One of the things that bothers me about many historical novels I begin to read is that they aren’t.
Plain and simple, if you check a couple of histories and a costume book or two, and you have some talent in story-spinning, you can, perhaps, write convincingly about a love affair in fancy dress. The fact is, however, you won’t come anywhere close to writing a genuine historical novel, and you’ve probably made a hundred mistakes in detail that tick off people who picked up your book because they “love that period.”
Writing “Mozart’s Wife” took years, as I’d set out to reconstruct the life and experiences of a real person, one married to a famous man. As soon as you say the word “Mozart,” you raise expectations. People know a lot about the life of this cultural hero, although, in the way of things “Her Story” has pretty much vanished. I had my work cut out if I wanted to give the story credibility for both history and classical music loving readers.
Most writers in the historical field aren’t going to be working on a semi-biographical novel. Many are working on the ever-popular historical romance, where the relationship of the hero and heroine is the whole ball of wax. Even in romance, however, a writer ought to be able to paint broad brush strokes of period. If you learn to do that, you can give your reader what IMHO is supreme thrill—a time travel experience.
Note that I use this phrase. I believe it sums up the reason people read historicals in the first place—not only for simple escape, but to summon the experience of a long lost world, to breathe another kind of air, to imagine yourself with another set of opportunities—or strictures. The ability to do this can take a reader out of the daily grind, and off to an astonishing Somewhere Else. Life in a medieval city would be as strange to us as any S/F journey to another planet or dimension.
First, the writer of historicals has to do some old fashioned research:
This includes library, Internet, and utilizing the popular Search Engines. A lot can be learned by lurking on historical specialty lists that you can find and join at Yahoo, etc. The best way to go is to read–a lot of history!
Primary source is best. This means letters, diaries, newspapers, novels, sales material, and so on from your chosen period. However, you aren’t in the business of reproducing the language of the period. Fact is, you won’t have many readers if you do, because most people don’t have the time/patience these days to follow the elliptical writing styles of our ancestors. Still, the sound and phrasing of those long-dead voices will begin to reverberate in your mind. Simply by osmosis, you’ll slowly begin to get a feel for the sort of dialogue that is accessible to the modern reader but doesn’t sound inappropriate (or just plain silly) coming out the mouth of your historical characters.
Other sources of inspiration and information for writers:
Try finding music in your period. Find out what they danced. Read the words of songs. As we know, popular music can tell you a great deal about wishes and aspirations. If your characters are upper class Victorians, living in NYC, there would have been opera, plays, charitable organizations to fill their time. Socializing took place on a grand but highly regimented scale. Working on my Mozart story, I had a wonderful time immersing myself in his music. These operas are not only beautiful, but also a treasure trove of information on the manners and morals of the late 18th Century. In dramatic form, you can observe the rules governing interaction between social classes, as well as the many rules governing the relations between the sexes.
Attention to detail is the new mantra—even in Hollywood. This can be achieved by devoting a day (and some paper) to a simple exercise. This will swiftly show you what you know, what you don’t know—and what needs to further study. It will also tell you something about your necessary cast of bit players.
Get up in the morning—there you are, bed, bathroom, kitchen. Maybe you also have pets, kids, a husband. Get your imagination going. Imagine a helmet or a suit of mail on hubby. It’ll help. Engage your senses. Sight, hearing, touch, and please don’t forget your sense of smell.
Take these one by one—keeping in mind your chosen time period.
Bed—What’s on it–and what’s in it? Getting dressed in the morning—“pants first, then shoes…” clothing, shoes.
Bathroom—is there such a thing? And if so, where does the water come from? Is it hot? How is the room heated? Plumbed? Do you get a bath every day or is this simply impossible given the standard of living?
Kitchen—who works there? You? Servants?
Servants are a problem to imagine for most modern folks, unless they are sufficiently well off to employ some and have first-hand experience. Do these servants live in the house w/your heroine? Who are they? If they were real, you’d be rubbing up against them all the time, and so would know a lot about their personal lives and idiosyncrasies.
Breakfast—this meal hasn’t always been the same. What would your characters be breakfasting upon? An Irish cottager eats quite differently from an English Regency Lord—or a Viking. Where did this food come from? Do hawkers bring it to the door? Do you buy it in a shop? Do you raise it yourself? How is it cooked—and with what fuel? Wood burning in the kitchen produces odor and soot, as well as that nice cheery flame. Have we got forks yet? China dishes or gourds or wooden trenchers?
And so on, through the day—at work, or at home.
Transportation, vehicles, draft animals, and who takes care of them?
Streets—what do they look like/smell? Smell looms large in our world today, but even larger 500 years ago, when you might have spent the winter sheltering your precious cattle in the house.
Work–and who goes to it. What you fill your day with if you are among the “leisured” class. What does your hero/heroine do to put clothes on their back and food on the table?
Occupations suitable for men and for women—manners and morals varied widely between social classes—
Pastimes and pleasures. One thing which jerks me right out of ANY story–and I often run into it–is “tea drinking” during periods when there was NO tea yet in Europe. Or potatoes. Or chocolate. (Bummer!)
Religious practices—this did and does still take up time during the day for many people. Are your characters devout/religious/spiritual?
And on and on: Housing, Clothing, skills, apprenticeships, spinning, weaving, raising animals, “Crafts,”Children, Pets…
I am not saying all this is absolutely necessary in preparation, but you should hold these in mind as you begin to write. A word of warning if you take this path, you’re going to have work ahead of you, and you will definitely be taking time out from “hitting those keys” to research details you want to include or events you stumble over in the process of plotting. Things change; things remain the same, but just remember, it’s the “Reality Show” which convinces and engages that gets the big ratings.