Writing Historical Fiction (or, how I learned to love constraints and inconvenient facts)

I swore I’d never, ever write historical fiction. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading it, but do you realize how much work those writers have to do?

Like all good stories, I set off on one journey not knowing I’d end up a changed person at the end of the trail. My grandmother left behind a scrapbook from 1935 filled with photographs she took on an “ancient camera,” and poems she wrote from her experience as a social relief worker in southern Illinois. Included were several letters to her from which I gather she’d been encouraged to try publishing her poems. My mother found this scrapbook but nobody in the family knew anything about it or even that my grandmother had this experience. Since she died before I was born, and my grandfather is also gone, there was nobody to ask. So, I had coffee with someone I know who is good at research, got her advice, and started poking around on the internet.

I didn’t find much directly related to my grandmother’s story, but I found myself regaling (or boring) my family at dinner with, “Did you know in 1935….” factoids. I realized the what was questions were becoming what if questions. Somewhere along the way, reality and family stories began to merge, and I started filling a blank notebook with ideas.

In April, full-on-pandemic month, I needed something to occupy my anxious mind. “I’m going to write a historical fiction romance novel,” I announced.

Sure, why not. I hadn’t tried either before – it was a stretch.

Turns out, what I thought I’d dislike, I loved (the research became my favorite part) and what I thought would stifle my creativity (reality) became the engine for my imagination.

Constraints fuel creativity.

I set my story around a specific, well-documented event. The timing of the plot points had to match up with reality. Sometimes, this was annoying because I wanted things to happen at a particular pace, but when I dug deeper, I always found a way to use the structure of what really happened to reshape my plot, each time discovering more depth in my characters.

On a fine scale, every time I sat down to write a scene, I realized I had questions. What kind of pen did people use in 1936? Fountain pen? In a holder? Blotter? How did that work? Would my character have helped her mother do laundry in a machine or a wash tub? What did the inside of a car look like? Would the car have started with keys or a start button? What kind of clothes did people wear? What’s in a medical bag? How would that “ancient camera” my grandmother mentioned work? What would a dark room have looked like? These questions all have answers, but finding them slowed me down, which probably made my writing better. All the historical research was the equivalent of world building. Having to really study the context of my story, the texture and details of the time, gave my work a full shape and rich intricacy. I think the research and discovery fueled my imagination in a way that relying on the world around me doesn’t.

Inconvenient facts

My novel takes place over the Christmas holiday season. I wrote a lovely Christmas morning scene with snow piled high on the dark tree branches and puffy drifts falling through the morning.

When I came across a factual account of that day, I learned disappointed children woke up to rain that Christmas morning. How disappointing, indeed. I considered ignoring that inconvenient fact, but weather mattered to my story. It was easy to write a snowy Christmas, I didn’t want rain. I had to revise, and as I did, the scene got better.

There were many inconvenient facts along the way, but isn’t that what drives a story forward? Each time our characters think they have things figured out, they don’t. We wonder how they’re going to get out of this jam, and we read on. That’s how I felt writing this story. Each inconvenient fact meant my characters struggled, because I did. We lived the research and writing together, and we both grew stronger.

Falling in Love

About three-quarters of the way through my first draft, I realized something. This is what I want to do. I’d find myself making connections about moments in history, and it was like watching a plot come together. Sure, I’d studied history, but imagining how the world was shifting on its axis in 1936-1937 and how it shaped my characters made those dry lessons come alive. Now I’m hooked on sleuthing out moments when a compelling story can crystalize a feeling, a shift, or a new discovery, and make that moment real for readers.

The romance was fun, too. It was exactly what I needed in May, and June, and all summer long. It gave me hope in a moment when the world felt – feels – in sore need of hope.

Writing about our past challenges made me believe that we’ll get through our own time, and if a book can give hope, that’s a book worth writing.

So, to my I’ll never write (fill in the blank) self, I say, “You never know what’s coming in the next scene.”

Posted on Sunday, 23 August 2020

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