Thursday, April 23, 2009

Things to Consider If You’re Writing Historical Fiction

by Tom Mach

© 2009 by Tom Mach

I enjoy both history and fiction; so naturally, my area of intense interest in writing would be historical fiction. Unfortunately, some novels that are called “historical novels” should really be called “period novels.” This is because fictional works such as Gone With the Wind, take place against a Civil War background, but there is very little factual history comingled with the story. The reader knows there’s a battle going on, but she is captivated by the intriguing conflict Scarlett O’Hara has between her desire for Ashley Wilkes and her on-again, off-again feels for Rhett Butler. A book such as The March by E. L. Doctorow is a true historical novel because it intermingles fictional and historical characters and accurately follows General Sherman and his commanders as they march to Atlanta near the close of the Civil War. My two novels, Sissy! and All Parts Together, are also “historical” in nature as they accurately describe the historical events of the times. In All Parts Together, for instance, the reader gets into the mind of John Wilkes Booth as he methodically plans the assassination of President Lincoln.

I’ve outlined below what I think are eleven important things a writer can do to create a true historical novel:

1) Visit the locale where the action takes place. (In my case, I visited Civil War battleground sites and formulated in my mind the terrain, the positions of hills and creeks, the location of camp headquarters, where the tents were located, etc. so I can have a strong image in my mind of the scene before I start writing the book.)

2) Go to museums and study the exhibits carefully.

3) Explore old cemeteries to see where you might have your characters buried.

4) Dig into old newspapers. Many libraries have these on microfiche and you can scroll to specific dates to see what was being written about certain events. Even the ads are helpful in giving you a fix on what kinds of merchandise were sold back then and for how much.

5) Talk to historians, teachers, other writers. Historical societies and similar organizations can be quite helpful in giving you a sense of reality of what may have really happened in a given scene.

6) Check out deeds, contracts, letters, wills, or other legal documents that might be related to your story.

7) Read other novels written at the time your story is set. Also read contemporary novels which cover the same time period to get a sense of how these writers wrote about that era.

8) Check out footnotes in any nonfiction books or articles relating to your story. These footnotes may lead you to other helpful sources

9) Invest in some reference books. Don’t rely on a single source for information and try to get to the original source of information if at all possible.

10) Use the internet. Google. Do some social networking on Facebook and Twitter. Get more contacts who might be of help to you.

11) Don’t be afraid to comingle fictional characters with historical ones. But be extremely careful in the language, actions, locale, and time period for your imaginary scenes. If you make a single inaccurate historical mistake—for instance, having a fictional character see Lincoln arrive at Ford’s Theater a half-hour before he actually would have gotten there—this would be fatal flaw that could turn off a reader who knows his history.

No comments: