Here on Daily (w)rite, as part of the guest post series, it is my pleasure today to welcome Wendy Trimboli, who has never met a dense 19th century novel she didn’t love, is blithely attracted to broken characters with downtrodden histories, and enjoys voluntarily running up mountains.
Take it away, Wendy!
I love history. Give me your dusty books, your medical museums, your eroding necropolises, your ancient battlefields and castles swallowed by ivy. Let me stuff all that fascinating, strange, morbid detail into my brain, then carry it around for months while it ferments. Let that skull-sparking brain-substance drip out through my writing like a bloodletting.
Historical detail isn’t just set dressing and costuming. It drives the plot, motivates the characters, suggests interactive props, and can even reflect aspects of our modern world through the age-warped looking glass of the past.
Incorporating historical research into a novel, whether the genre is straight-up history or takes a more fantastical turn, can be a daunting task. As an author, I want readers to feel immersed in a sensory-rich environment, and I hope that they learn something without ever feeling lectured to. Whether you write ancient Roman romance, Elizabethan thrillers, literary realism set in the Napoleonic Wars, or (like me) gothic fantasy noir based on early 19th century body-snatching, I hope you’ll find some of these tips helpful in building your time machine of words.
Do the research
– Read up on your era! History books are a good place to start, as are diaries and journals specific to the time and theme, if they exist. Literature written during the era can give you a good idea of the etiquette, speech and otherwise “inconsequential” social details that history books may skip. The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, for example, shows how a gentleman might interact with his servant in the 1820s. There are also many digitized primary sources available at libraries and online. I read 200-year-old editions of the medical journal The Lancet to understand how physicians understood blood in the early 19th century. Spoilers: they didn’t.
– Travel if you can. Absorb sensory detail along with facts. I like to imagine my characters interacting with the setting. I’ll pay attention to architecture that might play into the setting. How does the old prison smell? What does the cemetery sound like at dusk? How climbable are those old castle walls? Maybe don’t try that one yourself, just enjoy visualizing it.
– Talk to experts. This one is hard for me as an introvert, but I’ve discovered that experts tend to be very enthusiastic about their area of expertise and respond well to my enthusiasm in turn. Museum docents, guides, librarians, researchers, collectors, bloggers, and other writers may be able to fill you in on details you haven’t discovered yet while reading. And if you’re going in well-read, you’re more likely to ask relevant questions.
– Collect relevant images and articles for reference and inspiration. I like to use Pinterest for organizing mood boards, keeping track of character ideas, or for sorting research by topic. If I need to add detail to a scene—say, describe how someone is dressed or what they are eating—I can go right into my “fashion” or “food” themed boards for ideas.
– Be selective in your details. Bring texture to a setting with evocative sensory details and specific terms for an immersive experience. Showcase your era by having key scenes play out in a variety of vivid settings. I once read an entire book about giant squid (it was fascinating!) but only wrote a single paragraph relating to the information I’d absorbed. Resist the urge to write an academic lecture instead of a novel. Save the tangent for post-publication interviews instead!
– Use props. They allow your characters to interact with your research and make it relevant to the plot, too. This will make your world feel more lived-in, and less like a mere backdrop. Perhaps the barber-surgeon has a jar of human teeth that he wires into a patient’s jaws. Incorporating historical figures into a novel is another method for making your research engaging. Just be aware that some readers have expectations that Napoleon, for example, will behave in a manner that reflects the historical record.
– Apply poetic license judiciously. If there are gaps in the historical record, by all means fill them! When in doubt, if I’m not sure about a specific fact or detail, I ask myself: “Is this plausible, given what I know about the era?” If so, I roll with it. If you are writing historical fantasy, you’re more likely to get away with creative divergence.
– Be considerate of readers when using historical terminology or slang. Don’t count on them to grok your accurate Middle English dialogue or Victorian slang. Including a glossary is a nice touch, but don’t count on readers flipping to it every three lines, either. The best options are to: 1) include a non-intrusive definition within the novel, 2) ensure the reader has enough context in the scene to conclude that the word “jug” is slang for “prison”, or 3) just use the modern equivalent instead.
– Keep the perspective of your characters. Unless they are time-travelers from the future, characters in historical novels don’t have 20/20 hindsight. They also aren’t brimming with modern sensibilities, and so you’ll need to write them with some distance. That means allowing your characters to hold opinions in keeping with their era, even if you the author don’t agree with them. A historical surgeon isn’t going to hold modern medical beliefs about sanitation, bleeding-as-therapy, or even understand the properties of blood. However, if he’s genuinely motivated to help patients, there’s room for some complex, historically-driven drama in his story.
History books communicate facts, but historical novels bring the past to life. Every included detail should serve the story in some way. Too little, and the world feels unfinished; too much, and pacing slows to a crawl. Finding that balance is what makes writing historical fiction so rewarding.
Have you read or written historical novels? What has been your experience in conducting and including research in a historical novel? Do you have questions for Wendy?
(Want further tips on research? Check out this post by Rebecca Reynolds.)
Wendy Trimboli is blithely enthusiastic about dense 19th century novels, morbid history, and flawed yet relatable characters. She has an MFA in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Colorado with her family, border collie, and far too many books.
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