Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction
Start writing historical fiction, and your house can look like this, too! Just kidding. Or am I?
All forms of fiction have challenges peculiar to their sub-genre. And while most may require some type of research, authors of historical fiction must love historical research. No, they must not merely love it. They must LOOOOOOVE it.
The deal is, I do. I loooooove historical research. Sadly, I usually do not have the time and the money to go hang out in an archival collection these days. In fact, I’m jealous for the years I spent as a grad student at Drew University (Madison, NJ) when I could do that for days on end in the Methodist Archives. It was heaven. I think I fell in love with the smell of old books and periodicals. Now that my sense of smell has diminished, thanks to a very bad sinus infection last fall, it would be interesting to see if archives would have the same allure. Somehow, though, I think that they would.
So, one major challenge of historical fiction is research. That challenge is followed by a pile of details. The facts of the event or person an author investigates is crucial, of course. But an author also needs to take care to get customs, dress, food, and language correct. It’s good to find a way to help readers relate to people who lived hundreds of years ago, but this needs to be done in ways that are as true to the era as one can get. Why? Because there are nerds out there, like me, who will notice.
The search for information sometimes leads me to surprising places. The thing that pops into mind is looking for sites about 1860s underwear, since I had a scene in which newlyweds Maggie and Eli undress. I finally found a website that had good information about mid-nineteenth century undies, but also seemed to be a site for fans of corsets and “tight lacing.” Now, I’m not trying to shame the folks who frequented the site, but I must admit that I felt a wee bit uncomfortable there. And why not? I spent my teen years in the 1960s. My attitude was burn, baby burn… that bra! So, I was quite surprised to learn that some women enjoy slipping into a corset.
When I was writing Walk by Faith, I was terrified that I might get some tiny fact wrong, which would be noticed and loudly denounced by a Gettysburg super-geek. After all, the battle of Gettysburg has been studied in the most minute detail by military historians. The problem was military history wasn’t -and isn’t – a favorite of mine. Yet I realized that a large piece of my story was going to take place on the battlefield around Gettysburg. Furthermore, some of my characters would be in the town and experiencing the fighting from their point of view. To write a piece of fiction involving something so detailed and so carefully researched truly was intimidating.
The opposite problem occurred in the book that followed, A Time to Heal. Most of the information about life in Gettysburg immediately after the battle was nearly non-existent. Fortunately, I could find information about Camp Letterman and its hospital of tents. I also could find a bit of information about the crackdown on Confederate soldiers who tried to escape before they were 1) sent to Camp Letterman; or 2) sent to a prisoner of war camp, to which they would have gone anyway once they were sufficiently healed at the hospital. Over all, though, I experienced a dearth of information, which felt like research-starvation after the embarrassing wealth of materials about the battle itself.
One last thing: using a historical person in a story is always tricky. I don’t do it often. While Rev. Jeremiah Madison in Saint Maggie is modeled after the real-life Rev. Jacob Harden, I don’t think the two men are very much alike, with the exception that they were charismatic preachers and had an eye for the ladies. Walk by Faith did have two real-life people in it: the Rev. Samuel Simon Schmucker, founder of the Gettysburg Seminary and Father Arthur McGinnis of St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church. I erred on the side of making both men kindly, especially since Schmucker needed to allow Frankie Blaine to attend classes at his seminary and Father McGinnis would need to listen to an uncomfortable Methodist (Lydia) who turns up in his church’s sanctuary and asks him to come with her to pray for a woman in labor. I took what I knew about Schmucker – a supporter of female education – and what I guessed about McGinnis – he would of course go pray for someone in need, especially if she were his parishioner – and ran (respectfully) with it.
I have never attempted to have a historical figure as a central character, but I know it would take a great deal of research to stay true to the real-life individual. I am tempted to bring actor and clown George L. Fox into a Saint Maggie story. However, that means I would need to check into licensing, since I recently learned that some historical figures have licensing agents that manage their image. Still, I find Fox so compelling it would be fun to write him into a story somehow.
In short, the challenge of writing historical fiction is this: details, details, details, and research, research, research. On top of all that, an author also must take the details and research and write a convincing story with compelling characters.
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder