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 café? 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?
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!