How many of you write historical mysteries? I love reading them—Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody, Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs, Rhys Bowen’s Georgiana Rannoch. Recently, I decided to try writing one. I’m pleased to say, I’ve just finished the second (of what I’m sure will be many!) draft. What have I learned by writing historical fiction?
Historical Details Shape Plot and Setting
First, I love the fact that the details of history can help shape not only my plot but also the everyday lives of my protagonists. It’s like having a cheat-sheet. The challenge, of course, is getting it right. And, not just being accurate, but finding the right balance between historical details and story. History can play so many roles in the novel, from those spicy tidbits sprinkled throughout the text, to the rich tapestry of everyday life that forms the background or setting for your story.
Historical Research is Fun
Second, as a nerdy academic, I love doing the research! It’s so fun to look through old newspaper advertisements, or to use William Brohaugh’s English Through the Ages, Etymonline, or an old Baudeker’s guidebook. Of course, the Internet is a vast source of information about everything from the food and clothes of an era to the political events that shaped it. It’s amazing where you can find helpful information, especially stuff to help you paint a vivid picture of the details. First hand accounts in documentaries, autobiographies, and nonfiction, are great resources too.
Anachronisms are Tricky
Third, even the dreaded anachronism can be fascinating. What words and gadgets existed and when? Anachronisms are things or words used in the wrong time period, either because they didn’t exist yet, or because they were already out of use. There’s also the issue of region or place. Words used here might not be used there, even in the same time period. For example, in the US we say “cafeteria” and in England they say “canteen.” And on top of that, some words or things might feel out of place, even if they aren’t. Even though it would be fair game to use a phrase like “hang out” in a 19thCentury novel, it might make your reader stop and question its accuracy. So, you need to use words that not only are right, but also sound like they’re right. And, worse, sometimes words sound right, but aren’t. Here’s where a good editor comes in.
Facts versus Truth
It might sound like writing historical fiction is full of landmines and pitfalls, but those same challenges and obstacles can become a great help in fashioning a believable and engaging story. And, while emotions and reactions are also period and place dependent, a good historical novel adds the fleshy truth of experience to the bare bones of historical fact. A great historical novel makes people, places, and the past come alive.
How about you? What are you favorite historical novels? What do you look for in an historical mystery? Do you have any tips for writing one?