At a recent panel at a local writer’s meeting, one author talked about the challenges of writing a historical novel. I didn’t think it applied to my current day novel but I found that there were a lot of the resources that could be helpful for me as well.
The first was creating a timeline, which I also do. This provides the backbone of an historical novel. However, in any novel, keeping up with what day something happened and how the time works is important. For the historical novel, it also includes people who you might meet at particular times, locations of major events, customs, music, diseases, words used at the time. While I don’t have that particular need, my characters all have backstories and some of these items like what music they would have listened to growing up and favorite catch phrases might be useful.
Other tools that the historical writer uses are maps and internet searches for calendars. I certainly use maps and have mine on a bulletin board for real places. For imaginary places, I find that creating a map grounds me when I am working on the action or where characters are at any particular point in time. Combining it with a timeline is helpful since I can track the movement easily.
An interesting part of the timeline process for one of the historical novelist was color coding. One color for historical events, one for events in the main character’s life and one for fictional events that help move the story along. For my stories, I could see that color coding the plot and subplots might be helpful to see how they tie together and whether one subplot is happening too slow or fast or taking up too much time.
Another tip for historical novels is using old photographs or paintings. It can give you a sense of the time, dress and other factors. I use current photographs of real places for my stories. I also try to find a picture in a magazine or painting that reminds me of my main characters. That way I have a face or figure to gaze at if I am lost at what comes next or what they might do. It helps ground me in that character. One of the authors mentioned that she uses actors as her models or actors in a particular role in a film as a jumping off point inspiration for her characters, including tone of voice and expressions that her character might use.
Finally, the researchers used Google Earth for visual research of places that they couldn’t travel to. They also used weather and astronomical sites, including a site that provided information on the moon at different times. All of the authors mentioned that their best tool is a research librarian.
It was an interesting hour and I came away with a few ideas to use in current day novels as well as any other story I might be writing that has a historical aspect to it. What about you? Do you write historical pieces? If so, are there any tips or practical tools you use that you are willing to share?