Monday, September 22, 2014

Worldbuilding For a Historical - Gathering What You Need

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

Writing a historical fiction book scared me.

I had tried it before when I had a wisp of an idea. I made it about a page in before giving up. The amount of questions I had overwhelmed me. It's not for me, I decided. I love reading historicals, but I'm not meant to write them.

A few months later, as I was putting away laundry in my daughter's room, I was struck by a story idea that I knew was good. But it was a historical.

Maybe it's not as good of an idea as I think, I told myself. Maybe I won't have to write it. I texted my husband. "Veronica Mars meets Downton Abbey. What do you think?" He replied a minute later: "Write it!"

But how? Hadn't I already proven that I couldn't? I pitched my idea, which had become more fleshed out since my text, to my writing friend, Roseanna White. We decided it was more Veronica Mars meets The Great Gatsby, and she told me it was a good idea. That I should write it.

For a while, I was able to hide behind a deadline. The Unlikely Debut of Ellie Sweet was coming out in a few months and final edits needed to be turned in. Then my life became a revolving door of ER visits as we struggled to get Connor's seizures under control. And all the while, the story churned inside me. I wanted to write it, but for the first time, I was feeling scared.

I say all that so you know that I'm not some expert in writing historicals. I've read quite a few, and I'm on the second draft of edits of my story, but I'm still learning how to do this. I learned because I had to. Because I had an idea that wouldn't let me go.

Jill has written a fabulous book on creating storyworlds for fantasy and sci-fi books. It's a must-read if you write in those genres. But realistic fictioncontemporary and historical alikealso involves worldbuilding. And worldbuilding in a historical translates into research. Lots of research.

Don't panic about that, though. You know what I found? When you love the story idea enough, the research isn't so bad.

Step 1: Figure out where and when this story takes place.

I was wisely advised by Roseanna that this was to be my first priority in figuring out my story. I knew vaguely whereChicago, a nicer neighborhood, sometime in the 1920s. But I needed to get more specific. Not just a decade, but a year. Not just a year, but a season too.

I picked 1924 after some of my fashion research told me that cloche hats didn't really come into popularity until then, and I didn't want to write a 1920s book without cloche hats.  I went with spring because one of my characters is a baseball player, and I wanted him to be coming home from spring training. I leaned on some Chicago friends to help me find the right neighborhood, and then I roamed around on Google street view for a while.

Once I had those things figured out, it was much easier to figure out what else I needed to know.

Step 2: Get your bearings.

Instead of trying to learn everything there was to know about the 1920s, I decided that I would research enough to have a general understanding of what my character's day-to-day life looked like. 

I checked out several books from the library about the 1920s, andonce I knew I was actually going to do this thingI bought myself several. Then I went about answering these questions: 

Where does my character live? 
What was her favorite toy as a child?
What is her favorite thing to wear?
How does she do her hair?
What are women “supposed” to look like in that time?
What does the house look like? How is it unique from other houses?
When she needs something—a brush, a new pair of shoes, etc.—how does she go about getting it?
What does she do for entertainment?
What does she order at a restaurant?
What is her favorite food at home?
What does she commonly eat for breakfast? Lunch? Dinner? Snack?
How does she get to school? What kind of classes does she take?
What is she expected to do after high school?
Does she go to church and where? What's the spiritual climate of her society?
What do her and her friends do when they’re together?
Who were the celebrities of the time?
What books/music/movies/plays were popular at the time?
Has she traveled much?
If she wants to talk to a friend, how does she get a hold of them?

This list is extremely basic, but it gave me enough to be able to move my character around decently well. At first that was all I needed.

Later, of course, there were very specific things that I needed to research to build my world. Like how the mafia operated. Society's view on flappers. How dead bodies were identified and how long that took. But I think it's easier to do that as you write rather than trying to learn it all up front. At first, you just need to get down the basics.

Next Monday we'll talk about how to work in the historical details without it feeling like an info dump or history lecture!


  1. Awesome post! looking forward to more historical writing posts like this! I have had an idea tossing around in my head for a year now that I really need to just get on paper, I hesitated for a while because of the research part. Maybe I can finally write it this November!

    1. The research part can feel very daunting. There are endless books and resources, it seems, and I don't think I would have been brave enough if it hadn't been an idea I loved. The advice that has comforted me the most regarding research is that your character's knowledge is limited too. Same as we may be ignorant about things in our world, so are they. That made me feel a lot better :)

  2. So glad to be back!

    Even though I'm not writing a historical, this info can be really helpful for just defining my characters a bit further. Thanks for the post, Stephanie!

  3. Great post Stephanie! I love reading historicals, but I've never been very good at writing them because I don't know the details of day to day life. My library, sad to say, is full of alien and vampire stories, and very few books that are non-fiction and helpful for research except for a few civil war books, so I'm always left in a position where I would need to buy the books I need, and them I'm always worried that it wont really be what I'm looking for and I'll have spent boo-coo dollars. It's a vicious cycle.
    I love the idea of finding out enough to answer those questions. They seem to cover a wide range of things, but still keep it very simple. I'll have to try that!

    1. Writing a historical could easily break the bank, you're right. I think most libraries have an "Interlibrary Loan" program where you can access a database of book in tons of different libraries and borrow from them. If you have a historical you're wanting to write, I wouldn't hesitate to ask your librarian if he/she can help you find the right books.

  4. =D So, so glad you finally wrote this book. Not that I'm at all biased toward historicals...I say as I laugh maniacally, saying "I finally dragged her into my world!"

    1. This is assuming this book ever makes it out of edits :)

  5. I've always wanted to write historical fiction, (It's my favorite genre) but I am so scared I'm going to mess up something big. I already have an idea for the plot. Now I'm wondering if I can get that story onto paper.

    Thanks for the encouragement and tips Steph! :)

    1. Sure, Brooke! I'm scared of messing up something too, if that helps. I think a little fear of that is good, though. It keeps me from getting lazy :)


    How do you think it works when you're writing a fantasy where the countries are(very very) vaguely based on real countries and/or time periods?

    1. Oh, yay! That's a great question. I would do some very basic research. Googling something like, "Daily life in the middle ages," can help you learn some general information about the time/culture that you're basing your story on. In your research, I would focus more on culture, food, and clothing than I would on politics and wars. Though depending on the style of fantasy, those things might come into play too.

  7. Thanks for the great post! This is also really useful for the fantasy novel I'm revising at the moment, since it's based on a historical setting.

  8. :P Exploring the period is one of my favorite parts about writing historical, although it's easy to get bogged down researching all the little intricacies… some of my most ridiculous google searches thus far have been about abolishing debt slavery in ancient Rome and Nazi cigarette lighters.

  9. I would like to write a steampunk (with some fantasy in there as well XP) at some point, so this will be helpful when I decide to write it :)

  10. Fun post, Steph! I love the picture of the girl with the hat. I also love that list of questions. :-)

  11. I'll be sure to come back to this post if/when I write a historical, or just when I'm trying to flesh out an MC's daily life. Sometimes I'm writing along, come to a scene where my character, is, oh, eating breakfast, and I realize I have no clue what she's eating or where she got it.

  12. World building... fun. I don't plan on writing historical fiction, but this will come in handy if I ever veer off the path. Yesterday I had an extreme case of writers block; I couldn't write a single word all day. It should hae been easy to figure out what happened next, but it wasn't. I'm still recovering.

  13. That's a good list of questions for "getting the character around." Never really thought about that.

    I'm the same--I love reading historicals, but I've been so scared of the research aspect. At some point I expect I'll end up "having" to write one, like what happened to you, though. ;) So I'll definitely be reading these posts carefully. Thanks for sharing your experience!

    And by the way, I'm sure your story will make it out of edits. You can do it!

  14. I have come across a few books that are a cross between historical fiction and fantasy. These typically involve immortals and make large jumps from one time period to another. Does anyone know how to swing a transition like that? Would you have to know the same amount about each time period?

  15. I really want to be able to write a time travel story that takes place on earth, but I have always been scared of getting facts wrong. So, I move the story to another world where I make up all of the facts and history. That is much easier. I guess that's why there is something called the first draft... :)

  16. Thank you so much! I've been waiting for a historical fiction post!! :) And this was so helpful, and I appreciated it very much, Mrs. Morrill. Thank you! I write historical fiction - what I'm currently working on is a four-book series set in the early 1900's - and research is one of the challenging things. And it always feels like I can't find what I need. ;) Your list of questions was excellent and just what I've needed; I'm so excited to use them.

  17. Historical novelists are BRAVE! One day, I'd love to wade into this water. I like the idea of bravery! ;)

  18. Hey, Stephanie, I'm writing a story set in Chicago in 1926 ^_^
    And yeah, I was scared when I started researching four years ago, becuase I knew nothing about the Twenties or the different cultures involved in the my story, but I was in love with the story and my character, just like you, and that helped a lot.

    It also helped a lot that I've always loved history and it has never been hard for me going about reaseaching. I like the process fo learning and discovery as much as I like the process of creating. After four years, I'm still in love with this tory.

  19. Great post! Writing historical fiction scares me too. I have a story idea about a girl who's captured and enslaved by Indians. I'm itching to write it, but it would require so much research! I'm not sure I could handle that as a first time novel attempt.
    I'm sure you'll do fantastic on your story, though! Good luck!

  20. Great post, Stephanie, it helped me think about what kind of research I should be doing. My story idea is technically science fiction, but the MC travels back in time a lot during the novel, which means I will need to learn about certain periods on several occasions. Right now I'm still planning, but the first place my MC will go will be the Civil War (more specifically the Battle of Gettysburg) so this post helped me figure out what kinds of details and ideas I should be focusing on. Thanks again!

  21. I commented earlier that this post would come in handy if I ever veered off my path of "No Historical Fiction". Well, I have veered off that path. I immediately came here when I decided to make this idea historical. XD

    1. I'm touched that you remembered! Good luck and keep us posted!