Writing Historical Fiction, or, Notes from a Time Traveler
For years I was haunted by a dream of a young woman walking through long grass. I couldn’t see her face, but I could hear her breathing hard, because she wore a corset and the hem of her brocade dress was damp and heavy. She carried a letter in her hand as she made her way toward a small building, a kind of folly, to read in private. This person didn’t fit into the book I was working on at the time. At all! But then last fall, I happened to read about the invention of hot-air balloons and a real-life event in which a Parisian girl saved a balloon pilot from injury. This happened right before the French Revolution, which made me think about Versailles and its gardens and court dresses and then I knew: my protagonist would be the tough city girl who stopped the balloon from crashing—and fell in love with its pilot—and she would be the girl with the letter, ruining her expensive dress as she strode through the gardens of Versailles.
My current project, Enchantée, is a YA historical fantasy, which means (at least to me) that it’s rooted in historical fact and touched by magic. The magic I get to invent, but the details of life in the 1780s—the settings, historical events, clothes, food, economy, transportation and more—I need to research. And all of that research is in pursuit of one thing: to make my readers feel that they are THERE, that they’ve traveled back in time and space.
When I started, I knew a bit about the eighteenth century from my grad school days, but not much. I’d listened to Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette. I’d visited Paris, a long time ago. I’d seen period films set in the 1780s. For me, this was enough to begin, to rough out a story arc. Then I starting researching. Then I wrote. Then I researched again, this time with more focus because I had a better idea of what I needed to know. And then I wrote more. And so on and so on.
Research, I’ve discovered, is a spiral process: you can’t possibly know what you need to know at the beginning, so inevitably you’ll go back to the source many times. Knowing this has helped me deal with the inevitable overwhelm that comes with trying to get a grasp on a historical moment.
I’ve read more about the period than will fit in my book; in fact, what shows up in the novel is only the tip of the iceberg. Will readers care about the difficulty of producing hydrogen gas for balloons? I highly doubt it! But understanding it added another layer of authenticity to the story and helped me see the challenges my balloonist would face, which in turn sparked changes in the plot. This wasn’t something I’d expected to happen, but I was thrilled when it did.
Yet as K.M. Weiland stresses in her great post on writing historical fiction, even more than getting the facts right (which you need to do), what counts is creating a feeling of authenticity.
But how do you do that? Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
Tiny details can be time machines. Learning that the pomade used in hairstyles in the 1780s reeked after a week gave me a powerful sensory detail. Learning that Versailles crawled with rats and that anyone could wander its halls helped me see the glittering palace with fresh eyes—and devise a way in for my heroine.
Read what interests you. Try biographies, social and political histories. You don’t have to start with the most complex one, either, unless it speaks to you. Know that you’ll probably come back to whatever you read, so be sure to take notes and save links to websites. (I do this by importing links into Scrivener.)
Use historians’ bibliographies to track down documents from the period, many of which are available online or included in books. These primary sources are what historians use to write their accounts; they include letters and diaries, or things like a first-hand account of a balloon flight in 1783, and they are gold. Not only because they contain the priceless details you want, but they will be written in the language of a person from your period.
Which brings me to voice. Reading eighteenth-century letters as well as novels, histories, and poems helped me shape my protagonist’s voice. I wanted her voice and thoughts to feel contemporary enough for YA readers of today, but also to feel authentic to the time. I’ll admit that for me, balancing these two issues is an ongoing struggle.
If your chosen period isn’t too far in the past, you may find maps, old guidebooks, or travel writing useful. Even present-day guidebooks can contain helpful information, especially if aspects of your setting still exist—as they did for me in Paris and at Versailles.
Indulge in period films, your pen at the ready (next to the popcorn, of course). Surround yourself with photos of the places you’re writing about. Follow pinners on Pinterest who are fascinated by your setting and your time period and pin like crazy. Track down museums that feature objects important to your book—in my case, the Bata shoe museum and the Murtog D. Guiness Collection of Automata.
Seek out passionate experts of your period. They’re not all academics. I follow people on Pinterest who pin eighteenth-century clothes; their pins function as a virtual wardrobe when I’m dressing my characters. If, for example, you want to set your novel during the American Civil War, you might find a re-enactor’s blog useful. I was captivated by the work of a Finnish blogger who sews 18th century dresses. I also stumbled across an online agency that rents weapons to acting companies; one of its owners provided the best description I’d found of how to fight with a French small sword. Many of these experts will welcome questions—they love to share their passion.
The most important thing I’ve learned is both humbling and inspiring. As Newberry winner Karen Hesse, author of Out of the Dust wrote, “Even after researching for a full year, after reading thousands of pages of material, both primary and secondary sources, I could never recreate an historical period with absolute confidence. I needed to make so many leaps of faith and asked the reader to leap with me.”
So yes, you need to research, but time travel happens through imagination—something you already have. Happy writing!
Looking to read some MG and YA historical fiction? Here are a few of my favorites:
Elizabeth Wein, Code Name Verity
Lois Lowry, Number the Stars
Laurie Halse Anderson, Chains
MT Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing
Christopher Paul Malone, The Watsons Go to Birmingham
Elizabeth George Speare, The Witch of Blackbird Pond
You can read interviews with MT Anderson here and Laurie Halse Anderson here.
Emma Darwin’s guide to writing historical fiction (not specifically for kidlit writers but useful nonetheless) is available May 25, 2016.
Do you have any tips on writing historical fiction? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
When GITA TRELEASE was little, she believed that if she squinted just right, she could see the glimmer of magic around certain things. She still believes it. As an English professor, she taught classes on Victorian criminals, monsters, and fairy tales. Along with her artist husband, teenage son, and opinionated Maine Coon cat, Gita divides her time between a boarding school in Massachusetts and the wild Maine coast. Her current YA project is a historical fantasy that takes place during the French Revolution—with a glimmer of magic. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram, where she often posts about her research.