Be a Master Weaver of your Genre
I like historical fiction for two reasons.
One, if you go back far enough and get your facts right, you can weave a fantasy of your own choosing. I like to gather my historical fiction research around me like fabric: chiffon, organza, tulle, or lace. I float in it, swirl it, twirl it like a wedding-day ball gown. In it, I see the warp and weft of the woven texture: straight lines or diagonal, thin like a spider’s web or thick as cotton growing in a field. There may be holes that need filling or threads that can be sewn together as ruching or ruffles. And I release any kinks of tangled yarn with hooks or needles to make more garments for warmth and fashion.
And the second reason I like historical fiction is—family. It’s much more challenging though, because the research is deeper. Beware, however, that you don’t gloss over or rearrange any important facts. Watch your language and check your dictionaries for the origin dates of words and idioms.
Of course, I’m talking about those scripts and scrolls of census takers with quill pen and iron gall ink or lead pencil, correspondence by presidents or soldiers to their far-flung relatives, notations in Bibles, lists of men, women, and children in all states of lives, and tales inscribed on animal skin or paper made of rags. Take those in your hands and tuck them into your book to bolster your genre! Pick up those bedraggled, moth-eaten, faded, yellowed daguerreotypes of your great, great, granduncle, or brownie camera snapshots of your grandma and grandpa, and imagine what their lives were like. What did they wear and how did they sound? The Internet is loaded with old pictures and ancient recordings. And make sure that you listen to, ask questions of, or read about family elders or friends who lived in more recent times.
My bookshelves are filled with thick histories and boxes of cut-and-paste stories from the Internet of back-in-the-day dates, facts, and tidbits that enable my mind to weave my fiction like that fabric. And there are novels that require perusal to enjoy, hate, laugh, cry, or put down in disgust—only to pick them up again because I have to finish them.
Kindle is one of my best sources for tidbits of history. You may laugh at this, but doing a fact search of those down-loaded books brings forth diamonds in the rough that remind you why you have those things sitting there on the screen in the first place. Another goldmine of county histories and other things historic is archive.org.
Some of my best advice: read history; watch documentaries of the times about the epoch of your story; visit the places about which you write; watch movies filmed on the locations in your narrative; take a trip on a Mapquest directional finder and watch the scenery go by. It won’t be exactly the same, as you will be traveling on cement, and the scenery has changed due to climate and people. But your imagination will take you on the journey. How does the sun look on the vegetation, mountains and hills, or reflected in a river or lake? Watch clouds race across the sky in spring, summer or fall and relate those movements to your story.
The single best advice I give is advice I’ve received from others... don’t get lost in the research. Let the mileposts guide your words along the trail leading to a well-written, historically correct novel. Let your characters shine as if they were decorating that ball gown— spreading sparkling light over the shoulders, down the front, around the waist, and scattered over the skirt to catch the eyes of readers. Those readers will be unable to look away until The End.
Cecilia Johansen has published two historical novels, the Canoe Maker’s Son, and Kimsey Rise, A Family of Farmers, the latter based on the history of her own family. A third historical novel is in the works and is expected out later this year. Cecilia is a founding member of Hawaii Writers Guild. She lives in Pinole, CA.