Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Weaving History into Your Novel

Weaving history into your novel-

When I started writing, I was advised to, “Write what you like to read.” For me that was historical romance. Like most readers, I love the journey to another time and enjoy imagining how things used to be. I realized in order to draw my readers into yesteryear and thoroughly ground them in that world, I would have to invest a good deal of my time and energy in research.

If that is what you want to do, you must enjoy the research. If it is a burden for you, ask yourself why your story must be told in that time period.

When a reader opens your book, they will already have some awareness of that time. Regency and Civil War fans are incredibly knowledgeable. If what you present in your story doesn’t match with what they know, you will lose your credibility. Whatever facts your reader learns throughout your story, they must be accurate. Always look it up. Double check your sources. Just because it is on the internet, doesn’t mean it is true. A good writer will double, double check everything.

Be careful not to assume something is right just because it’s been done by someone else. Hollywood, for example, does the classic, shooting-the-hat-off-someone’s-head trick. It can’t be done. They tried it on an episode of Myth Busters. If you have doubts about something and can’t find the answer you need, don’t include it.

Before sitting down to write your story, look for general information first. Get a feel for the time period and then delve into your first draft. As you write, note the places where you have questions and begin a list. How does a lady mount a horse wearing a side-saddle? What is proper courtroom procedure in 1877? When your draft is complete you can dig for specifics. Be careful not to get side tracked. Having a list helps, but if your mind starts to spin off into another story, jot down your idea and get back on task.

The best way to ground your reader in your story is with your setting. While it is not necessary to use a real town it needs to feel real. Research the area to learn where and when certain ethnic groups settled. Use that information as you name your characters, keeping in mind names that are also appropriate to that era.

Avoid long descriptions and utilize the techniques of show versus tell. As you think about the five senses, use those sights, sounds and smells that are unique to your story’s time and place. Try to avoid using things overdone by other writers.

Weave the action of everyday life around dialogue. Show your hero loading his gun as he argues with the heroine just before the outlaws attack. And remember to keep the action tags brief so as not to take away from the emotional energy of the dialogue.

In talking about dialogue, watch out for modern phrasing. Using a word before its time in history is not a good idea. Your reader will notice. I had a character use the word, “okay.” An editor at a workshop I attended pointed out that the word didn’t come into use until WWI. Words have birthdays, as does every tool, piece of furniture and article of clothing. I also had my hero in LOST HEARTS wearing a Fish rain slicker. Double checking facts during edits I realized the rain coat wasn’t invented until 1881, and my story took place in 1877.

In developing your characters, be careful not to impose twenty-first century thoughts and ideas on them because you are uncomfortable with the mind set of society at that time. It can be hard to keep the characters true to their time period and still make them sympathetic to the modern reader. Etiquette books, letter collections, diaries, memoirs and books written during the time period can give you that extra bit of insight to help you achieve that balance.

Think about your character’s education level. Limit their knowledge to their social and economic level. A Boston debutante, an Irish immigrant or Scottish Laird will each speak and react differently in the same situation. Their knowledge of government and national news will vary.

Regency romances use snappy banter, and formal language. If your story takes place during a cattle drive, keep in mind the language of those men. Lasso is a modern word. The men who lassoed wayward cows actually called it a catch or throw rope. If you enjoy Civil War stories, remember to double check the names of the battles. A northerner might talk about the battle of Antietam, while a southerner would refer to the same battle as Sharpsburg.

Be careful not to include a history info dump. In my new book, LOST HEARTS, I wrote an entire paragraph about the system of signals outlaws used to warn each other of deputy marshals in Indian Territory. My editor wisely suggested I delete it as it took the reader out of the story action. Review comments from your critique partners carefully. Just because you find outlaw signals interesting, doesn’t mean it belongs in your story.

Historical information can be difficult to find. Again, beware of on-line sources. Search the bibliography of books you’ve read to see what sources that author used. Peruse those books on Amazon then go to the library and see if they can find them through their inter-loan library system. Contact reference librarians or historical societies in the area. Archived newspapers, old magazines and catalogs are another source for fascinating details that can make your setting come alive and really ground your reader in the time period. Museums, historical homes and antique stores are fun ways to gather information. I went to a gun show once not only to see the guns my heroes used, but to hold them, to feel the weight of them in my hand and learn how they were loaded.

Don’t be afraid to ask fellow authors. Join critique groups and writers loops. Writers as a whole are very supportive of each other and most are willing to share their odd bits of knowledge. As you spend time networking, keep an eye out for possible research links mentioned on various blogs and web sites. Write them in a small notebook so you don’t have to waste time later searching on Google. Reenactor’s clothing sites are good for costuming, and the color photos are helpful. Again, double check. Not all reenactors dress in accurate period costumes.

Text books, Audubon guides to plants and wild life, and maps can provide the tiny details that give life to your story. I would like to add that in researching LOST HEARTS, I learned that the native grasses of Oklahoma, which covered a large portion of Indian Territory at the time of my story are now gone. Man does alter the environment, creating lakes, cutting down whole forests, and adding to the shoreline with landfill. Make sure your heroine doesn’t bathe in a lake that didn’t exist.

Take careful notes. Document where your information came from; include the book, link, website, author, title, and page number so you can easily put your finger on the information if someone asks. While it takes time to do this it will save you from having to go back and hunt through books and web sites looking for the same information all over again. This will also save you time as you research your next book or short story.

Everyone has stories to share of mistakes made by authors, so glaringly obvious, the book became a wall banger. Don’t let that be your book. Take your time. Historical accuracy and authenticity are important.

As with the craft of writing, the more you learn the better you become as a writer. It is the same with research. The more you dig, the more you find you didn’t know. If you discover that you’ve made a mistake and it’s too late to change it, forgive yourself, let it go and keep on writing. Don’t let the fear of getting it wrong keep you from writing a historical. Assume your next book will be better than your first and the one after that even better yet. Have fun and think about all the knowledge you’ve gained for playing Cash Cab and Jeopardy.


Adele Dubois said...

Terrific post, Kathy! Very informative. Research is often time consuming, but does make a story richer when woven through the tale. Best of luck with your new release!


Kathy Otten said...

Hi Adele,
I enjoy doing research and it always gets me side tracked. Thanks for stopping by.

Tina Donahue said...

Great post, Kathy. Having had several historicals pubbed, I know how difficult it is to weave in all the historical data without making it sound like a history lesson. Hope you burn up the internet with your new release. :)

Kathy Otten said...

Thanks Tina. The article is a bit long. I probably should have made it a two part, but I didn't think of it until today. Hope there is something helpful in it.

Tina Donahue said...

It's fine, hon - you did a good job. Very informative. :)

Lu/Grace said...

Informative post, Kathy, with some valuable reminders. Alas, I like research so much I have to tear myself away in order to work on my book, hehe.

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Lu/Grace,
Yeah, that happens to me all the time. Sometimes I forget what I was originally looking for.

Katalina Leon said...

Wonderful post Kathy! You make so many great points. Thank you and best wishes.
XXOO kat

Sarah J. McNeal said...

I'm with you on research, Kathy. It becomes so interesting digging around in history and fascinating data, I sometimes go too far and forget to get cracking on the dang story.
As a reader, I have to confess that I've read some books that lacked good research and it really bugged and kept me from enjoying the tale. One modern day phrase stuck in a historical novel can ruin the whole story.
As always, a wonderful blog.

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Katalina,
Thanks so much. I appreciate your taking the time to stop by and leave a comment.

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Tina,
I know I've used the phrase, "Okay," in previous stories. I never really thought about it until the error was pointed out to me. I try not to make mistakes, but the ones I do make, I have to forgive myself and move on and let it go.

Georgie Lee said...

Excellent post. Research often helps me when I am stuck on a plot point, or helps me decide where to go next with the story.

Kathy Otten said...

Speaking of mistakes--So sorry, you're not Tina. Don't know what I was thinking.

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Georgie Lee,
Thanks for stopping. I love your name, BTW. Knowing how things work does affect the characters reaction to his situation. This in turn affects his/her decision on how to move forward which could also change our story line.

Loreen Augeri said...

Great information on research, Kathy. Just got my copy of Lost Hearts today. Can't wait to read it.

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Loreen,
Hi hope you enjoy the book. Thank you.

Margaret Tanner said...

Great blog Kathy, and being a published historical romance author myself, I know that historical inaccuracy can be a deadly sin for historical writers.



Kathy Otten said...

Hi Margaret,
Fans are so critical we have to really love the research, and I love history.