Historical Fiction: Researching the Old for the New [Book]
When I first started writing, historical fiction was the genre I tackled first. I'd never been so thrilled but overwhelmed at the same time. I loved reading the books I did set during Jack the Ripper's winter of terror, the American Revolution, the roaring twenties, ect.
It amazed me how a work of fiction could exist with a backdrop so accurate to the time period, offering interesting facts for a reader to learn--even if they weren't reading an actual history book. The point is, this was the hardest aspect of writing when I first started. There were so many details I wanted to be apart of my story, so many times I felt the need to fact-check when having my characters live through real historical events. I remember how frustrated I'd get realizing I'd spent the last few days researching and not getting any writing done.
How, oh how, to avoid getting too bogged down by all the research? Well, there's honestly no clear-cut answer since everyone's process will vary from person to person, but here's a few tips to prevent yourself from getting too caught up in the fact-finding.
1) Focus research only on what is relevant to your story
Yes, that's easier said than done but it is an important one to remember. Think about setting for a moment. Say you're writing a story during the Great Depression, perfect, now focus on where in the country you're actually setting your story. Everyone does New York, but not you, you want to do it instead in the middle of a (fictional) rural town in South Carolina.
Sweet, now research rural towns in South Carolina and figure out what life was like during that time. "But that's hard! Not a lot of information is around like that!"
Too true, but then again you now have a very specific direction in which to be looking. Not to mention, you don't have to worry about the cliché's of the constant use of the Great Depression in New York City. No one's going to really have tackled what you're trying to tackle.
2) Don't be afraid to use history to spice things up a bit
You know what makes stories in World War I to World War II so dramatic? Besides what was obviously happening at the time? Soldiers having to survive before the introduction of penicillin. Unsanitary surgery. Different mindsets. The world's countries not yet truly trusting each other. Hitler's ability to brainwash people, before taking most of Europe hostage.
Things have changed immensely since then, but why do we still turn to history? To learn, to see the experience of others, to fathom what it was like to live in a time when we didn't have the luxuries and advancements we have today.
It's horrifying, but fascinating to read about Jack the Ripper's murders. How did this sick person manage to kill and mutilate women so horrible in pitch darkness? Remember, in that time period London's street lights were gas powered. They would have been shut off in the middle of the night, and yet he could perform his calling card for all to see by day light.
Don't underestimate the limitations of the past, they're the perfect tools to really spice things up in your story.
3) Talk about what history means to you
Interestingly, this is where research really comes in handy. Here's another example for you: if you haven't read Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, you need to pick it up. This book, to avoid spoilers, follows the story of a young girl in Denmark during the Nazi occupation who's best friend is a young Jewish girl. Through circumstances I refuse to spoil, she and her family step in to help their friends. The entire book is the journey to do this.
Fun related fact, The Resistance in World War II were full of European citizens (some Jewish themselves, some solders, even turn-coat Nazis) who smuggled hundreds of Jewish citizens to neutral territory in Europe. These were brave souls who, if caught, saw certain death. They were heroes, ordinary every-day people who risked everything because it was simply the right thing to do. That is a very important story to tell. That is what Lowry's book is passionately about. Something that really matters. Let that motivate you in your research. Only find the facts that will help tell the story that matters most.
The list could go on and on, but start here. Remember history is called that because it is a story from the past. Remember that the past was not as advanced as our present, there are limitations you can use to fill your story with tension. Most importantly of all, use your research to really hit home with the message you have for your readers. Tell them what they need to hear, and use history to do it.