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How I Write Historical Fiction

August 23, 2010

One of the most common questions I get from my readers is how do I capture an era so accurately? Obviously I have no time machine, so how do I know what life was like in 1943 or in 52 BC?

The simple answer: I immerse.

The definition for immerse is to engage wholly or deeply; to absorb. So I act as a sponge, and soak up the essence of whatever time I’m looking to write about. Sounds easy enough, right?

Well maybe.

If you could see my home collection of books, you’d notice that for a fiction writer I have an astonishingly small amount of fiction. Instead, my shelves are filled with reference books: books on pistols, cars, forensic science, cannibals, mortuary science (my latest craze), Roman history, Navajo history, and urban legends, just to name a few subjects.

Dorothea Lange captures the Great Depression.

When I’ve got an idea of what I’m going to write (another technique entirely I should write about) I start immersing myself in that world. Not pointedly looking for tidbits, just casually browsing through material. I’ll read websites dealing with the particular period, or browse photos by image search. I usually buy music from that time period as well if it’s available and not too horrid. (Hence my diverse iTunes library) I embrace the time period. I think about it. I listen to the music from it. I look at clothing made in it. Furniture and automobiles are also another possibility, as well as climate, pollution, sanitary conditions, etc.

So I get crash-educated in a time period. By no means an expert, but not completely ignorant of details about it that would clue the reader into what I envisage.

Next I experiment. I write samples, style sheets, sandbox encounters, etc. I’ll throw new characters in scenarios with tried-and-true old favorites. For however long, I live that era. When I feel like I’m comfortable enough with the new additions to my character roster, I start the story. It might be a lengthy story, or just a quick flash. Regardless of the length, I put effort into knowing my subject and era before I release it out into the world.

The bonus? Once I’m educated on a time period, I can write about it more than once. The biggest benefit of writing a historical piece is the research fun. If you’re a learn-a-holic like me, you’ll agree. Digging through photos and having an excuse to buy music, new books, interviewing people informally, or even just asking the guy down at the filling station relevant questions is such a joy to me.

Do you write historical pieces too? Have any suggestions, questions, or discussion points?

Carrie Clevenger, (also known as Carrie Cleaver) worships Maynard and dreams of cephalopods on trains and other oddities in Austin, Texas. The hub of her evil network can be found at Mindspeak or on Twitter as @shadowsinstone.

6 Comments
  1. August 23, 2010 8:16 am

    Caught this on FB, and glad I did. Great post. [One that’s fit for consumption at a certain literary journal too. *hint hint*]😀

  2. August 23, 2010 11:24 pm

    Angie, you are a woman beyond my words. Eeeeevil.

  3. August 25, 2010 1:24 am

    Writing historical fiction wasn’t on my list of “must writes”… like a lot of my writing, I fell into it by accident when I started collaborating on The Astonishing Adventures of Captain Juan. Unlike the non-fiction side of me, I’m not interested in researching for my fiction (which is amusing given the catch phrase in our household when I was at uni was “would you stop researching and write!”)

    I hone in on one small area; a custom, a piece of technology, a social more and build my story around there. When I wrote “Mixed Message” I had the idea of it being a message in morse code – so I took myself off to learn a bit about morse code and through researching that and the machines which tapped out the message – I came across Crystal radio sets and ended up using a combination of those. I also wound in social attitudes that women were destined to stay in the home and never amount to anything.

    In my Christmas special for Captain Juan I found out some historic Christmas customs about celebrating Christmas in 16th Century Spain and used that to build my story around.

    I think if I tried immersion I might drown, or get distracted and the story would never get written. I admire you Carrie for being able to go there and do it (I like what you say though about a crash course enabling you to go back there time and time again!)

    When I was younger my bookshelves were full of non-fiction murder, psychology and terrorism books (in the days when terrorism wasn’t what it is today) I have no idea what the guys who graced my residence occassionally thought of it all.

  4. August 25, 2010 3:21 pm

    I don’t write historical fiction per se but I do often use anecdotes or local legends as a prompt for a flash. Still, you want to be able to capture the ‘essence’ of the period so I agree wholeheartedly with looking through photos or reading books – I favour social history non-fiction since it focusses on what the period was like to live in, rather than just the dusty decisions made in a political arena.

  5. August 25, 2010 9:01 pm

    I agree–the research is so much fun. You take it to a level Ihadn’t considered–iTunes. Good idea. When I was writing about primitive man, I checked out piles of books from the library on the people, but also the paleoworld that they lived in. quite fascinating. A very fond memory of mine is spending two days in University of Notre Dame’s magnificent library, on the third floor, with a tall thin window overlooking the quad, researching paleo-geology. Wonderful fun.

    Thanks for the memories.

  6. August 29, 2010 6:10 pm

    How did I miss this? As usual, you show splendid technique in your advice, Carrie. Great tips for others and interesting insight into how you get your pieces to feel so authentic.

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