Something Old: A Day in the Life of Writing Historical Fiction

Books 023

I have a love affair with old things.

Namely, classic and historical fiction. From Dickens to Dumas, from Hardy to Heyer, from Chase (Loretta) to Charlotte (Bronte), I love stories set in ye olde times gone by. I also love to write stories set centuries before the one in which I’m currently living, which can often mean that a great deal of what I write about needs to be meticulously researched.

For example, I’m working on a story set in 1799 London. In the last few days I looked up several words and phrases to see which ones could stay and which ones had to go. Like:

Nightcap. Not like the hat you wear to bed, but that last drink you imbibe before settling down for the evening. “Nightcap” as in “hat” first made an appearance in the late 14th century. “Nightcap” as in “sleepy-time booze” didn’t first show up until 1818. So it had to go.

Beat around the bush. To take your time getting to the point. Showed up around 1440. HOWEVER. “Beat about the bush” is more accurate if I’m going for historical and British, since “beat around the bush” is the more American version that didn’t overtake the “about” version until after 1980.

Posh. 1915-1920 in origin. Out it goes.

And this is only a few words and phrases. There are old maps to be scoured, the history of every neighborhood and street to be combed through, and whether those streets were made of cobblestones or dirt or something else entirely.

And then there’s clothing. Searching through the different styles of clothing from a certain period in history is like falling down the rabbit hole. A glorious rabbit hole lined with chemises and spencers and corsets and reticules. Want to throw in a few casual lines about your hero or heroine getting dressed for the day? Then you have to know the order in which they put on their garments (corsets go over chemises so the corset doesn’t dig into the skin OR get icky with sweat) or what their dresses are made of, or whether they wore stockings that were printed or dyed (in the early Regency period, pink stockings were a hit with women who wanted to make men think they’d caught a glimpse of bare, pink skin down there), or in which particular year puff sleeves or long sleeves were fashionable.

But how did they keep those clothes clean? Did they wash the outer dresses at all? (They preferred to brush or sponge dirt off of them, rather than submerge them in a massive vat of boiling lye.) How often did people bathe? (Jeez, you want heat all that water and cart it about the house? Wash yourself down with this small basin of water and slap on some extra perfume, ya heathen.)

There’s also food, glorious food! Just Google the words “nineteenth century aspic” and “flummery” and wait for your appetite to curl up into a ball and cry out for a pound of Oreos.

So when I’m writing something set in a historical time period, there’s a lot to keep track of and a lot to research. One throwaway line can send me on a week-long hunt for a certain type of boots or a style of carriage or a make or model of gun.

The first thing I do is nail down the date (or dates) I need. I don’t set a story in “the late-nineteenth century”. That’s fifty years of vague fashion and technology changes. How many things have changed between now and fifty years ago, or even five years ago? I pin down a specific year and go from there.

When I’m doing heavy research, I try to avoid reading contemporary novels fiction set in the time period I’m looking through and basing my studies off of them. Why? Because if they made a mistake in their research, then I’m going to copy it. I try to stick to facts, to writings from that specific time period, histories and essays, and if at all possible, guidebooks and newspaper articles from those years, which give me the best feel for language and geography and the overall sentiment of the time.

And how do I keep track of all this? Notes. Copious amounts of notes. And if you’re a fan of Pinterest and want to write something historical? Pinning articles and photos that are helpful is a fantastic way to help keep track of things.

Of course, I’m bound to make mistakes. My source material might be faulty. I might have looked up the wrong thing. I may not have even been able to find what I was looking for and made an attempt to fudge over my ignorance as best I could. But the thing I love best about writing historical fiction is how much it feels like participating in an archaeological dig. I search and work out timelines and sift through the dirt (i.e. Wikipedia) until I’ve found my rare and precious artifact.

Which may or may not get cut out during the editing process.

But it’s still fun and incredibly fulfilling. And one day, when I’m on Jeopardy, I can look Alex Trebek in the eye and say “What is the Duty on Hair Powder Act of 1795?” and know exactly what I’m talking about.

2 comments on “Something Old: A Day in the Life of Writing Historical Fiction

  1. My very first book (unpubbed btw) is a Time Travel historical set in Scotland. (and no, it isn’t a copy of Outlander) I wrote this over 10 years ago. It evolved and this story is the one that taught me to write. I still have a 3″binder of notes and historical facts. It must be noted that the internet was not what is is today. Most everything I have is hand written! 🙂 I fell in love with it! Ah, research. A place to get lost in a time gone by.

    1. Haha, yes! When I first started outlining the story I’m publishing later this winter, it was seven years ago (or somewhere around there) and I agree that there weren’t quite so many websites dedicated to detailing historical clothing and maps and so on. Not everything had been put online yet!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *