Today I welcome the wonderful K.B. Owen who is here to share a fantastic post with tips for writing historical fiction.
The Only Thing New: Writing Historical Fiction
By K.B. Owen
Harry Truman once said: ‘The only thing new in this world is the history that you don’t know.’ Those of us drawn to the reading and writing of historical fiction have always known this. We love these novels for what we learn and the unfamiliar worlds they plunge us in. Romance, mystery, thrillers, YA – history adds something special to almost any genre.
Historical mysteries are my special love, reflected in my first novel, Dangerous and Unseemly, set in 1890s Hartford, Connecticut. My agent is currently circulating it to various publishers for consideration.
While writing Dangerous and Unseemly, I learned a lot about research: how to find it and, most importantly, how to use it. I also made a ton of mistakes that had my beta readers and agent groaning in agony and wanting to slap me upside the head.
The Good: tips and resources
Tip #1: Where to use historical material in your story
First, build your ‘world’: the setting, characters, and circumstances. Do this just for you to see, not the reader. This is where all that research is going to be put to good use. For me, that involved creating a fictitious women’s college, with buildings, a faculty, procedures and rules, and pranks that could be pulled. It involved extrapolating from research I’d done. For example, I read about an early tradition at Bryn Mawr College, where the upperclassmen would steal the freshmen’s mortarboards (they wore full academic regalia to classes). A prank I have in my novel involves stealing freshman dress gloves, a critical component of a young lady’s wardrobe, with strict rules about the occasions for gloves to be worn.
Your world gives you a stockpile to draw from. Be subtle in your narrative placement: a quick phrase describing the boot your protag has trouble putting on, or the lamp she’s trying to extinguish, or the dinner party dish she can’t finish because her corset is tight enough already. Of course, descriptions of setting will be important, especially early on, but avoid info dumps (see mistakes section, below).
Tip #2: What to do about dialogue?
Dialogue was something I struggled with at first. I really agonized over it. How authentic did it need to be? How could I possibly find out about 1890s speech? What about people of different classes and ethnicities?
The best places to learn about speech idioms are newspaper and magazine articles of the time. For working class speech, I turned to transcripted depositions from factory girls. Don’t try to reproduce accents exactly – you don’t want the reader laboriously sounding out phonetically spelled words like it’s a Mad Gab game. I like to put idioms and 19th century slang into the dialogue: ‘What the Sam Hill do you think you’re doing?’ for example. An Italian woman in my novel, Miss Bellini, sprinkles words from her native language (which I italicize, haha) in her speech. She also transposes some of her noun/verb order. Again, don’t go overboard, or it is Yoda you will sound like, hmmm?? Yes, strong the Force is.
Most of this list directs you to primary resources rather than secondary. Not that there aren’t useful secondary sources out there (I’ve used plenty), but I like to see originals when I can, and the internet has just exploded with digitized material. For those of you specifically interested in 19th century sources, I have a list of links on my blog.
Library of Congress (I especially like their 19th century periodicals collection)
New York Times Archive (1851-1980; most of it’s free, although I paid $3 for one article I badly needed)
How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries, by Kathy Lynn Emerson
…the Bad, and the Ugly:
Yep, sad to say, Ive been guilty of the following mistakes. They look so obvious, dont they? But we all have our ‘duh’ moments. Kids still run with scissors. We touch something to see if it’s hot. Elizabeth Taylor married Richard Burton twice. So these mistakes are worth a look-over.
Mistake #1: pace-killers
Your heroine is climbing out of a burning building. Everyone is screaming in panic. The window a few feet away shatters from the heat. She’s trying to bundle her voluminous skirts out of the way so she can climb more easily. They happen to be made of navy blue worsted wool, cut flatteringly on the bias, with soutach braid trimming at the waist and hem. She got the outfit on sale at Sage Allen, a short trolley ride away on Main Street.
Tap, tap. Um, can we get back to the action now?
You see my point. Placement of details is crucial. Stick them in the wrong spot, and you kill the pace.
Mistake #2: the I-don’t-want-to-waste-it philosophy
It took you five hours of internet searches, three trips to the Library of Congress, and countless wheedling e-mails to experts and librarians. Finally, you have the info you need on 19th century women bicycle-riders. But now, you realize the plot works better if your protag has a bike-riding accident in Chapter 3. No more opportunities to use all my hard-earned research!? Are you kidding me? I can’t let all this go to waste. Let me put just a teensy bit more in that earlier scene…
Wrong. This is a story, not a treatise on bicycles. Be strong; file it away for future use and move on. It happens to all of us. By my rough estimate, my readers will only see 30-40% of the research I collected.
So, those are the highlights. There is more, of course, but you all have your lives to get back to. Hope it helps! Feel free to give a shout if you have any questions.
About K.B. OwenK.B. Owen holds a doctorate in 19th century British literature and taught college literature and writing courses for more than a decade. Dangerous and Unseemly is the first in a series of historical mystery novels. Unlike her main character, Professor Concordia Wells, she did not have to lecture in a bustle and full skirts. Connect on her blog. Or follow her on Twitter.
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Terri, thanks so much for allowing me to guest post. It was a terrific experience!
This is a very helpful post. I've been dipping my toe into some historical writing and am thinking about a novel-length historical, actually two. These are good tips and I especially appreciate the distinction between primary and secondary sources with links. I'm new to this whole historical business ;-) Thanks!
Thank you so much, P.J.! Kathy is a wonderful writer – and she's very knowledgable and experienced. I can't wait for her book to come out!
I appreciate your visit! Thank you very much!
Fantastic post, Kathy! Lots of wonderful response – here and on Twitter. Thank you so much!!
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Great post. I feel your pain (especially the part about letting those hard-to-find tidbits of info go quietly into the trash). My WIP is in 1930's France. Fortunately where I live in France now hasn't really changed that much in appearance since the 30s but all the rituals and food and clothes, education, etc, etc, has.
But the most important thing I think for me is to remember that I'm writing a story and not a history paper. Yes, I want it to be historically correct but no, I don't really care if people feel that they haven't learned everything about France between the wars as long as they have enjoyed the book.
Well said, Tim. The I-don't-want-to-waste it mentality is strong with all of us regardless of our chosen genre. When researching our stories, we get so absorbed in the information; it becomes fascinating to us. We need to take a step back and think of our research as the cliched iceberg. 90% of it sets the scene and gets us in the right frame of mind but remains hidden in the surface, while the remaining 10 rises above and glistens in the light.
As a former academic, it's been really hard to hold myself back. You're absolutely right, Tim; our first service is to the reader. While many readers seek out historicals for the extras that they will learn along the way, getting absorbed in the story is our primary objective.
Yes, common sense tells us that fiction shouldn't read like a text book (even if it is saddled with the modifier "historical"). It's important to be reminded of this obvious truth from time-to-time, and I'm so glad you have within the content of your wonderfully helpful post, K.B. :-)
Great post! I couldn't agree more with the tip pacing. If you're running for your life, you won't stop to notice the curtains unless the curtains are a way out. Most of those tips can also apply to anyone writing science fiction or fantasy, where the world has to be created in a realistic fashion. Both historical and SFF are world building exercises. I have pages and pages (and books and books) of research for my worlds and they aren't even real! I have to watch out for throwing it into the story as well. And I even found a real life detail like your stolen mortar boards I used in my book.
Makes me wonder how many more tips for one genre would cross over and help the other?
Hi, Janice. Thanks for your comment. It's true that a great deal of genre-centric writing advice can apply to the general craft as well.
A fun exception to the pacing example could be in literary fiction if a character is so detached or disturbed that she actually does pause to watch flames lap at the draperies instead of running for her life!
Love this. I don't write historical fiction. However, I a pretty sure I can apply your tools to the project I am currently working on.
So glad you enjoyed Kathy's post, Darlene!! I think it's terrific, too! Thank you so much for stopping by!