Imagine you’re at the theatre. The lights are going down, and the curtain to a show you’ve been waiting to see for years is about to rise. Let’s say it’s Hamilton since we’re talking historical fiction. The orchestra begins to play and slowly on stage actors are revealed. But something’s wrong. Our lead is wearing a Confederate soldier uniform and waving the Dixie flag. You know Hamilton takes places during the Revolutionary War. To make matters worse, the background is indistinguishable and suddenly, you’re lost.
Although this analogy is hypothetical, it introduces the fact that research is imperative with historical fiction. In this genre, your reader is looking for something they know. They are expecting a time and place, because that’s what history is. It might even be the reason they are opening your novel. As an author, you have an unwritten obligation that all details, even the most minute, will be correct.
Research will enable you to justify and forecast a character into the unknown, and lead them into a catastrophe, spiritual awakening, or both. The best advice I can give regarding historical fiction is to be well prepared before you start the manuscript.
Here are some ways to utilize research:
- Make a “Bible” for the time period you’re working on. This will prevent you from wandering off into research land when you begin writing the book. I like to create categories such as politics, fashion, entertainment, weather, world and local events, and anything else relevant to my story. Organization is key. Use binders, dividers, color-coding, table of contents—anything to help expedite information so it’s there when you need it.
- Turn your writing space into a time capsule. Based in 1972, my young adult Honey Girl series is a first-person narrative told by a 15-year-old girl—a transplant from Oahu to Southern California who is secretly questioning her sexuality as she tries to fit in on a new beach. In order to hold that voice, I surrounded myself with teenage memorabilia: surfer magazines, Oh! de London perfume, incense, David Bowie posters, toys from Hawaii, and the music of Danny Kaleikini, Loggins and Messina, and Joni Mitchell. It helps if one can see and feel the history.
- Travel to the location you’re writing about (if you can). Beg, borrow, steal, and do whatever it takes to get there. Sensory-based research is essential. It’s also where your best intuitive writing will come from. I can’t imagine writing about Hawaii without ever experiencing her. The same concept applies for eras long gone. Queen Victoria might be dead, but her portraits, castles, and the places she walked are still accessible and will spark your imagination to no end.
- The Internet is useful, but cannot be a writer’s only outlet. Fall back in love with the library and those magnificent librarians. They will lead you to information and people you might want to interview. Libraries have access to editorials, newspapers, microfilm, and all sorts of ancient sources that will help you develop authentic characters.
- Create a calendar. In my first drafts, calendars of the time period I’m writing about serve as an outline. I fill in the historical events first, then add in the fictional story—that way I can see where to combine the two. I chart scenes and arcs into these key points before creating a formal outline. The cosmic writing experience happens when your characters interface with history.
Knowing what day of the week an event happened is relevant. Take, for example, the terrorist attacks of 9/11. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was 8:45 a.m. on a Tuesday in New York City. People were just arriving to work with brief cases and light jackets, and it looked like a perfect day in lower Manhattan.
If you weren’t in New York, you still remember exactly where you were. That’s what history is—a moment in time that can’t be forgotten. All these layers are major elements in a historical novel that help the writer show, not tell. They create an original voice with authority.
- Read historical fiction. When writing your own historical piece, odds are you’re going to find a lot of material already out there. That doesn’t mean your unique perspective can’t guide the reader into a story that’s never been told. The WorldCat library catalogue estimates that at least 16,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln. Yet even in a saturated market, George Saunders’ historical novel Lincoln in the Bardo found its way to the top unscathed. Saunders’ interpretation merges magical realism and history in a poetic verse. It’s a brilliant collage of first-hand accounts about Lincoln’s suffering through the death of his son Willie, historical facts about the Civil War, and fictional ghosts who served as Lincoln’s witnesses.
To give you an idea of how this genre works for all ages, I’d suggest the young reader series The Jack and Annie Magic Tree House by Mary Pope Osborne. My kids used to love following these two modern time travelers while learning about Amelia Earhart, Genghis Khan, and William Shakespeare, to name a few. With historical fiction there is an element of fun because we know what’s going to happen. The question is, how are you going to make it original?
For other historical fiction, I’d recommend The Help, by Kathryn Stockett; Play it as it Lays, by Joan Didion; and The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead. In these novels, the polarity of the characters ricochets off history so seamlessly you can’t tell where one begins and the other ends.
- Let research serve the story, not vice versa. Like the examples above, what makes your novel stand out is a complex, interesting plot that grounds the reader with compelling characters. Without this component, writing can take on the voice of a research paper that often sounds academic, which is fatal to fiction.
When I wrote the Honey Girl series, I wanted to reflect on personal experiences from my teenage years in the 1970s, when being an out lesbian was as absurd as carrying a phone in your back pocket. My goal was to document Watergate, the women’s movement, and the fight for LGBTQ rights, which have proven to be relevant issues nearly 50 years later. But politics weren’t the main focus. They simply served as the rudder, steering the underbelly of the story.
Just like the musical version of Hamilton, our fight for freedom can’t be taken for granted. It’s up to us to retell history in our own voices, as only we can.
Lisa Freeman is an author, actress, and teacher best known for her Honey Girl series of novels–HONEY GIRL (2015; Sky Pony Press) and RIPTIDE SUMMER (2017; Sky Pony Press). She grew up amidst the Hollywood scene and emerged as an actress in such films as Back to the Future, Back to the Future II, and Mr. Mom. She earned her MFA and Pedagogy in the Art of Writing degrees from Antioch University and now resides in Santa Monica, California, only miles down the road from State Beach, where her Honey Girl novels take place. You can visit her at Lisa-Freeman.com.