What makes historical fiction live? What is it about a good historical story that makes us feel we are actually present in another time and place?
All of us who want to write historical fiction have been lured into the past by one means or another. For Janet Lunn, "I’ve always said it was because I began life in an 18th-century farmhouse in Vermont where the past was so richly present. Much later, I spent most of my middle years in an early 19th century farmhouse in rural Ontario. But that was because I was already history bound."
Everyone has a different reason for believing themselves to be history bound. And we’re probably all wrong. Janet Lunn suspects "we’re like this simply because something in our nature pulls us into the past, makes us yearn to travel back in time."
It’s a powerful yearning. What we do about it, since no one has ever actually succeeded with time travel, is read history and historical fiction voraciously. Then some of us just have to take the next step and make our own trips, write our own historical stories. How we go about this is what this workshop was about.
According to Janet Lunn there is really only one kind of true historical fiction. Costume dramas or half-fact, half-fiction novels in which well-known historical personages are explored with fictional dialogue and, sometimes, fictional relationships present dishonest history. Genuine historical fiction comes from writers with stories developed from a response to an actual historical event or situation. The characters in these stories are true to that time and that place.
Beginning and Researching a Historical Novel
You find yourself irresistibly drawn to some period in history, some event or situation. Sometimes it only takes one line in a book; Janet was inspired to write a book for young people set in Upper Canada in 1815 as a result of reading this sentence in Catherine Parr Traill’s The Backwoods of Canada: "Even the Irish and Highlanders of the humblest class seem to lay aside their ancient superstitions on becoming denizens of the woods of Canada."
As Janet explains, "It’s a little like falling in love. You read something, you hear something, you see something and suddenly characters show up in your head. You feel a story coming on. You have to write it." So what do you do first?
What and Where to Research
- Read every last history you can find about your period – and about the period that came before as it would have had a lot to do with the forming of your characters.
- Research the painting, music and literature of the period – the popular as well as the classical: what were people humming as they went about their work? what newspapers did they read (if there were newspapers in that day)? which artists did they admire? What were their religious practices? etc.
- Research the clothing, houses, house furnishings, landscape (note street names and positions in towns and cities). Discover the flora and fauna for both place and time of year; what was growing in what seasons? what did the plants look like, smell like? were the animals around all year long. Remember that some things that are around now where you story is set may not have been around then. (For example, European ships brought both mice and roses to North America, they weren’t here a thousand years ago).
- If you can travel to the place where your story is set and walk where your characters would have walked, you will get a much stronger feeling for the place. ("I’ve always been much happier writing about a place where my feet have walked.") It isn’t always possible, of course, in which case you’ll have to rely on travel as well as history books.
- Research the use of language. Watch out for anachronisms but beware of the overuse of archaic words; use them sparingly. And don’t try to duplicate faithfully every word’s pronunciation if there is an accent, it always sounds artificial. Try, instead, for the cadence of the speech. When you’re writing a story set in a country where another language is spoken, you will have a harder time. Reading translated novels from that language might help. This is also true for characters who speak English as a second language. If your story is set in pre-historical times you’re on your own. (For this, you might want to watch Quest for Fire, a film in which the linguistics expert, Anthony Burgess, created a language – and read William Golding’s The Inheritors, a novel about pre-language people in Europe.)
- You can find calendars going quite far back (that differs from country to country). In some cases, for some years, you can find weather information.
- Consult an online etymological dictionary. While you can’t always find just the word you want, you can usually find out which words you can’t use; it’s always wise to check.
- You can discover how households were run in many places and times (not all, of course). You can find costume and household furnishings, household pets, almost anything you’re looking for just by checking Google.
- The library in the town where your story is set, the provincial library and provincial archives if your story is Canadian, their equivalent in whatever country and jurisdiction your story fits, national libraries and archives.
- Museums, great and small. Wonderful information is available in small country museums which are often also the local archives. In them you can sometimes find family as well as town histories. Family histories – and diaries – yield all sorts of information about daily life at the time of your story, information that you might never find elsewhere.
- Every large city (and many a smaller one) has many sources of historical information: heritage buildings, small galleries, private collections etc. Check the internet because most cities welcome researchers and, therefore, post all their sources. Small towns do not have as many official historical sites but local librarians can usually steer you to people who might be of help. James Michener used to do his research by putting himself in the hands of local librarians. They loved to help and he loved the sources they found for him.
- Radio, television and newspaper archives. Many of these are available online and many are micro-fiched in local/national archives.
Suggested Writing Exercises To Help You Get Started
- Imagine yourself walking down the road, perhaps a town or village street in the place and time in which you’d like to set a story. What time of day is it? what do you see? what do you hear? what do you smell? how are you reacting? Take us, your readers, to this place
- Take on the persona of the main character in the story that is beginning to take shape in your head. Quite unexpectedly, you, as this character, have just encountered someone. Create a dialogue that tells us something about both characters, gives us a bit of the plot, and lets us know where and when this is happening.
Janet Lunn offers advice on the difference on writing historical fiction for adults and children:
Janet Lunn discusses the importance of rewriting your work:
Marguerite De Angeli, The Door in the Wall
Peter Dickinson, The Kin
Esther Forbes, Johnny Tremaine
Kate Grenville, The Secret River
Eric Linklater, The Dark of Summer
John Masters, Bhowani Junction
Edith Simon, The Golden Hand
Mary Stolz, A Dog on Barkham Street and The Bully of Barkham Street
Rosemary Sutcliffe, The Eagle of the Ninth
Books by Janet Lunn
A Rebel's Daughter
Laura Secord: A Story of Courage
Maud's House of Dreams: the Life of Lucy Maud Montgomery
The Root Cellar
The Story of Canada