This is part one of a three-part series on Researching and Writing Historical Fiction originally written in 2012.
Reading an article is a grand thing, if one is doing a research paper. Writing fiction, though, means that a writer has to be able to breathe with a character’s lungs, see with their eyes, smell with their nose, and hear with their ears. The writer has to immerse themselves in a place that is, frankly, no longer extant. They have to go deep.
Know Your Era
In order to bring depth to your historical fiction, it is helpful to have an idea about the political scene (insofar as it was evident), societal norms, and artistic tastes or your era. Reading biographies (or autobiographies, if so there be), examining the great works of art, and even studying the varieties of household furnishings can serve to enrich the world for yourself and your readers. Do you have the opportunity to go to a museum to see artifacts from your chosen time period? Can you walk where the people walked, even though the landscape has changed since then? Do you know people who have been able to do so?
Studying clothing of the era is, of course, very helpful. It is not enough to just get the outer garments right, though. One should also look into undergarments (if they had them) and what the contemporaries thought of them. And, if you can, try on costumes made to suit that era. Walk around in the breeches and waistcoats, the boots and garters, the wigs, the panniers, the leather wrapped around your legs. How does the clothing affect the pattern of a stride? Does the stride affect the rhythms of thought? The speed at which people moved, then?
Not only is this an outer thing, it’s also an inner process, the immersion. Language plays a huge role in different eras. If one is writing about ancient Celts, for example, one can look into any surviving poetry. Read the sagas, listen to the songs that have survived. The heartbeat of a people is in its music and music carries history within it.
Reading commentary, news articles, or anything that was written near the time one is writing about is also helpful. Getting a contemporary slant as to morals and values is important, too. This does not always help with phrasing dialogue, however, as older cultures often wrote in a more stylized manner than they would have spoken, day to day. If the historical era in question is within the past three centuries or so, it is much easier to pinpoint social ideas and possible characterization references from contemporary sources.
A note: It is generally acceptable to write a quirky historical character, but make sure the quirks will fit in with the society or make sure that their quirks are noted by their contemporaries.
Resources You Can Use
One type of resource for more information about an era is finding people who are still connected with it in one way or another. People are outstanding resources for the historical fiction writer. Do you need to internalize the religious values of a culture? Find people who know these values and can express them. You might even find practitioners! Make very sure you approach them with respect; in trying to bring their culture to life within your story, you want to do it honor in every possible way. Treat your living, breathing resources with respect and appreciation.
If you need help with languages, find experts. If you want to know how it feels to walk next to the Nile River, look around online, perhaps in travel forums. People, I have discovered over the years, are happy to share their experiences with you. Sometimes they appreciate being credited, other times not so much. That’s okay. You can always ask.
Another tool I find very helpful in writing historical fiction is Google Maps. Shocking, but true. You can better gauge distances over unfamiliar terrain by using this website. I have a character, for example, who needs to walk from one location to another and I didn’t know how long it would take. I plugged the two locations into Google Maps and asked for the walking route. Granted, things today are quite different than they were three hundred years ago, but this gave me an estimate with which to work.
There is always latitude for creativity beyond this. But that is an article for another day.