I’ll never understand people who find history boring. It’s all like one ridiculous, bloody, passionate soap opera and it’s real. I find it fascinating to imagine long lost lives just as full of love and emotion as my own, and think it’s tragic that these lives have in most cases left no trace. To this end, I love reading weird niche histories and love even more writing them. But bad historical fiction can be genuinely laughable. Early twentieth century written in an old English dialect (I read a lot of fanfiction)—seriously, the hardest of lolz. Writing historical fiction is HARD. It requires a lot of research, and particularly if it’s a novel, painstaking attention to detail to ensure accuracy. Accuracy can make or break a story set before the modern era. But it’s also crucial to make sure modern readers can connect to your characters. Historical fiction should be realistic, but also relatable. It’s no easy task, but IMO it’s a fun one (research rocks!)—here are some tips on telling stories of another time…
Research extensively before you begin writing––what you find may affect the core events of the story––and continue researching as you write.
There are so many historical differences as far as daily life, on a small and large scale. I strongly advise doing a LOT of research before you start writing, and I think most writers of historical fiction would agree with me. In general, I’m a stickler for pre-planning, but when writing fiction set in the past, research is not only helpful to authenticity but essential to ensuring your story doesn’t seem ridiculous. Even small mistakes as far as historical accuracy can compromise realism and take a reader out of the story. I’m working on a book set in the eighties, and even though that isn’t that long ago, there are huge differences from modern life. I’m still in the pre-writing stage, and I already have upwards of fifty pages of research amassed. As far as where you should get historical information from…
Use primary sources wherever possible, particularly things like letters and diary entries from the common man / woman. This helps you not only get a picture of the era, but understand to some extent what it was like to live in it.
For my novel set in the eighties, I grilled my parents and million aunts and uncles, all Gen X’ers, on what it was like to be a teen in the eighties. There was SO much stuff I wouldn’t have guessed, and didn’t find in my initial online research on the decade. In another story set in the seventies, I had my character drinking from a disposable water bottle, only to be told by my mother that bottled water wasn’t really a thing in the seventies. It’s a tiny thing, but readers do notice, especially if you’re writing about the recent past and a reader lived through the period. Reading primary sources or talking to people who remember the era / event allows you to incorporate personal anecdotes and specific details you won’t find elsewhere.
If you find an interesting, specific fact about the time and place in which your story takes place, don’t be afraid to look for a reason to use it. Any realistic details are a good thing in historical fiction. You can find a way to make them fit.
I actually have a document of random facts and notes for my eighties novel, that don’t quite fit at the moment, but that I might want to include at some point in the story. Even my first book, set in the mid-nineties, was significantly improved when I actively tried to incorporate setting-specific details. Even though I was born in 1994, I have next to no memory of the mid-nineties, and just as importantly, didn’t live in New York at the time (where the story is set). Setting is its own *thing*, and I’ll post on it next month as part of a collaboration with the Ice Colony Podcast. But for now I’ll leave it at this––particularly when writing historical fiction, place is as significant as time. Old Hollywood is VERY different from the experience of a soldier in WW2, clearly. Even in less obvious ways, location plays a role in how the setting should be depicted. For example, some inventions commonly in use in America at a certain time may not have been popular in Europe yet. If you have trouble finding information about a particular time and place, it can be especially helpful to have a collection of random facts. It might be difficult to find answers to your questions about your chosen setting, but you’ll almost certainly be able to find SOME information, which you can then include wherever it makes sense.
Tread very carefully when writing a long story set prior to 1900––there are generally pretty significant language differences between everyday speech then and now.
I actually have something of a rule for myself that I never write stories set prior to 1900, partially because I’m lazy, but also because the language barrier (and that really is what it is) makes it tough to develop characters in the way I want to, because it’s so difficult to write dialogue and even tougher to accurately capture the thought process of a character from previous centuries. I love Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice, but there are parts I have to read very slowly to actually grasp what is happening. Obviously this is even tougher when you’re the author. If you’re set on writing a story set long ago, you may have a lot of linguistic research ahead to make your story impactful and believable. It’s very easy for a story to sound stilted or just flat out poorly written. Watch usage of “thou” and “ye”––not all old-timey speech is appropriate for any given era. Especially in stories set prior to 1800. Colonial American speech was very different from that of Medieval England. One great example of a period piece with well-done old English is the movie The Witch. Apparently, years of research went into writing the script, and that doesn’t surprise me at all. The movie is still emotionally impactful (and creepy as hell), and I’ve seen various sources more well-versed in 1600s language say it’s also quite accurate. But unless you’re willing to spend as much time researching speech patterns as you do writing the book, you may want to set your story in a time closer to the present. And even in stories set in the more recent past, you might want to research speech differences and common slang from the era. It can add that little extra touch of authenticity to the story and bring the era you’re writing about to life.
Social media can be very helpful in historical research, interestingly enough, particularly Pinterest and Tumblr.
I wouldn’t have thought there was such a wealth of historical information to be found on these platforms, Pinterest being heavily populated by suburban moms looking for recipes and Tumblr being mostly the domain of angsty teenage hipsters. But if you put some time into it, you can find a lot of sources on a variety of subjects and time periods. I’ve found in depth descriptions of Victorian beauty rituals and historical slang dictionaries on Tumblr, popular names by era and and links to various databases on Pinterest, among many other helpful resources.
Ancestry.com is also really great as a research tool, if you know how to use it.
You do have to pay to access many of the site’s features, but Ancestry.com really is amazing. My best friend is a big genealogy fan, and in literally two minutes she was able to find my grandpa’s high school yearbook picture and my great-grandfather’s draft card, amongst other family documents. You can really get lost on Ancestry, in a good way. There’s a large database of historical newspapers and other primary sources, with a strong focus on personal history––so many ways to use this website. With many, many databases of personal records specific to various eras and populations, you can do a lot of browsing even with a specific search term in mind. I know I’m being vague, but that’s because there’s such a variety of information on the website, from obituaries to encyclopedia entries reflecting knowledge of the time. Highly recommend it.
Develop your characters as you would modern ones…then make them fit the time.
When it comes to historical fiction, I would say that the one type of planning you should do prior to historical research is character development. Since the beliefs and behavioral standards vary so much across periods and settings, in order to make your characters as strong and authentic as possible, I think it’s good to have some idea of who your main players are on a personality level, irrespective of the time they live in. People are people. That said, personality traits will come out differently depending on each individual’s time, place, and station in life. A strong female character might not behave as an independent, modern woman would in this day in age. Even if her number one personality trait is “feisty”, she could potentially be executed for witchcraft if that feistiness gets out of hand. That doesn’t mean you have to make her more meek, but you might want to approach the character with a strong knowledge of the times. Because you will likely have to adjust your characters to fit the time period, it’s good to have an idea of who they are prior to making era-specific adjustments.
Be conscious of how current events in your characters’ time affects their lives.
Realistically, not everyone is completely engaged and aware of what’s going on in the world. People also may have VERY different viewpoints on current events, and two people might describe an event in different ways, such that they’re telling you two completely different things happened. It may be the case that neither of them are right. More often than not, people know basic details of major events, but will differ in opinion and may get specifics wrong. For most historical events, the average person is not likely to have been there or even to have been directly, significantly impacted by whatever happened. National tragedies like JFK’s assassination or 9/11 leave strong emotional memories, but physical involvement or close connection to these events, and certainly to less significant occurrences, is less common if not quite “rare”. For example, it’s relatively unlikely that a character living in the 1960s would have been to Woodstock unless that’s the focus of the story. The exception to this would be things like wars, and widespread crises like pandemics or the Great Depression. But in general, it is good to include some current events in historical fiction––just make sure your characters don’t all have the same extensive knowledge of everything going on in the world, and research how people in your chosen era would’ve reacted to what’s going on around them.
Immerse yourself in the era wherever possible, and truly write from your character’s frame of reference.
First of all, read historical fiction about the period you intend to write in. It’s so, so helpful. Not just because it can help with research––it also allows you to really soak in your chosen setting, whether it’s Italy during the Renaissance or the twenties in Paris. I’m a big fan of “method writing” (method acting for authors). It’s important to not only know on a factual level what life would be like for your characters, but to really FEEL it. To that end, you may want to try cooking a recipe from your character’s time, reading magazine articles from the era, even going a week without technology. Try dressing in vintage clothes for a few days, or listening to music your character would listen to. It’s important to really get inside your character’s head in order to write authentic emotion and individual reactions to the world––a world that may be very, very different from your own. Is your character going hungry? If your health allows and you have no history of disordered eating, fast for a day to get some fractional idea of how your character might feel. Is your character living in isolation? Take a week on your own if you’re able to. I’m aware neither of the aforementioned activities is particularly fun, but that’s the point. No question, you’ll write better if you at least kind of know where your character is coming from. It can help, especially when writing historical fiction, to really become another person.
Remember––accuracy above all. It’s better to be somewhat vague than totally butcher the language of the time and have your character talk about a book that wasn’t written for ten years after the story is set. Little things matter, and meticulous research helps bring a story to life.