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.


  1. I Love these posts on writing historical novels. I am currently involved in writing and researching the story of my grandmother and her siblings who were homechildren in the early 1920's. So my research is hampered in a number of ways -I am a Canadian descendent living in the States and the story originates in England and ends in Canada - where I no longer live. And ALL of the major characters that are my inspiration have passed on. Typical of most home children little was spoken of their "dark" past and only in the past decade or so have we become so aware of their pain and heroism. My grandmother's story has an unusual twist in that her mother was able to track them all down and gathered them back into a family unit and they remained in Canada after she found them all.
    Thank you for the great posts. My daughters God Mother Kathy Clark suggested your site to me.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Christi -- I'm delighted that you find these posts helpful and that Kathy recommended my blog to you. Family stories are so precious. I hope you manage to tell yours -- good luck with it.