Friday, June 24, 2011


More tips on writing historical fiction -- with the same caveats as in previous post:

8) Research into background can take time, so be patient. Sometimes, it can take ages to dig out one tiny piece of background detail – such as the appearance of a particular car during a particular year. It’s a detail that adds to the texture and truthfulness of the story without being essential to the plot, so you need to know it even though it’s entirely peripheral to your story.

9) Interviewing elders again, as well as experts, in round two or three of your research is helpful to pin down those pesky details because you can simply ask your tangential and arcane questions rather than spend hours digging them out. Call me lazy, but it’s easier and it’s much better, because you get specific answers to specific questions without wading through pages and pages of irrelevant information in order to find that one sliver of information you really need.

10) Visit museums that specialize in the era of your story. It’s a great way to flesh out your understanding of that era. It also helps you imbibe the right atmosphere. I went to the Cumberland Museum in Cumberland Ontario, which is about rural life in the 1930s. I found it helpful with many a detail but also to soak up the atmosphere of the time.

11) Look for books published by local Historical societies in the community you want to depict. I found self-published books by people living in Eastern P.E.I. and they were invaluable for the glimpses they gave me into everyday life in the 1930s. They weren’t necessarily brilliantly organized; often they were anecdotal, but there was enough there to help develop my understanding of the era, and help me see more clearly the “givens”.

12) Check old atlases and maps to help you find fictional names and place names. For example: I knew that the early settlers to P.E.I. – and John’s family in particular – came from the mainland in Scotland across from Skye. Many villages and towns in P.E.I. reflect this. In selecting my fictional names, I found it fascinating to search maps of Scotland for place names that would sound convincing in my novel.

13) If you are writing about a place that is well known, you might want to consider changing the names of the people and the places to fictional names. I set my story more or less in the area in which my father-in-law grew up, but as I changed the geography to suit my fiction, I decided I’d better use fictional names. Otherwise I knew there’d be Islanders coming up to me and saying, “That railway line was never there; you don’t know what you’re talkin’ about,” or some such thing.

14) I found it helpful to draw out a map of my character’s fictional home and farm so I could reliably and consistently remember how he’d get from A to B. I also made a map of the area in which my character lived – again, so I’d be consistent.

15) I chose deliberately not to include a map in my book, because P.E.I. is a small place and inevitably people would try and figure out where I’d really set it, and then point out inconsistencies.

16) The elements of good writing apply to historical fiction as much as to any other work of fiction. It’s essential, I think, for the character to be true and real so he/she takes centre stage and moves the story forward, rather than serve as a minuscule or peripheral adornment for your historical facts.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


Here are some tips about writing historical fiction, the usual caveat being that there are no golden rules – these are just things (great catch all word that – things, although thingie is even better and a personal favourite!) that worked for me.

Bear in mind, though, that these tips are based on my experiences while writing my novel, THAT BOY RED which, although set in a particular era, is not woven around concrete historical events per se. This is a character-driven episodic novel following the exploits of eleven-year-old Roderick “Red” MacRae, with historical details pertaining to the era – P.E.I. in the early 1930s – woven into the story.

1) Keep one notebook for historical research, another for your fictional notes. Meticulously record your research along with sources because you’ll forget from one draft to the next whether some detail you’ve inserted has been checked and verified.

2) You don’t need to do all your research before you start to write. At least I don’t – I can’t. It would bore me to tears to do nothing but research at the start. I find that instinctive leap and connection with character far more valuable and essential to writing fiction than getting slogged in a mire of research. For me it’s essential that the connection to character be paramount so the story sings and flows with inner truth.

3) The background and research must serve the story and not the other way around. One of the biggest flaws in historical fiction is when the reader’s attention trips over a chunk of explanatory information that the author has stuck in to inform. It always distracts from the story. When you write a story, you’re spinning a thread for the reader to follow – if there are nubs and knots that the reader notices, you stall the smooth flow of the story, break the dream that you want the reader to fall into when reading your book. A work of historical fiction should never serve to showcase historical facts. Nor should you be so vested in your research that you feel compelled to stick it in just because you’ve spent so much time digging it up.

4) One way to avoid chunks of information is to include information only when your character is thinking of it – but don’t have your character gratuitously think about something that’s a given, just to inform your readers. Don’t over-explain; trust your readers to infer what they need to.

5) Despite my caveats about not needing to do all my research up front, I found I did need to do some initial research in order to start writing THAT BOY RED with a certain degree of authority and ease. I needed to know what daily life was like for a young lad in the 1930s. If I were to write about a child getting up in the morning in the present day, I’d easily be able to create the sights, sounds, smells, textures and nuances surrounding that child. With THAT BOY RED I needed some of that basic knowledge so that when I started to write I wouldn’t stumble during the heat and flow of writing the story because of gaping holes in my understanding of the era.

6) Interviewing elders and experts was a great place for me to start my research. I grilled my father-in-law, John, and his older brother Martin, and all the other elders I could pester, with questions about the five senses from their childhood. I asked them what they’d hear first thing in the morning. Smell, touch, see, taste. I asked about the most striking images/memories in their lives pertaining to the five senses. I had to be specific – for example, I’d ask about the first sounds in the morning to fit what I needed for my story. This was a huge help in colouring and texturizing my knowledge of the era. I asked questions about daily routines and made copious notes to build my own instinctive understanding of the patterns of the daily life of my characters.

7) For me, the research tends to work parallel to the spiral of successive drafts until I reach the centre, the heart of that last draft. Sometimes you don’t know what you need to know until you write the next draft.

Tips on Writing Historical Fiction -- Part II will be posted on June 24th.