A few weeks ago on a writing website, someone asked a question that went like this:
“I want to write a historical novel for my first novel ever and I don’t know what era I should use so tell me!”
This is one of those times I gently banged my head against my desk and refrained from responding. Because this goes back to my biggest pet peeve. Soapbox time again: you don’t become a writer by saying “I want to be a writer” and then begging for ideas. You become a writer by writing.
Historical writing is so close to my heart, as a historian. My first attempts at novels were fantasy, with a heavy dose of medieval history; later efforts revolved around the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most of my ideas, truth be told, are based in history — even my urban fantasy series is steeped in several layers of history going back 500+ years. That’s a lot of research! And it bothers me so much when someone says, “I don’t know what era to write in.” Um — how do you NOT know?
As I’ve said before, Diana Gabaldon is one of my favorite authors, for a multitude of reasons. (Her ability to write really hot sex scenes is just part of it. Really.). Here’s one of her interviews, where she talked about how she came to have the idea for Outlander: http://januarymagazine.com/profiles/gabaldon.html
Yup. I realize she broke all the rules. Still does. But the point is, she chose a time period herself. Thinking like a writer, she took inspiration from the things around her (Yes, I call Doctor Who an inspiration!), and then proceeded to draft things. She thought about sources of conflict. That’s where Claire Randall came in. And like a good writer, when Claire began to take over the story and boss it around, Diana let her.
History’s a funny thing. It won’t let you get away with much. It’s a sandbox with definite boundaries. And yet, once you start to work within its limits, it seems to expand and grow. Your sandbox becomes infinite. Take Nicky, for example. I had become 100% focused on his run-ins with the local Klan. But as dug into the newspapers for 1924, I learned that there was an entire bootlegging empire in this region. Not only were they bootlegging, they were stealing cars and chickens and even hijacking people on the streets and stealing their valuables! And I knew immediately that Nicky would never, ever get involved in that — but what another level of complexity and conflict for the novel! By playing within the confines of my historical sandbox, I was given a broad base, which may allow me to expand this from one novel into at least two, and maybe a trilogy.
So no. I don’t understand the whole “I want to write a historical but I don’t know when to set it” question. Because to anyone who does historical research, we know that the history will dictate what you can and cannot do.
So here’s a few things to keep in mind, from a historian’s point of view, if you want to do historical fiction:
1.) The characters and your era have to work together. One will inform the other. If they don’t, you’re screwed. I believe Claire and Jamie were always there in Diana Gabaldon’s head, just waiting to get out; it just took her finding the right time period first! When Nicky came to me, there was no doubt he was from the 1920s. The two almost always arrive together.
2.) Your characters have to work within societal norms — or be very aware of the price if they don’t. If your character wants to break the rules of society, you’d better give her a good reason, and a good cover. Let’s say you’ve got a 14-year old girl who wants to attend University of Paris in the 1400s, for example. She’ll have to cut her hair. Behave like one of the boys. Lots of conflict there! This is where so much conflict comes in for Nicky; he knows the rules. He just chooses to ignore them. But he also knows the price he’s going to pay if he ever gets caught.
This is one thing that bothers me so much about Ariana Franklin’s books. While painstakingly researched, her main character, Adelia, consistently acts outside the societal norms — in fact, she acts quite a lot too much like a 20th century woman. It really takes me out of the story; the historian in me keeps saying But she’d have been burned as a witch already!
3.) Research, research, research. Read every book you can get your hands on about that era. Your character’s field of work. Horses. Whatever you need to research, do it. Somewhere out there are experts in your field. Find them. Or I promise, once you publish, they will find you. 🙂 Even if you are 99.9% sure you know what x and y are, double-check everything. Triple-check. I have to find out if you can, in fact, drop a 1917 V-8 Cadillac engine into a 1916 Model T. I’m sure hoping so. If you’re lucky enough to be working within the past 150 years or so, read newspapers from that time period. Get a feel for the language and politics and fashions and rules.
4.) There is some room for play. But not much. We often talk about “poetic license” and “taking liberties.” But you have a contract with your reader. If you’re telling them this is a straight-up historical, that’s what they’re expecting. Take one step out of bounds, and you’ll never hear the end of it. If you choose to write alternative history, or a time-travel novel, then your reader will expect you to take a few liberties. For Nicky, I’ll be taking a handful of liberties; I already know that. But the liberties I plan to take all make sense within the confines of the 1920s. Never give your characters an easy way out. By playing within the sandbox of your era, you make sure their conflicts, and their risks, are genuine.
So if you’ve ever thought about writing a historical novel, keep these things in mind. People who read historical fiction are a unique group; they’re often historians or “amateur historians” themselves (I put that in quotes only because the “amateur” historian often has more knowledge of a particular subject than a trained, degreed historian!), and they will rip you apart if you get one thing wrong, like underwear.
So go find your sandbox. It might look small now. But I promise, once you start to research and write, you’ll look up one day and realize that sandbox has no limits.