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Researching and Writing the Historical Novel

by Deborah Cox

1999 All Rights Reserved

 

 

Before you begin writing your historical novel, it's important to ask yourself why. Why write an historical novel?  It has been said that there is only one valid reason to write a novel outside outside the present day:

The situation springs from the period and couldn't possibly have happened at any other time.

I would add another - the love of a particular time and place. Hopefully you'll have both of these reasons when you sit down to undertake this task.

If you have decided to write an historical novel because you want to catch a hot trend or because you think it would be easy, think again. In publishing, by the time you hear of a trend, the trend is usually over. It's like a tornado warning in the part of the country where I live. If you hear the siren go off and you're still here, you're probably safe. It's probably off wreaking havoc somewhere else by then. In other words, it's like trying to catch lightning in a bottle.

And in a lot of ways, writing the historical novel is much more difficult than writing a contemporary. First of all, you have to recreate a world you never experienced. You need to love research and the musty smell of a library because there is a chance your research may take as long as the writing if your work is to have the ring of truth. To be convincing, characters and situations must be appropriate to their era. They must think, act, live and breathe appropriate to their time.

In order to make this happen, you must know your characters thoroughly and thoroughly understand the times they lived in. For this reason, it is often a good idea to choose a period and immerse yourself in it. Learn all you can about it. I am an avid student of the Old West 1840-1880, New Orleans at any time, the Civil War, and the French Revolution (go figure). So I have several time periods that I favor.

You'll spend more time researching social history than political history. You'll need to know things like the type of fabric used for clothing. Don't put an 18th character in polyester double-knit. It could be argued that you shouldn't put ANY character in polyester double-knit, but certainly not a member of the court of Louis XVI. You'll need to know the books and newspapers they would have read, the food they would have eaten, how they would have likely been educated or if they would have been likely to have been educated at all.

The bigger issues of the day would have been important and would have impacted their lives, but it's the small stuff that will trip you up. We all know when the War of 1812 was and when the American Revolution was. But do you know if it would have been possible for someone in 1870 to use a single-action revolver? How long would it take to sail from Liverpool to New York in 1825? What would someone in 1840s Nebraska use for fuel for cooking? Where would someone of the upper class be likely to live in 1808 in London? What did people do in New Orleans in the 1800s when there was a yellow fever epidemic? How far could you travel west by rail in 1868? If you lived in Montana in 1870 and there was an emergency, could you send a telegram to the next town?

People make history, not the other way around.

Remember, you use research to flesh out your characters, because when all is said and done, it always comes back to characters.

In my first published book, DESERT DREAMS, my heroine was from Baton Rouge. She went to Texas to live with her aunt when her father was shot to death over a poker game. Oh yeah, and it was during the Civil War. Now, I'm from Mississippi and I am a history enthusiast - I cannot escape the Civil War. I had a pretty good idea what her life would have been like on the river. And I had read several works, including the biography of Sarah Morgan, a young woman who lived in Baton Rouge during the war. I remembered reading about the bombardment and the blockade and how hard it was to get clothing, so I gave my heroine a pair of boots that were too large for her and rubbed blisters on her feet. I used those boots further to give my hero some depth in an unexpected way - for me anyway. It surprised me.

But beware of the pitfall of relying too heavily on history, atmosphere or costume of a bygone era to carry your story. The story line has to be strong enough to hold its own in such a world. Leaning too heavily on the background will produce a book which is merely a guided tour of the period.

A good historical must first be a good novel.

A good historical is a scene or a situation from history focused through individuals.

Your theme is likely to be timeless and abstract -

  • jealousy
  • vengeance
  • the futility of war
  • self-sacrifice
  • martyrdom
  • divided loyalties

These are only a few of the possibilities and they are very simplified. There are limitless possibilities within each of these themes.

If your theme is ambition, for example, is your point that ambition, which is neither good nor bad in and of itself, can lead to avarice and/or ruthlessness. Or is it the destructiveness of having no ambition whatsoever?

Whatever the theme, everything that happens in the course of the story, every word you write, should illustrate it.

And whether the evils of ambition are presented in the person of a town boss in 1870s Montana or a corporate raider in 1999 New York determines whether your story will be classified as historical or contemporary.

So at what point do you start researching a book? The answer is now.

  • There is no one point at which the research begins.
  • It comes first, in the middle and last
  • Without a feeling for the period, you will not get further than the first page before you have to run to the library.

BEGINNING

It is very possible that while you are doing your preliminary reading that you will happen on the incident that will spark your story.

For example, the idea for DESERT DREAMS started with research. One of the many things that interests me is the relationship between the United States, the Confederacy and Mexico during the Civil War. Probably springs from that first Rosemary Rogers book I read twenty-five years ago. But I love the idea of Americans dealing with Mexican banality. I see Americans of that era as being like Labrador retrievers, and Mexican politicians like big Cheshire cats. Now, granted, there is a degree of stereotyping going on here, but I remember reading about the town of Matamoros during the Civil War. The town was directly across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, which was occupied several times during the war by both the Union and the Confederate armies. And even though the Mexican government was staunchly behind the Union, each time the powers changed in Brownsville, Matamoros adapted. And while that kind of flexibility isn't peculiar to Mexicans by any means - I am reminded of the ferryman in The Outlaw Josey Wales who sang Dixie while transporting Josey halfway across the river, then switched to The Battle Hymn of the Republic - it intrigued me enough that I researched further.

I found out about an incident in which France sent seven million dollars in gold to Matamoros to be used in the Confederate cause - the Rio Grande was the only indefensible border in the Confederacy. The Union couldn't blockade the Rio Grande without raising the ire of the Mexican government such as it was at that time. So this very green Confederate agent arrived in Matamoros to take possession of the gold. He had no way of transporting it and he knew the area he was passing though was fraught with dangers, not the least of which was bandits on both sides of the river. So logically he turned to the governor of the province who was one of those men of shifting loyalties who supported whichever side of the war - the one in Mexico not America - that seemed to be winning at the time. He was and always had been a bandit at heart. He was more than happy to help the hapless young agent transport his gold. But when the gold arrived in Eagle Pass, it was a million dollars short.

My story hinged on that missing million dollars. It was the thing that brought my characters together and set them on the road to their inevitable conclusion. Mix that with a couple of viewings of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and I had what I call an inciting incident and a story that couldn't have taken place at any other time.

MIDDLE

In the middle of writing your book, you may find that however thorough you have been, there are still small details you need to know

  • what kind of gun would a gunfighter in 1864 Texas use?
  • what towns were in existence in south-central Texas in 1864?
  • what kinds of animals would someone traveling in that area at that time be likely to encounter?

If you are somewhat familiar with a setting, it may well be that you won't know exactly what research you will need to do until you get into the book. That's when you'll wonder if your character could purchase pre-rolled cigarettes in 1855 or if he'd have to roll his own.

THE END

At the end, you will check to make sure you haven't slipped and included any anachronisms into your story. You will also get rid of those extraneous stretches of historical detail that you were so proud of when you wrote them. In the first book I ever wrote, which never sold, I described every stitch of clothing, every inch of carpet, every stick of furniture, every wallpaper pattern, every table setting, every morsel of food, every point of architecture.... You get the idea. It's a delicate dance, using enough detail to create atmosphere, believability and texture without turning a work of fiction into a history lesson.

THE RESEARCH ICEBERG

How much research do you put in and how much do you leave out? You need to know a great deal more about your period than your readers do. If you infuse your novel with enough accurate detail, the reader will trust that you know what you are talking about. But one misstep, and you will lose readers - not all of them. But the ones who also know your period - and if they don't have an interest in the period, they'll probably read something else - will cringe. If your story is good enough and your characters are real enough and you have made the reader care about the outcome, you might be able to get away with one such blunder, but don't count on it.

Rhona Martin, the author of Writing Historical Fiction and winner of the Georgette Heyer Historical Novel Award, says, "Research is like an iceberg. Only the tip must show, but the rest of it, the great bulk that lurks invisibly under water, has to be there to support it."

How do you decide what is or isn't relevant? By asking yourself if it carries the story forward; if it doesn't, leave it out. You're just showing off.

The bulk of your research will be presented in SEQUEL, not SCENE. Here are a couple of examples from my work in progress, JESSE'S HEART.

HOW NOT TO OPEN A NOVEL:

Jesse pulled the Leech and Rigdon revolver from under her seat before she fainted. Considered the finest of the Confederate-made Colts, the Leech and Rigdon revolver had a .36 caliber, dragoon-type iron barrel and an iron frame with brass back straps and trigger guard. Some 1800 of these six-shot perussion pistols were produced during the War.

The Colt Patent Arms Manufacturing Company dominated the handgun field. Its six-shot revolver had been adopted as a side arm for cavalrymen in 1847. The weapon's popularity in the civilian market made the inventor, Samuel Colt, a household word.

BETTER (I HOPE):

Jesse pulled the Leech and Rigdon revolver from under her seat before she fainted.

"Ma'am, ma'am!"

The smooth-faced outlaw rushed to her side as she'd known he would, kneeling over her, his face contorted with concern.

"You all right, ma'am?" he asked, fanning her with his hat. He gazed around the Pullman car frantically. "Stay back!" he ordered, torn between the need to see to her welfare and the equally urgent need to keep control of the crowded car.

When he leaned over her again, Jesse grabbed hold of the front of his duster and pulled him toward her. At the same time, she shoved the business end of the revolver into his ribs.

The one thing that is right about both examples is that you should always open your book in the middle of the action, in a SCENE and not a SEQUEL. The thing that is wrong with the first example is that I forced research into the scene.

I can include as much of that material as is necessary in a SEQUEL in the following chapter. But first I should ask myself what I am trying to convey with this information - why include it at all. I am trying to convey three things here:

1. I name the type of gun to let people familiar with my period know I know my stuff.

2. I include the material to reveal that she has a connection to the Confederacy.

3. I want to convey that the gun is important to her.

So later, in Chapter Two in a SEQUEL, I provide enough information to flesh out my character.

She cleaned the iron barrel as best she could, but it was already beginning to show signs of wear. With steel almost impossible to optain, the Confederacy had been forced to use iron for the few weapons they had manufactured. Even so, she clung to the weapon as one might cling to a photograph of a loved one.

NOTE: If you are unfamiliar with the terms SCENE and SEQUEL, you can refer to Chapter 4 of Dwight Swain's excellent book TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER or watch this site for an upcoming article on the subject.

Research materials:

Primary Sources - works that are not compiled from other works. Autobiographies, letters, documents found in libraries and museums. These have to be used on site and are difficult to gain access to. If you insist on using only primary sources, you will probably be restricted to writing about your immediate area. That can be a little limiting. And while primary sources are vitally important to serious biographers, fiction writers can probably chill out just a little when it comes to sources.

Secondary sources - these are by nature influenced by the historian's views. But for the layman, these are easier to understand and much easier to come by. Some of these references are excellent.

  1. Look for the most recent reference materials since new insights into history are constantly coming to light.
  2. Choose works with an extensive bibliography and an index.
  3. If possible, read more than one writer's version in order to gain an unbiased view.
  4. Attend seminars on history - having a tutor on hand to answer questions can be invaluable.
  5. Be on the lookout for unexpected payoffs. For example, not only can you find out what people wore from books on costume, you can also find out a great deal about why they dressed the way they dressed - whether the mode of dress was dictated by the mores of the times, the climate of a region, the whim of a queen.
  6. Visit historic houses of the period where possible.
  7. Beware of getting so carried away with research that you forget to write the book!
  8. Watch The History Channel, The Discovery Channel, PBS, A&E, The Learning Channel

World Wide Web

Sites of interest:

The History Database Program

Concordia University Libraries Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Godey's Lady's Book Online

Harper's Bazaar Magazine Online (a collection of 19th Century articles, illustrations and Victorian fashions taken directly from the 19th century magazine.

Resources for Victorian Living

The Victorian Web hosted by Brown University

Home site for the PBS series New Perspectives on The West

Jim Janke's Old West Site - a personal web page that has a gazillion links about the Old West - excellent!

The American Civil War Homepage maintained by the University of Tennessee

The History of Science, Technology and Medicine site hosted by the University of Melbourne, Australia

 

Search engines

AltaVista - very comprehensive engine with full-text search capabilities

Northstar - a search engine for researchers

Ask Jeeves - you can ask Jeeves questions in plain English - unfortunately Jeeves doesn't always know the correct answer.

Yahoo! - old faithful if you like an index approach to a search engine

Metacrawler - searches AltaVista, Infoseek, Webcrawler, LookSmart, Excite, Lycos, Mining Company, Yahoo!, and other search engines

Dogpile - searches LookSmart, GoTo.com, Thunderstone, Yahoo!, Dogpile Open Directory, Mining Co., Webcrawler, Lycos' A2Z, Excite Guide, What U Seek, Magellan, Lycos, Infoseek, Excite & AltaVista

For permission to use the article on web sites, in classes or at writers group presentations, please contact me by email or write to me at the address provided below.
 

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This page last updated 05/26/00.
Site owned, designed and maintained
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