Today’s guest blog from Heather B. Moore is especially timely for me as I plot a historical romance. I don’t think you need to be an author to appreciate what she has to say–in fact, as a reader this moves her book right to the top of my TBR pile!
Heather B. Moore: When Writing Historical Fiction, How Much Do I Research?
Writing historical novels can be exciting because they continue to sell well, primarily because we want to learn from the past, we want to know where we came from, and we want to know why and how things happened. The key ingredient in writing historical fiction is research. Yeah, it’s a hefty word, but I’m going to break it down so that it can be educational and exciting at the same time. Readers expect MORE out of a historical novel. They expect to be transported to another place and time. They want to learn. So, yes, this becomes your job when writing historical novels.
1. Choose your time period.
My advice: “Write what you enjoy reading about.” Then the research will be interesting to you. Please know that most successful historical novels are connected to a major historical event. Think A Tale of Two Cities, Les Miserables, War and Peace, Gone with the Wind, etc. Why? Because readers have an easier time visualizing a time period if they are already familiar with it. And a known historical event provides a non-fiction platform for your book.
2. Build a historical world & integrate your research.
Writing a historical novel can be compared to writing a fantasy or science fiction book in which you are creating a “new world”—but of course, your “new world” has be true. This can be an even greater challenge since you are writing within more confining parameters than most authors. In fact, you might even have a semblance of a built-in outline/plot which you must follow. Your job then becomes filling in all the empty spaces and answering all the questions to make it a plausible story that flows as well as maintains a tight pace. Make sure you avoid information dumps. You should sprinkle in your research and make sure every scene moves the plot forward.
3. Things to include in your historical setting/descriptions:
*weather, climate, topography
*traditions, holidays, festivals
*occupations & industry
*food & agriculture
4. Dialog & dialect choices
We know that dialog is a character-building tool. Not only does word choice create and form a character, it can also emphasize a time period. Have you ever read a book where the dialect slows the reading down? Dialect should be moderate and sprinkled in. Today, editors advise that dialect be lighter. I had this happen to me when I started shopping Heart of the Ocean that includes characters who are Puritan. The response I received back from editors was that the Puritan dialect was very heavy-handed. At first I was stunned. “Well, they’re Puritans . . . they have to talk like that!” I made an effort to lighten up the Puritan dialect so that it would be more readable.
5. Characterizing historical figures
Emotions and reactions to situations are the same today as they would have been any period in history. A mother losing a child 2,000 years ago would go through the same grief if that happened today to your character. The emotions of anger and revenge in the 15th century are no different than those same emotions today—although the motivation behind those emotions may change depending on the time period, the character, and the plot—you can still write emotion.
6. Expanding historical facts into plot arcs
The history SUPPORTS the story. Remember that the STORY comes first. NEVER drop in a historical detail or event just to show off your research, unless it ties to the plot and the conflict in some significant way. This will pull the reader right out of the story and reminds them they are reading a history textbook. You will lose the readers' attention, and they'll skim the page to find the next dialogue or action. The main thing to always ask yourself WHY did something happen? What motivated a war, a historical figure, or other event?
7. Focusing on the right conflicts
When I’m trying to decide how much of historical event/time period I want to cover—weeks, years—I look for the most compelling conflict in the event. Also, what hasn’t been done over and over? Can you find a new angle in a re-told story?
8. Why you don’t have to be an expert.
You don't have to be the expert. And you certainly don't have time to be. Let someone else spend ten years researching a topic and then use their hard work (who you will then acknowledge). Indexes are wonderful things. You can look up a word or a topic and go to the referenced pages to find the information. Google is a wonderful thing. Email is great as well. You can email experts and get their opinion. I’ve emailed historians to find out how an ancient ship was constructed. For one of my books, I interviewed a metallurgist to understand how ancient tools were forged. I read a book about ancient sea-faring and took note of the weather patterns as well. Don’t forget documentaries.
9. Bibliographies, chapter notes, maps, endorsements
You only need to research one or two credible sources to find out a research detail. Something like Wikipedia is good as a step in getting general information or an overview of a topic, but it’s not considered an entirely reliable or expert source. Children’s books and magazines can be really great to get basic information, such as a timeline.Keep track of the sources you use so that you can refer back to them if necessary. And if you are writing historical fiction, your publisher might require a bibliography, or a selected bibliography, or you can make it more casual and call it “Further Reading”. I love to look up further reading, or just browse the titles that the author based their research on to see what else is out there.
10. Don’t be intimidated.
It does take longer to write a historical novel because of the research involved. But if you are interested in the event, then your writing journey will be fantastic.
Heart of the Ocean
by Heather B. Moore
A dark secret . . . a grieving ghost . . . a handsome stranger . . .
What more could Eliza Robinson want?
Except for maybe her life.
In Heather B. Moore’s enthralling 1840’s historical romance, Heart of the Ocean, Eliza Robinson has turned down the very pretentious Mr. Thomas Beesley’s marriage proposal. As a business partner of Eliza’s father, Thomas quickly discredits the family and brings disgrace to the Robinson name.
While her father scrambles to restore his good name in New York City, Eliza flees to the remote Puritan town of Maybrook to stay with her Aunt Maeve. Although relieved to be away from all- things-male and unforgiving gossip columns, odd things start to happen to Eliza, and she is plagued by a ghostly voice. Her aunt’s explanation? That Eliza is being haunted by a woman who died of a broken heart twenty years ago.
After Aunt Maeve is tragically killed, Eliza’s life is put in danger as she tries to uncover the mystery of her aunt’s death. She encounters Jonathan Porter in Maybrook, whose presence in the town seems suspicious, yet she finds herself drawn to him. When she discovers that Jonathan’s dark secrets may be the link between the dead woman who haunts her and her aunt’s murderer, Eliza realizes that Jonathan is the one man she should never trust.
Author Heather B. Moore
Heather B. Moore is the award-winning author of ten novels, two inspirational non-fiction books, and two anthologies, including The Newport Ladies Book Club Series, A Timeless Romance Anthology, and Christ’s Gifts to Women (co-authored by Angela Eschler).
Her historical fiction is published under the pen name H.B. Moore. She is the two-time recipient of Best of State in Literary Fiction, two-time Whitney Award Winner, and two-time Golden Quill Winner for Best Novel. Her most recent historical novel under H.B. Moore is Daughters of Jared (2012 LUW Gold Award of Excellence & 2012 LUW Best Book Trailer).
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