Writing Historical Fiction: A Double Edged Sword
November 5, 2012
Guest Blogger Tom Rizzo began following his dream – to write – when he was old enough to grip a pencil. Over the years, he has written radio and television news, served as a correspondent for Associated Press, and worked as a freelancer, writing everything from articles to marketing and advertising copy. Along the way, he has met a colorful cast of characters some of whom inspired me to consider the possibility of telling stories of my own. His stories can be found in his outstanding historical books, Heroes & Rogues and Last Stand At Bitter Creek.
In its purest form, writing historical fiction is nothing more than telling a story set in the past. But, the process involves the double-edged sword of storytelling, and research.
Like any story, historical fiction must include conflict, with a beginning, middle, and end, along with a blend of truths, half-truths, and untruths.
Research, while important, often stands as a blessing, and a curse. It’s exciting to research other times and cultures, and learn how people lived, and worked, and interacted, the kinds of problems they faced, and how they dealt with them.
The danger of conducting historical research is overdoing it to the point where you become overwhelmed. Collecting enough research to create a story is all about balance.
Keeping Focused on Story, Not Research
When I decided to write a historical action-adventure novel – Last Stand at Bitter Creek – I underestimated the time, and the amount of work involved. I found myself bogged down in research—so much so, that I almost lost sight of the storytelling process.
Unlike other genres, writers of historical fiction straddle the fence between historian and storyteller. But, you must have a feel for when you’ve reached the saturation point of research, and get to the business at hand—writing the story.
Research, of course, is important. And, it’s relatively painless, thanks to Internet access, local libraries and museums, the telephone and email, to track down, and interview various experts. You also have the ability to travel to a particular location for up-close-and-personal inspiration, and color.
How Research Benefits Writer and Reader
Most of a writer’s research won’t appear in the story. Research is important, of course, and beneficial to both writer and reader, but in different ways.
For example, my novel is set in the mid-19th century, just after the Civil War, and beyond. Since I had no common knowledge, or reference point, for what life was like in the mid- to late-1800s, I researched the period to learn how characters dressed, how they traveled, and how they communicated with each other. How many miles could horse-and-rider travel in a day? How long did it take to get from point A to point B.
In order to convey realism to readers, I had to find answers involving issues such as hotel accommodations, the price of a cup of coffee in a saloon, and what people of that particular era ate, and drank, and how they socialized.
My research also included learning about different professions—Army spy, burglar, doctor, farmer, cattle rancher, banker, and lawman. How did these individuals think? What motivated them? How did they deal with adversity?
Research, to me, involves learning enough that will help me understand—as much as possible – the behavior of the characters I’m writing about and, at the same time, get a sense of time and place.
Credibility Earns a Reader’s Trust
Writers of historical fiction need to know enough to create a believable fictional world for their stories. Readers, however, want to experience a seamless transition into this fictional setting. They want to read a story, not a history lesson. They’re looking for entertainment, not necessarily education. On the other hand, James Alexander Thom, in his book, The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction, writes:
“Some readers are learning the history of their country through the story in my novel. They didn’t learn the history very well in school because it was taught in ways that were dry or boring. The historical novelist has a responsibility to keep the history as accurate as research can make it.”
Whatever the purpose, the highest compliment writers of historical fiction can earn is to hear a reader say, “I felt like I was there.”