I asked for questions you might have, so I could answer them by video. One question I got was how to best write a historical novel. In addition to answering this in video, I’ll write out my answer so if you’re unable to play the video, you can read it. (The video is 8.5 minutes long. In the future, I hope to get the videos to less than 5 minutes.)
When you’re starting out with historical fiction, it can be intimidating because we live in a contemporary world where we got so used to modern conveniences, we don’t naturally think “historical”. But if your heart is set in writing historical fiction, such as historical romance, don’t let the fear of not being fully authentic to the time period stop you from your dream.
If you take a look at my reviews, especially of my older books such as An Inconvenient Marriage, you’ll find I didn’t so well when I started out in historical romances. But you know what? It’s all a learning curve. You get better with each book you write. You will get a better feel for the time period with each new book. And before you know it, when you start a new book, you’ll feel like you’re right there. These days when I do historical western romances, I truly do feel like I’m in the middle of that time period. I can see, hear, and smell things clearly. It took me about four years before I was comfortable writing it, and I started back in 2007.
So I get how intimidating it can be. It intimidated me, too, and I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the most historically authentic historical romance writer out there. But to be honest, the historical romance time period in genre fiction is wallpaper. It’s not the focus of the story.
Always Keep Your Focus on the Main Character
Everything in every scene of every book needs to have at its core the character whose point of view you’re writing for that scene. If the character has nothing to do with something in the background, there’s no reason to include it. People reading your books will fill in the gaps. What is crucial is that you only pay attention to things that the character actually needs in order to advance the plot. For example, if the character needs to keep warm in the winter, mention the box stove in the bedroom. There’s no need to go into the type of bed the character’s on, what material the wardrobe is made out of, or what the walls look like. Sometimes less is more. Trying to cram too much of the setting into the story can pull the reader out of the character’s head. And you don’t want that to happen.
Now that I’ve added the disclaimer about keeping the character first, I’m going to offer a couple of tips to help research the time period of your choice.
1. Read two or three books in the genre you’re writing, and make sure these books are from big publishing houses.
Why would I suggest this? Because big publishing houses will have editors who know what they’re doing. If they don’t, they’ll get fired. Big publishers have their reputation to protect. As much as I love self-publishing, there is no checks and balances on self-published books. Some self-published writers have editors. Some don’t. Some have good editors. Some have lousy editors. So I think a good rule of thumb is to go with a big publisher’s book. Find a topic that interests you, and read the book.
When I started out, I would mark up pages with a pen and earmark the pages. In an ereader, you can highlight text and make notes. I would specifically look for items people used back then that is mentioned in the book, like cow chips which could be used to heat up a sod house in the winter time or a kerosene lamp which a character uses to light up the place. These are wallpaper items that can be easily tucked into the story.
You can look up information online, in a library, through a show like the History Channel. There are many ways you can find out when things were invented, and you can browse some blog posts by doing a search for something you’re interested in, like wagon trains.
3.. Visit old homes or towns. Take a tour if you can.
I have learned so much more from taking a guided tour through historical homes and towns than by researching or reading books. For example, when I wrote my Native American Romance Series, which featured the Mandan Indians in North Dakota, I read a couple books written which explained their lifestyle, and there were some pictures and drawings in it. But when I took a trip to North Dakota and went to the Bismarck Heritage Center (where someone was kind enough to talk about some of the artifacts they still had from that tribe) and took a guided tour through one of the Mandan villages outside of Mandan, I learned so much more than I did reading the books. Seeing the items in person and being in a earthen lodge with what they used and hearing someone explain the typical day just really put me right there in that time period.
Another example was going to the 1880’s Town in South Dakota, where they keep the houses and businesses from that time period in good condition. They even had the furnishings, clothing, and every day items people used (like cookstoves and pots). And if you wanted, you could wear a costume from that time period. Below, I’ll attach a picture of my four sons who wanted to dress up like boys did back in 1880.
But with all of this being said, nothing replaces the physical act of sitting down and writing your book. It’ll probably feel awkward at first because you’re not used to writing historical fiction. But press through this phase. It might take a couple books before you feel comfortable, but you’ll never get there if you don’t start. And, if you have a good editing team, these people can go a long way in helping you iron out the pesky little details of the time period. Here’s my post on polishing up your book with a good editing team.