Beth Schmelzer and I had a back-and-forth on this one. On December 22, 2018, she wrote, I am very interested in Ms Levine’s newest WIP.
I am writing (and re-writing) a historical fiction story which takes place in Indiana in 1959 and 1960. My main character is unhappy to find out her parents and grandmother have been keeping a “Family Secret” from her. The mystery involves her deceased grandfather. Any adult reading the book will guess the secret early, but readers in middle grade will not recognize the name of an obscure author named Leon David Hirsch. So you can see why I am interested in your research and your final book with such an intriguing plot. Solving the mystery for my MC is difficult because there is no Internet available to her. The clues to the family secret are discovered by listening to family conversations and reading hidden letters Deborah finds. Any suggestions will be gratefully accepted.
Me: I do see books by Leon David Hirsch on a Google search, but I’m sorry to say I don’t know who he was. And I’m not sure what your question (or questions) is. Can you say more?
Me again: Since Beth Schmelzer didn’t write back, I’m adding her question to my list as a general one about writing and researching a historical novel.
Then she did write back.
Beth Schmelzer: Leon David Hirsch was my grandfather. He wrote one long political novel in 1918 and a short mystery paperback published in 1946. That’s why I said he was obscure. The mystery in my novel is: Why does no one talk about the grandfather? I thought you might recognize that his name is Jewish. The MC in my novel is growing up in Indiana in the 1950’s; she only knows Christians (Protestants and some Catholics). My real question, which can only be answered as fiction: Why would family hide the fact that the grandfather was Jewish? I thought you would be interested in this question. Sorry to be so obtuse with dropping my grandfather ‘s name. Deborah thinks it sounds important, but she doesn’t know why!
I researched my first historical novel, Dave at Night, which takes place in 1926, before the internet–or before I was aware of it. That was in the late 1990s. But I had an advantage, which Beth Schmelzer’s MC also has: I knew people who were alive in 1926, and one in particular, the late, wonderful Irv Aschheim, had an encyclopedic memory. Of course, I didn’t just talk to Irv. I visited the New York Historical Society, looked at the photo collection at the New York Public Library. I read books about the period, especially about the Harlem Renaissance, which comes into the story. I also read poems and one novel written at the time. I looked at old newspapers on microfiche. I visited the New York City Subway Museum and the Tenement House Museum. I even talked to an expert in classic cars.
Our MC for the purposes of this post, let’s call her Susan, a popular name at the time, has family who remember the grandfather. and she must know other people who were around then, too. Since the novel takes place in 1959 and 1960 and the grandfather died in the 1940s, Susan is researching recent history. If she can’t ask her parents and her grandmother direct questions, she can ask her friends’ parents, her teachers, the kindly owner of the local candy store.
She can do many of the same things I did, and she can visit the local newspaper office itself, talk to reporters. She doesn’t know the internet will ever exist, so she doesn’t realize how handicapped she is. People in those days relied on snail mail much more than we do today. She could write to people, or she can apply for records. Tension can build while she waits for answers.
Naturally, she’ll read the two books her grandfather wrote if she knows about them. If the family has kept his things, she’ll go through them on the sly.
I’d also wonder how the grandfather died and if he lived nearby. Naturally, I don’t know if Susan remembers him.
Being a detective here, myself, I deduce that Susan and her parents aren’t Jewish, and Hirsch isn’t their surname, for which there could be more than one reason. For one, Susan’s grandfather may have been the only Jew in the family. Or they all may have converted, for faith reasons, or to be more like everybody else, or even out of fear of stigma. Their reason, however, would have to be something that caused them discomfort, or it wouldn’t be a secret–nice for conflict!
On to historical fiction in general.
Beth Schmelzer is drawn to her subject because it’s connected to her family history. Same for me. Dave at Night is loosely based on my dad’s childhood in an orphanage, and my ancestors were expelled from Spain in 1492, as were my characters. I wanted to explore what that may have been like.
It’s not a bad idea to think about what connects you to a possible historical period. Maybe you love to read about the Civil War, or you live near a battlefield, or your ancestors were slaves or slave holders. Maybe you’re into medieval reenactments–which will give you a leg up on research. Or maybe you’re just drawn to certain historical moments.
You can ask yourself questions to find your topic and see which you’re most drawn to: What was it like to be a woman in the court of King Henry VIII? From the vantage point of a descendant of Europeans or of Asians when the continents were connected, what was it like to come upon the Grand Canyon? What characters were involved in turning ancient Greece into a democracy? How did their democracy fail? What happened in the first encounters between ancient Romans and ancient Britons? What did they deduce and what did they assume about one another?
You could reimagine any of these as fantasy, but you want to try your hand at actual history and shape your story around what really happened.
The next step is broad reading. My go-to starting spot is Wikipedia. Read the article about your topic, and check out the footnotes and bibliography, where you’ll often strike gold. Sometimes there are links to scholarly articles that you can just click on, that you may even be able to download. Or you may find a general book that covers your period.
You can also google “books on…” whatever. Then look the book up and check out the reader reviews. Your local library may be able to get the book for you. Even better, if you’re attending a university, its library will be able to.
While you’re reading this general book, think about conflict and what your story may be. As that takes shape, start jotting down notes or a rough outline. Look for where the story might end. (Also, this book will have footnotes and a bibliography that may include books that focus more narrowly on your subject.) If you can find material that was written during your period, you’ll get more than facts; you’ll get attitude, perspective, language.
I found out in researching the expulsion book that historians and experts are nice! And kind! When I had questions, I first looked for the answers myself, but if I came up empty, I checked the copyright date of my book. If it was published within the last twenty years or so, I googled the author for some way to contact her or him. Usually I found something, and usually the person I reached out to was willing to help.
It’s amazing what’s available online, a lot for free. I’ve read doctoral theses. I read an undergraduate thesis about caravels, a kind of sailing ship in the fifteenth century. I had questions, but I couldn’t find the author on Facebook or anywhere. I finally used an online White Pages and saw several people with the author’s name. He’d dedicated the thesis to his then fiancee, and one of the White Pages listings had her name associated with his. If they’d broken up, I’d never have managed to contact him! I wrote to him via snail mail and started out by assuring him I wasn’t a stalker!
I’ve spoken to some experts by phone, and three have been willing to read my manuscript and tell me where I went wrong. A naval historian answered many detailed questions. Of course I’ll acknowledge their help in the book.
What we do in writing historical fiction uses what historians give us and goes beyond, by which I don’t mean at all that fiction is better, just different. We’re not tracking down archives that haven’t been looked at in years, even centuries. We’re taking those hard-won discoveries and, like Sleeping Beauty’s prince, waking them up. The historian deals in events and facts. We do, too, but we also deal in texture. How did a rural fifteenth century village smell? What sounds would you hear if you walked down the street? Who would be on the street? Doing what?
We have to know those details or our story won’t come to life, but they’re hard to track down if we’re researching a period that isn’t recent. I once wrote a question to Ask-a-Historian on Reddit and said I needed the information for a novel. My question had to do with harbor life. The historians-in-charge said that Reddit historians don’t like questions from novelists, because they tend to be frivolous!
Google images of houses and furniture are great for finding detail, likewise images of paintings from the period. Museum websites are marvelous places to noodle around in. I found and bought a modern copy of one of the oldest books on fashion in the world.
Research is so fascinating that it’s dangerous. We have to keep our purpose in mind: to write a novel, not to know more than anyone on earth about, say, Napoleon’s childhood!
Having said that, though, I’m so glad to have made the discoveries that I did, like that gambling was considered a major crime in the Middle Ages–yet everybody did it. Sailors and passengers often played cards for money on ships, because life on board was boring when there wasn’t a storm or pirates weren’t attacking. Playing cards were new and expensive, then, and few people owned them, so the ones who did would rent them out. Really!
But the owner of the deck wouldn’t charge until someone won a hand. The winner would be expected to be in a good mood then, and willing to pay. Also, sailors and passengers would gather to watch games, and winners would be expected to tip them for watching (I don’t know why) out of their winnings. (None of this comes into my book, but I’m delighted just to know it.)
These are the pleasures of researching historical fiction. Of course, our story has to work as a story, too, and we have to deal as usual with plot, character, setting, pacing, POV–everything.
Here are three prompts:
∙ Read a Wikipedia article about a historical event or a figure that interests you. Think about what the conflict was at the time, or a major challenge in your person’s life. Consider how you might build a story around that. Jot down a few notes. Without doing further research, write a scene. If you decide to continue, embark on more research.
∙ Interview an old person! Like me! My memories of the world-shaking events during my life are pretty vague, but I do remember–as few seem to–that Richard Nixon (aside from the other thing) imposed wage-and-price controls when inflation got out of hand. Prices were zooming so much that I often observed supermarket cashiers making mistakes because they couldn’t believe the escalations. (There were no bar codes then. Everything was manual.) The price controls stopped the inflation, but my salary was also frozen, so it was a wash for me. Anyway, think about what the old person you interviewed said. Can you find a story there? Do a little research. Write a scene.
∙ Pick one of these: the Korean War; the Dust Bowl; the French Revolution; Mayan civilization when the Spanish explorers showed up; ancient Somalia. Go to Wikipedia again. If conflict isn’t obvious, look for it. What can by your angle? Who will your characters be? Write a scene.
Have fun, and save what you write!