This post originally appeared on the Lawson Writers Academy teacher’s blog.
I’ve been writing historical fiction for a long time, so you’d think by now I would have learned. But when I am at the beginning of a new project my tendency is still to start researching the fun stuff—the nitty-gritty details. After all, those details often bring great inspiration for story as well as fun metaphors that a character of that time period would understand. They cause me to feel the time period and the characters in way that makes everything come to life in my head. It’s why we write historical fiction. Are you with me?
Except I’ve learned that in most cases combing through period details isn’t the exactly right place to start. In fact, if I start there, I often end up with a bit of disconnect in the overall story and it takes me a while to realize why.
For most of us, reading the big picture history of our story’s time period—and even a little bit before it—is not the most exciting part of research. It’s the part I’d prefer to skip past. To skim. To capture the highlights without trying understanding all the moving parts. In fact, for most of us, little of the big picture history of the era of our story actually appears in the story. So why take the time to research and understand it?
There are three major reasons we as authors need to understand the bigger history of our time period, at least in the country in which our story takes place.
- We can’t divorce our character’s actions and thoughts from their world. Just as we are influenced by world, national and local events, so are our historical characters. In my first book, Wings of a Dream, the Great War (World War I) happens off stage. And even though I had three soldier characters in my book, I didn’t think it mattered whether I understood the war—it’s causes and timelines. All I needed to know was how the war affected the daily life in the U.S., right? Nope. The truth is, in order to get those characters somewhat correct, I needed a deeper understanding of the war even if none of that information actually made it into the story. It’s all part of that iceberg analogy—you know the one: research is like an iceberg, only 10% (or is 20%?) Is visible from the surface. Overviewing the time period builds the foundational base of your research and your story even if it is never in view for the reader.
- Big picture facts sometimes need to find their way into the story. Have you ever read a historical novel where there seemed like you were missing . . . something—some fact or reason or belief that connected the character and their historical setting? It can happen. We think we remember enough “overview” history from middle school or high school or college to skim over the reading now. But there is so much we missed back then! Even if it isn’t your favorite part of the research, go into the overview reading with your eyes open for facts which might lend your story motivation or conflict or a turning point.
- A general understanding of the time period will reinforce the fact that not all people in that time period had the same experiences. Sometimes we get so focused on our characters we forget that in every time period people have different experiences. These might be due to location, economic status, social status, ethnicity, or religion. Overviewing a time period can bring some of those different experiences to center stage. When this happens, it can provide a subplot or unique minor character to the story. This is important in order to give a more realistic picture of the world at large, no matter the time period.
So before you dive into discovering what material your heroine’s dress would be made of or what kind of carriage your hero drives, pull back and look at the bigger picture for a minute. Who is leading the country? What are the big political and economic and religious issues of the day? Is there a war happening—beginning or ending? Is there a major drought or flood? Are the people of that country insulated or focused on the world beyond them? How do they get their news? When we can set a firm backdrop of an era for ourselves before we start writing, our story gains so much. It might not be the most exciting of all the research you’ll do, but it will be some of the most important.