As an author and reader, I attack libraries and book stores as a history-seeking missile. I anticipate the thrill of finding a historical novel, especially a mystery. Carefully, so as not to damage the spine of a hard back or the cover of its paper cousin, I open to a random page and begin reading.
Most of the time, I only sigh and put the book back. Why? Because the author has made a genuine but uninformed attempt at putting a thin glaze of history over their fiction. While the story may be good, I can’t get myself past the first glaring error in historical fact. You know those Sci Fi geeks who nit-pick everything … that’s me. I do it to fantasy fiction and I do it to historical fiction. And believe me, I’m savage! And I’m not alone.
All right: we know that 70% of the readership out there does not know that a Regency / Jane Austen period character didn’t have the luxury of a train to get them to London, and likely isn’t too worried about that. What is scary is that there is a large number of folks who don’t understand why Jane didn’t have one character call the another on their cell phone, but then you don’t want me to started down the road of what I think of education these days.
If you are serious about putting the history in your historical novel, there are some things that must be done. As a reader and soon-to-be published author, I’m learning and gathering up all the tricks of the trade that can make a novel read true. So while the average reader in America doesn’t know that the difference between the 5 Bustle periods, they can sense when you’re faking it … like a hound, they can smell deceit.
So you want to write your amazing adventure story set in the past. I’m with you all the way! Most authors (and you are an author even if not published yet!) already know which period in time they will chose. But not always. So, let’s start here: Where and When?
Where? You actually don’t have to write only what you know first hand. If that were the case there would be no novels set in ancient Rome or villages on the Silk Road. These are places that are gone, with at best some ruins and clues as to what they were like at one time. So the old adage that you can only write from your own experience can’t always apply to the historical question of where. This limitation actually takes extra work to get past: no pun intended. Okay, maybe a little pun. This is where research begins and no where close to where it will end.
So ask yourself: If I had that pesky time machine and it wasn’t always in the shop for repairs, where would I go and why? When I was about six years old, I saw some cartoon on TV that had an episode where a character thought she was Cleopatra. It was soooo cool to my six-year-old mind, that I spent the next ten years reading about, looking at, and even imitating the art of ancient Egypt. I found every detail I could about Egypt’s queens, its language, its people. Does some place grab your attention with both hands and shake you hard? Good. Were there people there? Of course: which also means that there were lovers, murderers, thieves, politicians, average folk and adventurers. People are people. We’re doing the same darned things now that we did back then, just with a few fancier toys.
Start here – at the place that intrigues you the most. Your story will fit because it has been crafted with whole and complete characters. So, a murder is still a murder, whether committed with a laser gun or a bronze knife.
When? Not as tough as it sounds. Some places have a limited time in which they existed. See what your exciting location has for a timeline. If you are completely new to the subject, I would recommend looking deeply into a time period where there appears to be plenty of research.
Do you like a particular style of clothing, music, drama, etc. These too can help you narrow down the period. My example is that I adore the look of the bustle gown, worn between 1870 – 1888. I love volcanoes. I love adventurers. I’m fascinated by Victorian London and Paris, and lush Java. Hmmm: gold star to anyone who can identify the historical event that naturally comes from a combination of these elements*.
Some notes on research: know your source. Wikipedia is an amazing source but most professors won’t let you cite it as a source because of the uncertainty of the information. But, if its a good wiki-page, it will have links to deeper source information. Books written before 1950 can show the bias of the author and his/her time more than the facts. The methodologies of historians and anthropologists have evolved over the years, and most recent research tends to be less biased than before. Just remember: Timbuktu was a thriving city-state with an advanced civilization. Victorian researchers however were unable to accept an ancient civilized society created by and for Africans. Thus, you will find some ‘history books’ stating that a white race from the north came down and taught the people of Timbuktu to be civilized. Racist? You bet it is but the researchers were only reflecting the limits of their own time. Before you accept Aliens and Ancient but now missing People as the source of a culture’s developement, remember that humans can be pretty cleaver creatures when we want to be, and that has always been. Count on that and every period of time opens up to human conflict and resolution that only you can write about! And you should.
T.E. MacArthur, Historian, Artist, Author