Diana serves as a high school English teacher and academic support coordinator. She originally chose to teach older students because she thought they would be able to manage their own bodily fluids better than little kids would. She’s discovered she was mostly right about that, and as a bonus, she finds teenagers a blast to spend her days with.
She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband Alan and youngest son Isaac. Her adult son Mitchell lives only a four-hour drive away, but Diana wishes it was four minutes instead. She has two cats. Her Maine Coon named Mister Mistoffelees weighs twenty pounds. He is as sweet as he is huge. The other is a feisty Siamese-mix named Sabrina. Visit Diana at www.dianablackstone.com.
Writing Historical Fiction: Seven Tips
by Diana Blackstone
Wouldn’t it be fun to use a time machine and select a place to visit in the past, knowing we’re completely safe while there? To start, I would use it to walk among the dinosaurs, see the angels announcing Christ’s birth to the shepherds, and join the colonists in throwing tea overboard into the Boston Harbor.
Lucky for us, books do almost the same thing. A well-written historical novel makes its readers feel like they are actually in medieval England watching a jousting tournament while sitting next to a king. They see brightly colored banners flapping in the wind, feel the warm summer breeze, hear the shouts of charging knights, and smell the horses’ sweat (probably the king’s, too).
For those who like to explore the past, writing a historical fiction novel can be as fun as reading one. I began my first historical fiction novel, When Sparrows Fall, about eleven years ago. I learned so much along the way, not just about WHAT to write--the time period and historical events--but also HOW to collect information and present it in a believable way. Here are seven tips to keep in mind as you write your historical fiction:
1. Do Your Research
If you want your historical fiction novel to sound authentic and portray true events accurately, be prepared to do a lot of research. It’s not like researching for a school paper on a topic assigned by your teacher, though. This research is more fun because it’s about something which has already caught your interest. It doesn’t feel like work but like an exciting exploration. Be ready to research both the bigger historical events as well as the little details that bring the story to life. Some of the research I did outside of the main historical event in my novel include these details:
- The first baseball teams, bats, balls
- Animals, foliage, weather, geographical features in the Shenandoah Valley
- Pennsylvania Dutch language
- Diseases, illnesses, injuries and home remedies in the 1840s
2. Use Reliable Sources
The Internet includes a lot of helpful, easily-accessible information, but it also contains inaccuracies and even lies. Take care to check sites for bias. That’s when writers allow their own prejudices to slant the truth. Compare sensitive or questionable information across several sites. If you read the same idea in more than two sites, it’s probably accurate. Remember images can be powerful sources of information as well. How did people dress in that time period? What did their homes look like? Sites like PBS.org and history.com (the History channel) contain immensely helpful videos for learning about the past.
As useful as the Internet is, don’t ignore the value of other sources. Print sources such as books and old newspaper articles can provide details not found online. Memories and insights gathered from personal interviews can bring your story to life. People like to help writers with the information they need for their novels, so don’t be afraid to ask. If you get a chance to visit the setting in your novel, take it—and take notes. Use your five senses and jot descriptions of what you experience. Visit museums in the area with photos and other displays about the time period.
3. Organize Your Research
My earliest research for When Sparrows Fall is scribbled on loose sheets of whatever paper was most handy and tucked into a folder. Since that time, Pinterest and Evernote have been invented. I like how user-friendly Pinterest is and that I can make secret boards so no one else can see what I’m researching. Evernote, however, is completely private and allows me to save typed notes and images as well as the websites I may want to refer to as I write. I can even scan and save pages from books I use for research. The key is to use whatever method works best for you.
4. Let Your Research Lead You
Your research may take you on some surprising turns. When examining a map to determine the route my characters would take from one city to another, I noticed the family had to cross a river at a small town between the two cities. The town had more than one name through the years. While researching which name was used in 1848, I learned the bridge crossing the river had washed out several years before my family’s journey and hadn’t yet been rebuilt. At that point, I could have chosen to have the family take another route. Instead, I decided to explore the option of a river crossing. I emailed the city’s website manager to ask if the river was safe to cross by wagon, and he replied that it was. Next I researched what it was like to cross rivers by wagon. This all led to a new chapter I hadn’t intended to write until the research took me there.
5. Allow your characters to engage with the history of the time.
Don’t try to force contemporary ideas on your characters from the past. They will have different values, beliefs, experiences, and knowledge than you have today. At the same time, keep your character’s personality and personal beliefs intact. What is your character’s place in society? How is she affected by the events of the time? How does she feel about what is happening? In the time When Sparrows Fall is set, Mennonite girls were expected to attend school only through eighth grade and then marry young and have children. My protagonist, Susanna, is well aware of that expectation, but she is an independent thinker and dreams of being a teacher. Female teachers weren’t allowed to be married or even openly date in the mid-1800s. Only thirteen at the beginning of the novel, Susanna isn’t too concerned about that restriction, but if I were to write a sequel set several years later, that tension could present an interesting dynamic to the story, especially if I were to introduce a potential love interest.
Show, don’t tell. You hear this advice as a writer a lot, but it seems even more important when writing historical fiction because of the danger of the information dump. You don’t want it to sound like an encyclopedia article. Only include those details that can become a natural part of the storytelling and let the rest go. Your goal isn’t to show off how much you know but to tell an engaging story. For example, When Sparrows Fall includes a scene in which my main character, Susanna, is helping her grandmother wash clothes. Washing machines didn’t exist in 1848, so I had to do some research to learn how people did laundry in those years. Although I learned a lot of detail about the process, sharing it all would be terribly boring to most of my readers. Instead, I just showed Susanna loading the soiled clothes in the wash boiler, poking them under the water with the wash stick, and placing the lid on top of the boiler. Besides, doing laundry wasn’t the point of the scene—it was only the backdrop for an important conversation between Susanna and her grandmother—but it helped add authentic detail to the story.
I have a mistake in my novel some Mennonites will catch, particularly older ones or those from more conservative backgrounds—a reference to Saint Nicholas at Christmas. Mennonites in that time would not have acknowledged Old Saint Nick, Santa Claus, or the Jolly Old Elf in any form. It’s only one sentence, but it still makes me cringe to think of it. I attempted to research Mennonite Christmas traditions in the mid-1800s on the Internet, but the details were sketchy, so I made them up and got one wrong. A simple phone call or email to an older Mennonite from a traditional background would have prevented this mistake.
In the end, I can’t be too hard on myself. I’m human, and I’ve learned from it. Although inaccurate, this sentence adds detail my younger target audience will enjoy, anyway, and since my character’s family pushes society’s boundaries in other ways, maybe it’s not too far of a stretch that they’d include Saint Nicholas in their Christmas traditions.
If you had a time machine, what time periods would you like to visit? You can probably find a book about it. If not, why don’t you try writing one? If you’ve already tried writing historical fiction, what other tips would you add to this list?
Jill here. To thank Diana for coming on Go Teen Writers, we're giving away a copy of her book, When Sparrows Fall. The giveaway is open to anyone in the world! Enter on the Rafflecopter form below.
Here is the official blurb for the story:
After her mother's arranged marriage to her recently deceased father's bitter brother, thirteen-year-old Susanna Stutzman faces a crisis of faith. Everything seems to be going wrong in her life. As if her new father's nasty temper isn't enough, her cousin Mary, now her stepsister, hates her, as does her new teacher. When Susanna's discovery of a strange nighttime visitor at her mysterious neighbor's home leads to the unveiling of secrets, she is forced to make a choice between her conscience and her Mennonite community.