I am a firm believer that writers learn more about writing with every new project. With the ability to apply what you’ve learned, every time I have a new story idea, I find myself doing things a little differently than last time, all resulting in a better story, better writing, better execution, better revision.
Before I dived into the first incarnation of The Keegans of Banner’s Edge—way, way, way back when it was a Regency historical romance–I’d never really attempted to write an historical fiction. I’d had a lot of ideas going that way, but I was intimidated. Could I be that accurate? Could I really recreate a bygone era? Did my ideas need to be historical?
In 2010, for NaNo, I wrote 50,000 words of a Tudors-era story, which I never finished, all because The Pilgrimage of Grace fascinated me. Then I went back to the Keegans, but this time, as historical fiction.
It’s probably not a huge surprise that my next idea is also historical fiction. These are just things I’ve picked up from working on The Keegans and intend to carry on into my next project.
My new story is going to be late Victorian. As part of my preliminary research (while I finish up The Keegans’ 4th draft), I’ve come up with a reading list of both broad (What was the Victorian era?) and specific (The Glitter and the Gold by Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan) as well as compiling a timeline of the era.
That being said, research notes are typed into the computer because I type way faster.
This is something you’ll see a lot among historical fiction writers–and if you’re writing about a real life person or event, then yes, of course, the history must dictate the plot. Guess what? Even if your historical idea is not based around a Big Fat Historical Moment or a real person, history can still dictate the plot.
A small example: England had a bad harvest in 1799 and 1800. I didn’t know that until I was about to start the third draft, so I then was able to incorporate that.
But in a bigger way, if I’d let history dictate the plot of the Keegans a little more (instead of vice versa), then maybe I’d actually have a plot.
For me, I tend to go into my historical projects with a character, situation, or partial plot already set, then try to apply history to them. I forget the fun “what if?” aspect of writing.
Even for the most accurate, authentic, researched historical fiction idea–don’t forget that it’s fiction. You can always play the “what if?” game with fiction.
Once you have broader knowledge on your time period, it’s time to start getting specific. Your initial idea might already be the specific, so get to researching the Pilgrimage of Grace, slavery in Barbados, or the Dollar Princesses.
But even more specific: Bristol, England in 1800. Sugar prices in 1798. The lack of active abolitionist societies in 1800.
Historical fiction addicts and writers—what would be your tips for writing and researching historical fiction? What have you learned through your own writing processes?