Researching and Writing Historical Fiction - Ten Tips to Get You Started

The Cottar's Saturday Night
Last week, I was asked to give a talk to the excellent Ayr Writers' Club about researching and writing historical fiction. It strikes me that quite a lot of other people might be interested in this too, whether they want to write novels, short stories or even plays with historical settings and themes. So I've tried to boil it all down into ten points: something to get you started while the year is still reasonably new.

1 Do your research. 
This is the key but just how much you need to do varies with the genre in which you're writing. You can do so much of it online now, that the risk is always that the research will take over, because let’s face it, it’s fascinating, and you can get engrossed in it, following one idea after another down the world wide rabbit warren. It’s important to try to immerse yourself in your chosen time and place, although this doesn’t necessarily mean reading dry academic histories. Think about social and domestic history, how people lived and worked, how they dressed and ate. Read letters too if you can find them. Don't dismiss the novels of the period. When I was writing The Jewel, one of my most useful finds was an early novel by John Galt called The Annals of The Parish, an accurate and at times hilarious account of life in a rural Ayrshire parish at just the right time for my novel. This kind of research will also help you to avoid howlers and anachronisms which will throw your reader right out of the world of the story.

2 Know when to stop. (For a bit) 
Research is its own reward and if you're that way inclined (and I am) you can easily get sidetracked by its endless fascination. Sometimes you have to take a conscious decision to stop researching and start writing.The trick is to do enough research so that you can ‘be’ in the time and place of your novel or story as you are writing it but also to recognise that ...

3 You can't know everything. 
Whatever you don’t know will become obvious as you write. Once you have a first draft under your belt, you will be able to check things, find things out, answer your own questions later on. You don’t know exactly what you don’t know until you realise you don’t know it. And that's fine.

4 Use your imagination. 
The questions writers have to ask themselves are: who, what, when, where, how and why. And what happened next, of course. But the question ‘what did that feel like?’ is the preserve of writers of fiction, mostly. Even biographers tend to be wary of venturing on that one, but novelists can go where angels fear to tread. And historical novelists – especially when they’ve done a lot of research – really have to give themselves permission to tackle the ‘what did that feel like’ aspect of the story, because it’s the biggest thing that will stop the factual research taking over and slowing the novel down. You have to try to treat your research lightly. It's the seasoning, rather than the big indigestible hunk of fat in the soup -  and wondering about feelings is one way of making sure that the story is deliciously readable and recognisable.

5 Allow yourself to make things up. 
When the historical record isn’t clear, you can make good guesses from the evidence before you, and since you’re writing fiction, you’re allowed to make things up. Within the bounds of possibility. You have a lot more freedom than a historian. But you should remember that even when you are making things up about known characters, you must consider what might conceivably have happened. If something seems incredible, then it probably is. And if it seems incredible to the reader it will throw him or her right out of the world of the story.

6 Make timelines and check dates. 
Especially when you’re writing from fact, timelines are invaluable. Find out not just what was going on in the wider world, but in detail. Find out what time of the year something happened. What was the weather like? (There are websites that will tell you this and sites that will tell you what day of the week a certain date fell on.) Knowing when something happened in relation to something else will often tell you a whole lot about the why and the how. If you're writing about real people, consider their ages. Often the extreme youth of certain characters tells you a lot about their behaviour or their relationships. In The Physic Garden, Thomas and William are based on real characters about whom we don't know very much except that there was some connection between them. I started out by thinking that an older professor had taken a very young gardener under his wing, as a professional man will sometimes mentor a younger man. Then I found out that they were of very similar ages, and my whole perception changed. They were friends. And the betrayal of that friendship gave me my story.

7 Choose a point of view. 
Are you telling the story as a first person narrative (as in The Physic Garden) or third person (as in The Jewel) - and if in the third person, are you still in the mind and point of view of one character in particular (The Jewel, Jean) or are you omniscient, the all seeing eye, and do you know how hard this can be to handle? If you are going for omniscient third person – you, as the author, seeing everything - you are going to have to be very careful about when and where you switch points of view. If you do it too abruptly, it disorientates the reader. Whole articles have been written about this and there's plenty of advice online, but it needn't be as complicated as it seems. The story itself will often dictate the persona in which it is told. Consistency is the key. 

8 Choose the language and dialect. 
This is closely related to (7) above. In the Jewel, I decided quite early on that it had to be a third person 'he said/she said' tale, but we are pretty much always with Jean in that novel – so it can be her story, but without too many of the challenges of trying to tackle a first person narrative for a genuine Ayrshire lass. Jean's voice was an 18th century Mauchline voice. In my novel, she uses the words and - largely - the patterns of speech you would expect. But the narrative, the storytelling, helps to make Jean accessible to a 21st century reader. As a writer you want to communicate, and you are always juggling marketability, the wants and needs of your readership, with what you want and need to do to make the characters authentic.   

9 Forge on. 
Get that first draft down, come hell or high water. Do Nanowrimo if you want or invent your own. You may find that - eventually - you can stop to polish along the way, but with a first novel in particular, it's important to get to the end, so that you have something to work on. When you are working, day to day, don't stop at the end of a chapter. Stop at a point where you really want to go on.  That way you'll want to start the next day. Once you have a first draft, however clumsy and unsatisfactory, however bad you think it is, let it lie fallow for a while, do some more research if you have to, and then go back to it and begin the real work of editing, rewriting, polishing. It's always easier to do this on an 'entity' - a whole novel - than on a small part of an unwritten whole. Printing out often helps at that stage. I write onto a PC but I often revise on paper.

10 Use Pinterest. 
I sometimes forget about this when I'm doing talks, but it really is an invaluable resource for writers, just because it contains so many wonderful images of costume, fashions, people, places, things - and often with links back to amazingly informative blog and websites. You can also set up secret boards that only you can see - mood boards for your particular project - where you can gather all sorts of images, add to them, go back to them time and again for inspiration, and eventually make them public if you want. Or delete them if you don't. A great resource. 

Comments

Bill Kirton said…
Impeccable, as usual, Catherine. This sums it up beautifully. The only one that hadn't really occurred to me was Pinterest. Even though I have a page (or foothold, or yurt, or whatever it is one has) there, it's never occurred to me to check it for important things such a costumes, objects and links to more detailed information. Having not long finished a 4 year stint on my latest, I'm on pause at the moment, but I think I'll start looking in preparation for when I restart. Thank you.
Becca McCallum said…
I love pinterest for story boards - the only problem is that sometimes it's too easy to get lost in the 'fun' bit of pinning exciting new things and forget to get down to the real work of actually writing.
Thanks, Bill - yes - it's excellent for costumes, domestic objects etc. Becca, you're right about Pinterest. It becomes almost too absorbing. Although I suppose it beats checking Twitter for more bad news! Not so depressing anyway. And you can pretend it's ALL work.
Julie said…
Actually most of what you've said in your blog, Catherine, applies also to historical biography (non-fiction). I found when writing Poisoned Lives that contemporary newspapers were a huge source of useful background stuff, and C19 medical textbooks helped with death/disease/medicine/poison. At the moment I'm transcribing early C19 letters and keep coming across phrases which I don't understand, but google is surprisingly helpful in explaining contemporary slang.
Citizen Smith said…
Some great ideas and your blog arrived just as I was getting lost in fascinating research. So, thanks Catherine, for prompting me to get on with some actual writing!