Historical fiction gives an insight into how life was lived in a different era, and this is crucial in our age when many battles of social progress which we thought we had fought and won, seem to be returning in different forms, on our screens and in our schools. In the media of our times, where history is often distorted using disinformation campaigns, threatening our sense of identity and making us afraid and angry, we need historical fiction more than ever before.
Historical fiction, if accurately written, can help us understand the mistakes of the past, and work to undo them in the present, so we create a better future for our children.
In the tradition of guest posts from experts on Daily (w)rite, today I present you the wonderful J. L. Buck who shares a few tips on writing historical fiction in general, and Regency mysteries in particular.
When my first urban fantasy was published in 2012, I fully intended to return to the mystery genre with the next book. Sixteen fantasies later, I made a conscious decision in 2019 to make that long-delayed switch, and considering my love for the Regency-era in England’s history, it was a natural fit to try my hand at a Regency mystery.
At the time, I didn’t fully appreciate how significant a change I was making. Going from a genre where you “made things up” to one where much of the background is already set in stone was not easy, and it necessitated a major change in my writing process. Instead of building a world from my imagination, I needed to learn everything I could about a world that no longer existed but was recorded in thousands of books, maps, and other documents.
Reading for Research: the canvas for historical fiction
I thought I knew the Regency-era, 1811-1820, when a flamboyant Prince Regent occupied the throne due to his father’s mental decline, but I discovered I didn’t know it well-enough to write about it. I spent the next year reading books on Regency England from history books to the fiction of Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, and others. I added over twenty non-fiction books to my own library for on-going reference, including:
- The Regency Years by Robert Morrison
- The Regency Reference Book by Emily Henrickson (hard to find but worth the hunt)
- Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England by Kristine Hughes
- The Regency Underworld by Donald A. Low
Including real past events while writing historical fiction
In such a rich period in history, it was hard not to get lost in research. Beyond the big events—the wars, the assassination of a prime minister, the revolutions in neighboring countries—numerous smaller incidents caught my eye, and some were included in my books, such as:
- the Frost Fairs when the Thames River froze over and Londoners, vendors, and entertainers moved onto the ice by the thousands for days or even weeks in a carnival-like atmosphere.
- the Great Beer Flood of 1814, when a huge wooden cask holding 320,000 gallons of beer burst, sending a 15-foot wave into nearby London Streets. It became a party for many, filling pitchers and jars, but had a tragic side too with eight drownings.
Blending your characters and plot onto the canvas is the writer’s art.
With all that research behind me, my characters firmly in mind, and a sketchy plot, I thought I was ready to write, the part where I finally got to be creative and make things up again. How quickly I ran into trouble.
The importance of detail in historical fiction
While the characters and plot were mine to maneuver through the 1800s landscape, they needed to act and dress the part, and for that, I needed to know the little things…the specific details. What colors were popular in ladies’ gowns? What were their gloves made of? How many candles were used to light a ballroom? What was the layout of a townhouse or a manor house? What direction was Piccadilly Street from Whitehall, a government building that plays a large part in my mysteries?
In addition to books, Google became by a best friend for this on-going research. Dozens of websites and blogs have struggled with similar issues—bonnets, jewelry, carriages, pistols—and at least one site is worth mentioning for its thoroughness:
(User ID: JAScholar; Password: Academia)
- And you can’t forget the maps. Anyone reading or writing about Regency London may want to check out the many online maps. This scalable map is one of my favorites.
Using authentic language in historical fiction
The language was another huge hurdle. In order to keep my Regency mysteries as authentic as possible (I’ve written four now), I wanted to use the language of the time but adapt it to modern readers. My main concession was the use of contractions in places where formal words felt too stilted, but I have tried hard not to use words or phrases that didn’t exist in the early 1800s. I check my language choices daily in one or more of these four sources:
- Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1810 edition), a print book I own.
- Webster’s Dictionary (1828) online
- Etymology Online: (gives the date and meaning of the word from the time it first entered the written language)
- Regency Slang Revealed, a print book by Louise Allen
Placing real historical figures in historical fiction
One last comment, I use historical characters in my writing, but only as part of the background. Since they are not intended as central figures, I try not to fictionalize their actions or behaviors. Most of them are interesting just being themselves as recorded in searchable history. How could we improve on a character such as Beau Brummell, the larger-than-life friend of the Prince Regent and arbiter of men’s fashion? The Beau was known for his pithy, or rude, remarks, collected and repeated by his fans as Brummellisms. He was not always a pleasant or wise man. He would sit at the window at White’s Gentlemen’s Club and pass judgement on the attire of other men. His friendship with the Prince Regent came to a crashing halt when the Beau went too far and referred to him as “fat.”
I have a dozen more stories I could tell, but I’ll stop there. I hope I’ve shared a little of my enthusiasm with you today and shown the kind of resources available for additional information, whether you are a reader or writer of historical fiction.
After retiring from the legal system, Ms Buck wrote sixteen fantasy books under the pen name of Ally Shields, before turning to Regency-era mystery fiction.
Ms Buck lives in the Midwest with Latte, a mischievous Siamese cat, who attempts to co-author her writing by taking over the keyboard. When not writing or running two blogs, J L Buck enjoys her eight grandchildren (and a great-grandson), reading (preferably on a sunny deck), travel (USA and abroad), and binge-watching any sub-genre of mystery shows.
She can be contacted through her website, her Ally Shields fantasy website, or social media (twitter: @janetlbuck or her pen name account: @ShieldsAlly)
Book blurb: The Dead Betray None (A Viscount Ware Mystery)
Genre: historical/Regency mystery
An aristocratic spy and a highborn lady cross paths over a dead body.
In 1811 England, a self-indulgent prince regent sits on the throne of a country at war with France, on the brink of war with America, and facing growing rebellion at home.
More about Janet, and her work, here.
Do you read or write historical fiction? Why do you think historical fiction is popular? What historical novels would you recommend?
My lit crime novel, The Blue Bar will be out soon with Thomas & Mercer. It is already available for preorders. Add it to Goodreads or pre-order it to make my day.
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Great post! There’s always more to discover when researching for historical fiction. I love seeing how deeply other authors delve into their research. Especially when it comes to language!
Wow, Damyanti. This is the kind of post I need at the moment. I could have done with more advice from Ms Buck. I’m taking home some valuable lessons.
If there is anything else I can answer for you, Sonia, I’d be happy to try. Thanks for commenting.
The Etymology Dictionary is the nugget I took from this post. I’ve needed it!
I use it all the time. Fantastic help.
You do have to know most of the history and get it right or readers will call you out on it.
The Great Beer Flood – new one to me!
It was certainly a story that caught my eye!
I don’t like what I call ‘period pieces’ taking place in early England, like the Victorian era. The historical fiction I enjoy are stories of resistance fighters in WWII as well as novels from the same time, focused around the invasion of Nanjing. I have read many novels from multiple authors and the stories are so rich with language, action and ideals of a generation that my own parents were a part of. I’ve also learned much through the vernacular of that time, so it’s important to research that when writing. Thanks for the share.
There are indeed many different historical time periods that have found the attention of many authors. I’d glad you found one your enjoy.
What a great list of the most important characteristics of historical fiction. As one who writes in that genre, I couldn’t agree more. Sharing…
Research, research, research. And then research some more.
The Regency Period in England appears to be well documented which has to help.
The extensive documentation is a two-edged sword. The answers are probably there somewhere if you can find them, but if you don’t, you can be sure one of your readers will – and catch you up! 🙂