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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