Researching Historical Fiction: Dark Ages vs. Victorian America

I’m in the middle of Mount Researchmore again (this time for a histfic I hope to have ready to sell by spring). This is my first one that’s near to modern history (set in the mid-late 1800s in the U.S.) and I’m noticing what a different experience it is to be researching history that would have been in living memory of my great-grandmother (too bad I didn’t know her).

I got my start researching British Celtic history and myth around the years 400-550 AD for my Guinevere series. There really isn’t a lot of history for that time. We have some archaeological evidence, a few written records that may or may not be accurate, and mythology to rely on. That’s about it. The rest of my research came from traditional sources of Arthurian legend and modern theories, which no matter how good they are, are at their best still educated guesses. Which is all a fancy way of saying I had to make up a lot.

Contrast that with the new book I’m researching, for which I have a biography (fanciful as it is) written during the main character’s life, a biography (vengeful as it is) written after her death by a woman with a grudge and around eight or so modern biographies. Plus, this woman was a sensation for her time, so there are countless newspaper clippings, records of trials she was involved in, plus her own writings and speeches. So there is no dearth of material here. I’m just shocked that she’s been all but written out of the history books (the reasons for that are interesting and I intend to talk about them here once I can reveal who I’m writing about.)

Writers have an instinctual connection to our characters; we somehow know them – their motivations, their tendencies, their proclivities –  as soon as they become real for us. (Maybe it’s because they live in our heads and become part of us.) But to get to know a character through her own words is an incredible thing, so much more satisfying, both for me as a writer, and I strongly believe, for her as a person who wishes to have her story told. (I’m a big believer that characters chose their writers.) Getting to add to that the perceptions of those who knew her and those who tried to sensationalize or vilify her brings her to life all the more. Plus, this time there are actual photos of all the people involved. (Yes, I’m still playing casting director and matching actors to the actual people.) In many ways, this feels more like I’m really bringing history to life, even though my Celtic stories are just as much history as this tale of Victorian America.

So far I feel like this book is almost plotting itself as her life was crazier than any soap opera I could create.In fact, I could easily write a trilogy on her, but I’m choosing to focus on the apex of her career, leaving her early days as back story and her later life to those who want to research it. As I’m researching, I’m thinking “yes, that’s a definite scene” or “I have to make sure to include this.” I think once I type up my notes into a sort of “bible” on her life, I’ll ready to write. That’s not to say I won’t have to use my imagination to fill in the blanks, but knowing I can use her actual words, actions and bring to life the places she really inhabited is such a gratifying feeling.

My heart is still most in ancient history (I have no idea why – maybe it’s because it feels like magic was real back then), but I can see possibly finding the more modern stuff easier to write. I’ll be curious to see how I feel once I complete my two more modern tales. (I actually have a third idea in mind, but that one may wait a bit.)

I always thought I was only going to cover ancient history, but I’m finding that modernity holds just as many mysteries, just as many heroines that may otherwise be muted by the passage of time. I’ve always seen my role as a historical fiction writer to rescue people from being lost to history by telling their stories and now I know there are many, many more centuries of endangered stories out there to tell than I previously thought. Well, I won’t be bored!

What do you prefer in your historical fiction – when the writer has to use more imagination or when events are drawn from well-documented history? Why? If you’re a history buff, what do you prefer to study, the mysterious parts of history or what is better known? I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

4 thoughts on “Researching Historical Fiction: Dark Ages vs. Victorian America

  1. I love your new phrase “Mt. Researchmore.” I find that even when I’ve written novels centered around well-documented people, there is room for my imagination in the gray areas of their lives. That said, the less I know about the person, the more fun it is, which is why I enjoy writing about people like King Arthur and the fairy Melusine – lots of room for author license there. Keep up the good work.

  2. If it is true that characters choose their writers, I’m in trouble. Actually complimented. But I do believe that times change but people don’t. We feel, act and react the same regardless. But I really don’t function well in modern times. It is just as hard for me to write and takes just as much research…or more.

    • Thanks, J.F. I think basic human nature remains the same, but we are colored to an extent by our cultures, which change over time, and which influence our reactions. I didn’t think I’d get along well in modernity, but so far, so good!

Comments are closed.