Here’s the next installment about writing historical fiction, based on my workshop in July at Keystone college. I’ll be jumping all over the place to pick up the points I didn’t cover last time.
If possible, we should read writing from the period we’re writing about. When I wrote my historical novel, Dave at Night, which takes place in 1926 and features, among other things, the Harlem Renaissance, I read poems and one contemporaneous novel, Home to Harlem by Claude McKay. For A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, which is about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, I read The Expulsion Chronicles compiled by David Rafael, a book of contemporary accounts written by both Christians and Jews.
Home to Harlem gave me details and the perspective of people in 1926. The Expulsion Chronicles is light on details, but it gave me an idea of how events were understood by people of the time.
Historians are nice! As I researched, I longed to speak to people, or email them, who could tell me if I was getting things right. I reached out to at least half a dozen historians. The only one who failed to help me was David Rafael, who was very ill. One historian, Jane Gerber, whom I mentioned in the last post, became my mentor for the project. She guided my reading, corrected or confirmed my ideas, and even annotated my manuscript. I think the historians were glad to help. If we get the history right, we bring their field to life.
But we can’t rely of their help. We have to educate ourselves, because the focus of most historians is narrow. The writer of historical fiction has to see the big picture. For example, a historian I consulted innocently steered me wrong about something, because his expertise was in the twelfth century, and I was writing about the fifteenth. Things had changed. I had to know enough to realize that he was wrong.
And historians have biases, which we have to know enough to be able to recognize. (This may sound intimidating, and I suppose it is. Historical fiction isn’t for the fainthearted.) For example, many of the books I read were written by historians of Jewish history, but I also read a biography of Queen Isabella, which gave me a different perspective on events. In the books on Jewish history the Jews played a larger role in what happened than they did in the biography–I don’t know enough to say which is more accurate, only that the two perspectives were useful.
A neat trick to know about is Google advanced search. If we’re having trouble finding the information we need, advanced search can help. Just type in “advanced search” and you’ll see what you need to do.
If we’re not sure whether a word represents a concept that didn’t exist at the time of our story, we can look at the word’s etymology in a dictionary.
There is a big annual medieval history conference in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I didn’t know about it until Ceiling was finished, but I went this year, because I’ve become fascinated with the period. So there are likely to be conferences we can attend to help educate ourselves and to meet enthusiastic historians. (This is expensive.)
For detail, we should go wide for whatever we can find on popular culture–fashion books, cookbooks, magazines. For food, I used a cookbook based on documents from the Spanish Inquisition, because people would be turned in for following Jewish dietary laws. In using the cookbook, I had to be aware of which foods came from the New World and not include them.
Briefly, I hired an assistant, which some of you may be able to afford to do. For me, it didn’t work out. I wanted to see the source material myself, and, frankly, I was afraid that the assistant might miss something useful or critical. But other people do use assistants, and that’s an option.
In the last post, I mentioned my timidity. I was so afraid of getting things wrong that sometimes I was frozen. A beta reader advised me to “be a novelist,” and I had to accept that I couldn’t learn everything. There’s an Afterword in Ceiling. Before I wrote it, I looked at Afterwords in other historical novels, and every one had an apology to the reader and to the past for all the errors in the book. Without a time machine, there are bound to be mistakes. We do our best.
We have to make a choice about scope–large or small. I could have written about, for example, a butcher’s daughter in a village and how her life was shaped by the worsening climate for Jews. That would have been a small-scale approach, and it would have been a fine way to go. But I chose to go big and put my MC in a prominent family, so that she can be on the spot for the major events of the day.
We fantasy writers know this already from seamlessly introducing our world building. Just as in fantasy, we should avoid info dumps.
On a one-to-ten scale of organized people, I’m about a five. A ten would have an easier time writing historical fiction. Sigh.
I wish I’d summarized my reading as I did it. Next time I will.
If we own a book, I recommend writing in the margins, which will make important parts pop out when we go back. If this is sacrilege for you, of course don’t do it. Use post-its.
We can’t expect to know everything or understand right away. One of the books I read about the expulsion was all about who owed how much to whom, who paid how much for something when a family had to leave. At first I thought, This is so dry! What about the emotion, the tragedy? But later, after I’d read more, I understood two things: first, that the tragedy was locked into the accounting, because people were grossly underpaid for their belongings when they had to leave. Not just fortunes were lost, but people arrived at the borders without funds to pay the exit duties. Then they had either to convert or to be executed. Second, I realized that there wasn’t much in the way of records. People didn’t keep diaries. The accounting records were kept and preserved. The historian assembled the big picture out of these little data points.
We have to watch out for our assumptions. For instance, I assumed that banking was primitive in the Middle Ages, but it was surprisingly sophisticated.
I think I have one more post on this, or maybe half a post, so I’ll stop here.
∙ Your MC, an archaeologist and amateur detective, reads this article: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-science-murder/cold-case-scientists-encounter-prehistoric-murder-mystery-idUSKBN0OC2GD20150527 and is fascinated. (I just noticed that this link and the one below begin with a photo of a skull. Beware!) Conveniently, the time machine has just been invented, although it may be used only for approved projects. Her application is approved, and she’s off, into the very distant past to investigate a murder among an entirely different branch of the homo sapiens tree. Write the scene of her arrival and keep going.
∙ I happened across this very interesting article about a medieval victim of leprosy: https://www.cnn.com/2017/01/26/health/leprosy-medieval-pilgrim-skeleton-study/index.html. You may want to do a little more research–or not. After you read the article, make this young man your MC and have him fall in love. Or his love interest can be your MC. Write a scene or their whole tragic tale, unless you can find a way to a happy ending.
∙ Your MC lives in Salem, Massachusetts, when the witch accusations begin to fly. She’s friends with the chief accusers and realizes with horror that they’re beginning to hint that her beloved aunt–who unwisely tends to say whatever she thinks–is a witch. Your MC wants to save her aunt. Read up a little on the Salem witch trials and write a scene or the whole story.
Have fun, and save what you write!