Sunday, April 28, 2013


If you're going to write historical fiction, you better like doing research. Lots of it.

You have to know your setting well. You have to get the details right. Clothing, food, transportation, politics, social customs, entertainment, occupations, music, schools, even the way people talk. The list goes on and on.

The sources are endless. You can consult books, newspapers, maps, magazine articles, even other novels about your time period. Visit museums. Talk to local people (I am working on a novel set in Harrison Hot Springs in the 1950's and the museum put me in touch with Bev Kennedy, who grew up in Harrison at that time and has been an invaluable resource for me - the fact that we have formed a good friendship is a bonus!)

And, of course, use the internet. Google the year of your book and "popular music" or  "clothing" or "food" and you'll be flooded with information.

A word of warning though: you can't believe everything you read on the internet! Be cautious.

Be on the lookout for story ideas that may jump out at you. I was skimming through Beaver magazines (Canadian history) looking for articles about the explorer Henry Hudson and I found an interesting excerpt from a book by pioneer Catherine Parr Traill. I clipped it and stuck it in a file. Several years later, I dug it out. Catherine Parr Traill described how pioneer families, travelling into the backwoods, sometimes left their children at farms along the way, intending to come back once they had settled on their land. The roads, often just tracks through the forest, were poorly marked and it was easy to lose your way. According to Traill, some families were never reunited.  Traill's dire tale inspired me to write Ellie's New Home, and then four more books in my pioneer series. And I found the article by accident!

I've read that James Michener does years and years of research before he begins writing. Stephen King, on the other hand, likes to write his first draft and then research. Somewhere in the middle works best for me. I can't start until I have a pretty good sense of my setting. As I write, I find out the areas I need to know more about. I'll put a set of brackets in the middle of my page and keep going until I have time to look it up - it might look something like (what model of car?) or (had Kraft dinner been invented?

How much is enough? The danger with researching historical books is that you can get so immersed in a sea of fascinating facts that you forget you are writing a novel. Not an article for an encyclopedia. A novel. Be careful that you don't bury your story in too much information. Select the details you are going to use carefully. Try to appeal to all five senses. And remember you can leave some things to your reader's imagination.   

Some advice from Nancy Lamb in The Writer's Guide to Crafting Stories for Children

When you make the effort to do your research in order to be historically and culturally correct, your time is never lost. Even if you don't use everything you've learned, the knowledge you've accumulated allows you to write with authority and authenticity. When it comes to research, treat it like salt. Use only what it necessary, and set aside the rest. 


Greener Grass by Caroline Pignat

This historical novel is set in Ireland in 1847, during the Great Famine. Carline Pignat knew just how to choose the right details to make her story of 14 year old Kit and her family's struggle for survival moving and a real page turner. It was the winner of the Governor General's Literary Award in 2009.

Next week:  The Song Remembers When


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