing about historical fiction. I feel like I need to know everything about that time period to be able to let my readers have a natural feel for the time period in the book.

    Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  6. If you want a time machine, the closest thing to one I've found is newspapers from the period. Everything (of course) is reported like it just happened yesterday, and most libraries have about 100 years worth of film loops. It's awesome.

    ReplyDelete
  7. This is an excellent post! I'm having trouble with my current WIP, which is set in Medieval England (I do know the exact dates). I'm having trouble finding the kinds of little details you talked about in your post. I need specific information from the early 1200s about classes, lifestyles, clothing, skills a teenage girl would have been taught, etc., and I'm not sure where to look for it outside my history textbook (which hasn't been especially helpful) or Wikipedia (which can be unreliable). Do you have any suggestions?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Melanie Dickerson writes books set in Medieval England. One I've heard her recommend is Life in a Medieval Village by Frances and Joseph Gies.

      Delete
    2. Thanks for asking! I've read a really great book on everyday life, culture, etc. in medieval times that I think you might find helpful. It is (aptly) titled "Life in Medieval Times" and it's by Marjorie Rowling. I think that book would be really helpful if you want a more detailed look at what the culture was like in that time. :)

      Delete
    3. Thanks a bunch!!

      Delete
    4. That's my favorite time period, Anonymous, and I know how you feel! I really have to get my hands on that book, Stephanie since both Melanie Dickerson and Lisa T. Bergren mention it in the pages after 'the end.' Thanks for that recommendation, too, Rachel!

      Delete
  8. I came up with the general plot of a story set in biblical times during the Old Testament, but I haven't started writing yet because I know absolutely NOTHING about that time period. Do you have any suggestions?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Roseanna White has written a couple Biblical fiction books and has some great resources on her website:

      http://www.roseannawhite.com/index.php/books/jewel_of_persia/companion_guide/

      and:

      http://www.roseannawhite.com/index.php/books/a_stray_drop_of_blood/companion_guide/

      Delete
    2. I just checked these out! Thanks so much! It gave me some of the backdrop I think I need to write this. I think I might give it a try over the summer.

      Delete
  9. I've always liked writing historical fiction, but Christian fiction also appeals to me. Is there any specific way how to combine these two genres and include Christianity in a historical? For example, a historical taking place in the early 1900s. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. A wrote a fiction novella once set in the early 1900's and I included Christianity in my story! The basic message of the Gospel hasn't changed, so it should be easy to incorporate in your story, no matter what the era! One thing I have found helpful, though, is to try and figure out what role churches played in society back then. Think about what church buildings might have looked like, what services might have felt like (formal or informal), and what role pastors would have had. Just remember that Christians are the same today as they were back then, and the Bible is still the same. It's only the buildings and the formality that have changed! :)

      Delete
  10. This is so good, Rachel! Great advice! =)

    ReplyDelete
  11. Thank you for this awesome post! I am very interested in writing historical fiction and I think this will really help me in the future. I haven't given much thought in the past about researching the very small details, but that is certainly something I need to do from now on!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! I'm glad you were encouraged by it! Don't be intimidated by all the research--it's actually quite a fun thing to do! :)

      Delete
  12. Rachel, I just finished your book, Interrupted, today. I thought it was very good. I am glad to say that it is the first every historical fiction novel that I've EVER read.
    If you want to see my full review, go to: www.jointhestarcrafters.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete
  13. Rachel, this list is golden! Thank you so much! It's exactly what I needed!

    By the way, I finished Interrupted at 4am this morning. Exquisite. Can't wait to read the next one, in the 1960's!! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Rachelle! I'm really glad you enjoyed it! I'll be announcing the title and cover for the next book very soon (hopefully!), and I'm just as excited for everyone to read it as you are! :)

      Delete
  14. May I just say: Rachel, I totally understand. I write historical fiction too and this was so helpful.

    And if you're looking for a time machine, I'd recommend becoming a companion of the Doctor. Or just watching Doctor Who for hours on end. Because that's what I do!

    PS - I need to order your book. Assuming I don't waste all of my B&N gift certificates on (wait for it) books to research my historical novel.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I'm a huge history buff. I've always been fascinated by times gone by, which is probably why most of my first novellas were historical fiction! But I decided to take a break from historical fiction last year, because I was feeling so stressed about the research. It can be so hard to get the facts right!

    Lately, though, I've been feeling like I want to get back into it, and your post only added to that feeling. :) I'm starting to think I could better handle the research now, and I'm really looking forward to hopping aboard that virtual time machine once I'm through with my current WIP! There's just something about historical fiction I absolutely adore.

    Thank you so much for the tips, Rachel!

    ReplyDelete

Disagreement is welcome but rudeness is not. We ask that you please be considerate of each other. If we find your comment mean-spirited or inconsiderate, we reserve the right to remove it from our website.