Historical fiction can be a tremendously rewarding genre for writers – the prospect of visiting 14th century France before lunchtime or creating an entire contained universe in Victorian London can be delicious experience and ripe for creative inspiration.
First rule: Mistakes are inevitable – the demands that you create a fully coherent setting and sustain it throughout 300 odd pages will probably mean you slip up on what your protagonist ate for breakfast at some point. Your story will most likely demand to be complete with minutiae of every day life, everything from authentic from linguistics to the sensory experiences encounter on a mundane walk, which will create an added discipline for the accomplished historical novelist. Don’t worry too much at the early stages: this is what editors and fellow authonomists are for – they will help you correct the details.
The key point is not to become too distracted with the details, however.
You are tantamount a storyteller – the real power of your narrative will still come from the arc of your story; the dramatic tensions and symmetries, more than the colour of your scenery. This is your story, and the framework in which sits will provide opportunity for further twists rather than drive the story itself.
That’s not to say there aren’t some novels that could only have happened at a particular time – for example, the English Civil War witnessed many families and households split by loyalty for the King or for parliament, with a backdrop of radical political and religious reform that shook a country to its core. And, yes, jarring inaccuracies or lack of subtle understanding of the tone of the period can play havoc with the final result. With historical fiction, your goal is a novel that captures the fractures, contradictions, and problems of the particular time without being overrun by them.
At heart, as many experienced directors who’ve staged successful Shakespeare adaptations in a modern period can contest, the hallmark of a master storyteller is the ability to create, at core, a timeless narrative that can change its hue according to the period it is then set. So rule number two: focus primarily on establishing your story, rather than the world in which it is set.
Next, and as always, do your homework. Examine your genre and what has worked commercially. Disassemble successful historical fiction. Examine it like a scientist – try actually mapping out where there is action and where resolution, where dialogue and where action, where flashback and where projection. These are technicalities you must master to understand the structure and technique of the historical novel.
Now your historical research. How to do it? How much time to spend? I think this very much depends on your own novel, now you have your narrative arc in place. You will know by now some of the set pieces and scenes you will need to colour. If you then turn to your history books you will no doubt stumble upon a treasure trove of solutions for the rest of your set pieces – discovery that an Elizabethan manor house housed a radical and sealed community of Levellers in 1645 might provide you with the refuge your female protagonist is needing to be away from her father for 5 chapters. Then you will be able to create a long list of questions and detail you will need to answer, and now is the time to get methodical. (What were plates made out of and did they shatter or crumble if thrown at a wall? What was the taxation on windows and would this effect John’s plans for his chapel?, In Maori 1897, were men and women permitted to walk alone at night outside a village?) Initial inspiration as a tourist but then a subsequent disciplined applied research in local institutions gave Rose Tremain’s The Colour the proper detail of gold prospecting in New Zealand. Once she has received inspiration, author Tracey Chevalier is remarkable in her levels of research and convincing detail, but I think she’s also one of the most accomplished writers at then applying her myriad of knowledge with a fine touch. Similarly I once worked with an author whose self discipline to attend Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute for 3 months paid tangible dividends – even if his research had to be interrupted twice daily for the ring of the Terra Nova ship’s bell (marking tea breaks)!
What all these novelists had in common is that they turned first to what the historian terms primary sources – that is, the artefacts or documents that originate to the relevant period and are immediate or closest to the period or idea being studied: an authentic photo or film reel, a contemporary letter or news article, a shoe. Not only are you likely to find primary sources lucrative for creative inspiration, but you are also (with certain caveats of authentic bias) bound to result in a more authentic, less hackneyed database of knowledge. You’d be much better visiting London’s Victoria & Albert Museum to study authentic Victorian domestic staff’s clothing than by watching Julie Andrews play Mary Poppins. Then follow up delicately with secondary source research: documentary, eminent historian’s books, professional analyses, and entertaining films (that are likely to educate more- roundly that the short lens view of the primary sources) and give you the historian’s long view. By now, puffed out with pride, you’ll then (especially if the clang of the bell lingers) be tempted to include everything you’ve gathered. Resist. Nothing will kill your novel faster.
Enjoy this. In my opinion you’re amongst the fortunate of novelists in that you can entirely escape into your new world and create a universe of possibility. As I see on many authonomist’s current submissions, your excitement and enjoyment for your own universe will shine through your pages – but always, always, carried aloft by fine storytelling.