Middle Grade Mondays
For the Love of History
by Natalie Bright
If you love history, a fictional story in an historical setting might be something you’d like to tackle. Historical fiction is a time-consuming, massive undertaking. Not only do you need the common elements of story craft, you also need a basic knowledge of the time period. Your details must be accurate or you will get snippy feedback from passionate readers (ask any historical author about the letters and emails they’ve received).
Authors confront the research portion of their stories in several different ways. Based on questions to some of my favorite historical writers, here are a few of the processes I’ve learned about.
1) Research the heck out of it first, then power through and write the first draft. Do. Not. Stop. Verification of facts, sensory building, characterization, etc., is done during the editing process.
2) Start with minimal research, character profiles, and develop a basic plot outline. Write, stopping to inquire about specific details as you write. This would be akin to one step forward, three steps back form of world building. By the time you get to the end, you have a fairly polished novel.
3) Total and complete emersion into the time period. You consciously and subconsciously step back into that era.. While you write, you’re developing character profiles, plot elements, intricate details about life, and researching the time period. In your spare time, if not writing, you can rent movies on that time period and read nonfiction books.
Its In the Details
It’s the subtle details about everyday life that brings historical fiction alive for me. Everything must be true to that time period. For example, in my middle grade western, the heroine’s mother told the town’s sheriff to “give me a call.” When I heard those words as I read them out loud to my critique group, I felt like such an idiot. The only way the Sheriff could have “called” in 1885 is through a mega phone. Oh wait, were mega phones even invented by 1885? (See what I mean. As if writers aren’t already crazy enough.)
Beware of those every day, subtle details. They’ll sneak up on you. I believe people who lived in other centuries had the same desires, dreams, aggravations that people do today, but their day-to-day realities are not the same as ours.
One element that is critical when writing historical fiction regardless of the process you use, is a timeline. This can be developed on your computer in a spreadsheet fashion, they can be found online on numerous history sites, or you can make your own with dry eraser board or butcher paper to be taped to your wall for easy reference.
1) Time of day and days of the week specific to your characters as your plot progresses.
2) Print a timeline from a credible website with major events. You might want to thread these events through your plot line. Is your character directly a part of that event?
3) A timeline specific to your setting and a plat or map. What’s going on in the fictional town where your character lives and how is it affected by actual events of the time?
Have you discovered a process that I haven’t mentioned?
What process works best for you?