Open The Door to the Past: Research and the Making Of Historical Fiction.

You know the feeling. You pick up a novel that promises to transport you into another world and another time, but instead it is a weak imitation of the modern world. The characters spout modern slang, strut around with modern mindset and attitude. But, hey, their clothes. They’re different. And, say, have you noticed the date? A.D. 300. Surprise!

*Bangs head against bookshelf*

Each era is unique among all the thousands of years of world history and never should be mistaken for the modern century. But how can we make a specific century alive for our readers without dulling them with eternity-long paragraphs of  facts and findings?

We must insert breaths of history.

Incorporating pieces of their everyday life in subtle hints and action.

The story must be ruled by the characters’ everyday normal.

Before we even begin our stories, we should:

  1. Read period works. Not just the journals and autobiographies of leaders –although those are so important too!– but the letters and writings of the common people. Search for reprints from your chosen era and dissect the pages. What happened in a typical day? What were their goals and expectations?
  2. Research character names. I’ve picked up historical fiction, drawn in by its premise, only to be thrown off by a character’s modern name. I know that in rare cases there might have been women named Taylor in the 19th century (likely her mother’s surname), but the association is tied tightly to the 21st century, and will only throw off the reader. Be authentic. If they have an name that is unusual to the era, you better have a good explanation for it. At a loss for finding period names? Genealogy records are your new best friend.
  3. Keep track of the basics of life. How did they cook? What did they eat? What weapons were commonly used? Let’s keep our facts straight. If we can’t find the answer to a question, we have the right, in fiction, to improvise, but be aware there will be readers who will attempt to set you straight.
  4. Please, please, please research language and its usage. I can’t reiterate this enough: stop letting your characters use modern slang. No, don’t force us to read entire dialogues written in Old English. But which words would be acceptable in their century? What are common expressions? Insert an occasional archaic word to their dialogue and you will have added some of the flavor of the era.
  5. Immerse yourself in the era’s history and culture. Your protagonist’s personality and character are shaped by his culture. Either he conforms or he rebels, but he is a byproduct of his century nonetheless.
  6. Being everyday details to life. Say that your protagonist lives in 1774 Boston and is actively working with the Sons of Liberty against the British invasion, a resistance worker of the early American Revolution. The reader has a general idea of how he would look: breeches and a wig, of course. But how would that attire actually feel? What about the scent of powder tingling his nose? Sweat sealing his homespun cotton shirt against his skin? Sometimes the smallest hints can bring a century to life.
  7. Remember that our characters do not know the outcome of history. The events they lived through were not history, but day to day life. There were no guarantees that their side would come out victors in this struggle, and certainly no indication that they could become heroes. Your protagonist has no idea how the tides of  history will turn. For all he knows, his decisions –or failure to make a decision– could be the end of everything.

And so we live the stories with them. Erase everything we know about the outcome of history and instill that sense of wonder, the unknowing, into your words. Your protagonist’s side may not win, and he may not survive the war. History unfolds each day before his eyes, but he is unaware of the significance. He rubs shoulders with future heroes, but treats them like comrades.

A world becomes alive when we take place in discovery alongside the protagonist.

What draws you into a story? Do you have any tips to share?


Coming Next Week: Interview with Romantic Suspense Author Shannon Redmon

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