Rules for Writing Historical Fiction #1
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Rules for Writing Historical Fiction #1

Please welcome Elizabeth Crook's posts on historical fiction this week.


Rule #1: Sweat the Small Stuff. The authenticity of historical fiction depends on your knowledge and use of historical detail. It is not enough to say a character walked down the street. The reader has to be able to see the street, see the conveyances; he has to smell the smoke from the factories or the sewage in the gutter. If there are street vendors, he has to know what they're selling. This is a new world: the reader can't fathom it unless you give him images. These should be accurate and not recycled from old movies.
Here are two suggestions apart from the usual methods of research.

1. Find experts on the topics you need to learn about. It's easier to track down someone who knows about sheep ranching in the 1890's or the origins of the New York subway system, and to call them up when you need to know about scabies or the early methods of blasting tunnels, than it is to find, in documents or on the internet, the exact answer to every question that comes up in the course of writing a book. If you're going to write a scene involving a train wreck in 1891, get some books on train wrecks, read enough to know what you're talking about, google the authors and find out where they work. Call them up and see if they'll talk to you. Latch on to the friendly ones. "What about the couplers?" you can ask them, having read enough to know that faulty couplers were a major factor in train wrecks. "If this is 1891, what kind of couplers would we have?" I once needed to know about Mormons in Mexico. I googled "Mormons in Mexico," found a woman who had written a dissertation on a Mormon settlement near Juarez and tracked her down through the school. She spent two hours on the phone with me describing vividly the Mormon settlement that my characters needed to visit. Dozens of experts on a wide range of topics have generously helped me in similar ways.

2. If your story takes place after catalogs were in use, get hold of reprints of old catalogs. I have an 1895 Montgomery Ward Catalog that has descriptions of, and prices for, almost every personal item used by people of that time: hardware, books, stationery, toys, guns, toiletries, wallpaper, stoves, laundry equipment, harnesses and saddlery -- the list goes on and on. It represents the lifestyle of that decade.