The (hi)story is in the detail


Alas, I did not reach my NaNoWriMo 50,000 words goal. But I increased my daily average word count, and that’s good enough for me.

The biggest hindrance to writing my first novel has been the time involved in researching historical events. My challenge is to learn when to stop researching and carry on with writing. Do I really need to understand the route that a tram took from Headingley to Swinegate? Probably not. Is it important to know how much a soldier earned during WWI and how he was paid? Possibly. Can I make a note to research in more detail and keep my writing momentum going? Absolutely.

Thanks to Susanna Calkins at Writer’s Digest, and to Creative Writing Now for their advice on writing historical fiction, including:

  • Research the larger scope as well as daily life

  • Use the internet cautiously

  • Use the ‘historical note’ at the end of your novel for any deviations

  • Don’t get too hung up on errors–there will always be one that slips through the process

What if a minor historical event doesn't land on your character's timeline ...?

I realise it is permissible to invent a story about a real historical person or event, or to create an imaginary character. But what if a minor historical event doesn’t land on your character’s timeline in the optimal month or year? Is it okay for a train crash to happen in 1932 instead of 1930? I think the answer is yes. It’s okay to create a fictional train crash in the time and place you need it, so long as the event does not contradict any technology or known facts of the period.

But it’s not just about facts. It’s also important the characters represent the knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes of the period. As Guy Vanderhaeghe observed, “History tells us what people do; historical fiction helps us to imagine how they felt.” Even if a character is an outlier–that person’s difference of opinion must be because of a series of credible events or perhaps foreshadow a change in beliefs for the era. For example, a woman in the late 19th century setting up the women’s suffrage movement.

Historical details can help progress a story

What I am also learning is how historical details can help progress a story. Of course, a solid story structure, an intriguing plot and strong characters are a necessary foundation. But knowing train companies between London and Leeds scheduled their trains to run at competing departure times adds substance to a sub-plot. Similarly, understanding girls working in cordite-laden munitions factories were given milk to reduce the yellowness of their skin adds a peculiar yet personal experience for another.

So while I remain frustrated at not meeting my daily target, I am still writing. And I keep reminding myself the story is in the historic detail, and it is the detail that adds credence and further develops the plot.

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