Observations while writing a historical novel

I am 40K words into my New Book, which is a romantic adventure like all my books, but this time historical instead of alt-planet. And whoa nelly, lemme tell you, writing historical is a whole different ball game. I suppose that comes as a surprise to no one, but just how much harder it is has bowled me over.

I’ve said on Twitter that when you write a story in an imagined setting, you have to figure out what happens. When you’re writing a historical novel, you also have to figure out when, where, why, and how it happens. And there will be mistakes, and people will call you out on them, and worse, people will call you out on things that aren’t mistakes.

Actually, that has happened to me with my alt-planet books, too. People are stinkers.

Anyway: a few things I have learned along the way about writing in a historical period.

1) Don’t Extrapolate
I have a degree in 18th and 19th century British novels. Sounds like that would be just awfully useful for writing a novel set at the close of the 18th century in America, right? WRONG! The societies were completely different. Jane Austen’s niceties were pure poppycock to the Americans of the time. The new Republic was writing its own laws that were sometimes very different from England’s. National attitudes and modes of living were different (America was notably egalitarian and mobile compared to England, for example. Its people were also much taller), and the material possessions were entirely different. Material things I put in 1795 Pittsburgh that don’t belong there: carpets, curtains, lots of candles, washstands, personal conveyances, machine-made cloth, and forks.

2) Check Your Assumptions
The list of material things I put into my story and then had to take out–not because they didn’t exist, but because they were so rare and expensive at the place and time that it beggars belief for them to be there–gives you some idea of how easy it is to assume things. This trickles down to all aspects of the writing. Were there roads? Was there transport from place A to place B? How was money represented and exchanged? How did women and men behave toward each other (Stop. Did you just assume you know all about that?) What were the standards of cleanliness and privacy? What did people know: about history, philosophy, geography, chemistry, religion, domestic economy, and their own bodies? What were they allowed to find out? And how did they speak? Being an ex-linguist, I’m moderately aware of idiom and language change, but the problem with writing an earlier dialect is that while it’s easy to put in the things that have been lost, it’s nearly impossible to remove all the things that weren’t there yet.

3) Playing Fast and Loose
An exciting aspect of historical fiction is, well, the history. Your characters can meet famous historical figures, heroes as well as villains, and witness events that change the world. In my time period–1795–record-keeping was surprisingly good. I have a list of every man who signed the tax-oath after the Whiskey Rebellion (and hoo-boy, ain’t it interesting who did and didn’t). I have the daily correspondence of the quartermaster at Fort Pitt. I have a map of Pittsburgh at the time, complete with a list of notable people and where they lived. Do my characters interact with some of them? You bet!
But writing about real people is also … well … real. 1795 wasn’t that long ago, and some of these people, when I search for more information about them, come up on Ancestry.com. They’re so-and-so’s g-g-g-great-grandfather.
A lot of these people would have been in positions to thwart my characters. I want to write them as comic villains. But given that they have a passel of descendants still around today and that there’s no concrete reason to think ill of them, do I really want to do that? It bears thought.

4) Make the Setting a Character
Why am I writing historical? To challenge myself, mostly, but in the end I have to be able to say why my story is set when and where it is. Not only should the setting come alive through the text–every piece of fiction should do that–but the setting should be crucial to the text. It needs to inform the characters’ thoughts, actions, their very beings. They need to belong to the world, and those characters in that world need to be the only people in the only place and time that could make the story could go down as it does.

5) Don’t Rely on Primary Sources
Primary sources are invaluable when writing historical fiction. They give up all sorts of juicy details, and also give you a taste of the linguistic rhythms of the time. Read primary sources. Lots of them.
But don’t rely on them, because there are a lot of important things they can’t tell you. The people who wrote them lived in a different place and time, and they operated within a wholly different life experience than yours. Frank and detailed as they might be, there are bedrock assumptions their authors are working with that you don’t make. So read modern histories of your time, too. Let historians do some legwork for you. They can explain all sorts of things that might never have occurred to you on your own.

I hope this helps (or makes you feel better about yourself). If you have any more crucial hints for writing historical fiction, please do leave them in the comments. We all need all the help we can get!

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5 thoughts on “Observations while writing a historical novel

  1. When I was taking an English survey course at University of Toronto, we warned not to attempt questions in the final exam on Chaucer’s period of history [did you know his wife was called Philippa?]. Anyway I ignored that advice, and got an A – but the information I had on that period came primarily from a historical novel called Katherine, by Anya Seton – that’s how good her research was. So be aware you may not just have to deal with descendants, but also with students who may feel that you are a resource for them. Sorry, didn’t mean to lay a heavy on you, but you never know. So glad you are well into your next book, I’ve been wondering!

    • Oh, yes. I’ve learned more history from novels than from history classes, no doubt. It’s also a temptation to include details just because you know them and not because they’re part of the story. Very tricky!

  2. One thing you left out – research.

    Hours and hours and hours of research. Even though it is “fiction” you MUST be as historically accurate as possible.

    Yes, it’s lots of fun creating things from facts. But, someone somewhere will find a way to stick a finger in your eye if you stray too far from reality.

    If anything else, it’s definitely a learning experience.

  3. You can make fun of my ancestors and I couldn’t give two hoots. They’re Travers, and they were rich as Midas. Go wild.

    The reasons you list are all the reasons I am not writing historical. I admire the efforts tremendously and simultaneously cannot be bothered with them myself. I’d rather play with my future’s economic model than try to work with 18th century manners.

    What’s a piece of language that you found you couldn’t take out of your book, even though they wouldn’t have said that? Do you mean grammatical patterns or words?

    • I mean you can’t take them out because you can’t audit every single word of your manuscript, and inevitably some historical inaccuracies will slip by. Some historical authors are better about this than others. I hope I’m not completely hopeless.

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