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May 30, 2012 1:19 PM   Subscribe

I would like to experiment with writing historical fiction. Are there any resources that describe best practices for this genre? Do you have any experience/recommendations/advice?

Mostly it's the thought of all that research that gives me pause. What kinds of sources should I be reading? What kind of notes should I be taking? How much detail is too much detail, and vice versa? Are there any tips to avoid anachronisms?

I am especially interested in pieces describing the process of established authors in the genre, but if you have your own advice I would appreciate that as well.

I haven't chosen a particular period at this point, so I'm not looking for era-specific resources. Just general guidelines for doing good research.
posted by Think_Long to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Here's Hilary Mantel discussing her research for Wolf Hall.
Personally, I love the Flashman series, and his footnotes are wonderful!
posted by Ideefixe at 1:27 PM on May 30, 2012

Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle are some of the best books Ive ever read. If you enjoy historical fiction and are looking for a good example of quality work I highly recommend you check the series out.
posted by KeSetAffinityThread at 2:03 PM on May 30, 2012

You should be fine with popular history sources, paying special attention to material culture (houses, clothes, food) and social relations (getting class, gender relations correct for the period). Environment also really matters. If you don't personally know the country/region, read up on what the climate is/was like. Nothing has made me groan louder than a book with a major subplot about needed water to irrigate crops in medieval ENGLAND (where farmers are more likely to struggle with too much water on their fields than too little), or a drought in north-west England (the wettest bit of the country) during the early 14th century (a period of poor crops due to too MUCH rain). Californian agricultural issues do not translate to historic Britain at all.

I wouldn't bother trying to take too many notes; fiction doesn't require footnotes. I would read lots of popular or more accessible history to get a feel for the time and place, and then delve in deeper around the things you want to know more about (monastic life, court politics, 17th century wetland farming, whatever). If you want to write about powerful people (fictional or real), read biographies and political history. If you want to write about poorer people, concentrate on social history and lives of the middling and lower sort.

After you start to get a feel for the period, then take notes on stuff you are interested in - whether it's cathedral construction, sailing ships, or etiquette. Enthusiasts have provided many web sources for the little things that might not find their way into academic history - like this page on Elizabethan England, with lots about titles and forms of address. (Another bugbear of mine -- it's so annoying to see someone addressed as Lady Lastname when she would be Lady Husband's First Name).

My husband uses a personal wiki for his historical note-taking, which is awesome for hyperlinking. The traditional method consists of cue cards, organized by topic.

Finally - if you wish to write in a specific genre - not basic fiction with a historical setting like Wolf Hall, but something like "Regency Romance" or "Time-Travel Science Fiction", read around in those genres specifically. There will be a whole bunch of genre specific things that you may or may not wish to follow.

/will someday write a historical novel where all the farming is RIGHT, and there is no one famous
posted by jb at 2:04 PM on May 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

You might find the Historical Novel Society useful - reviews, interviews with writers.
posted by paduasoy at 3:38 PM on May 30, 2012

And just seen this comment on the blue which is relevant.
posted by paduasoy at 3:42 PM on May 30, 2012

I'm finishing up a book set in Japan of the 1860's, and I feel like I'm still researching it! Some broad-strokes points to keep in mind:

- If it's at all possible to set your story in a culture/country whose language you can read, it will make you life much, MUCH easier. Particularly if you're a stickler for detail or plan to describe things like items of clothing or period objects in detail.

- If you aren't already familiar with the period, do at least some of your reading before hammering out any details of the plot or characters. It's incredibly frustrating to spend weeks on an outline only to find out that it doesn't actually make any sense in the setting you've chosen.

- Once you've started amassing your collection of books and maps and whatnot, put it all together on a shelf near where you'll be working. Organizing it a little is even better. Nothing is worse than wasting pod work time on tying to hunt down a book.

- Before you buy a book, look at its index and make sure it's actually useful. You and that index are going to become intimately acquainted.

- Start a folder for collecting images on your hard drive and then organize those images into subfolders by topic. You'll hate your past self if you just dump them all in a pile.

- Assume that you're going to need to do much more research than you think you will, but set yourself a schedule and make sure you don't enter into "perpetually researching my novel" land.

Best of luck!

(I have a terrible cold and I'm typing this on my phone in bed so apologies for typos and brevity!)
posted by Narrative Priorities at 8:48 PM on May 30, 2012

I remember reading a blog entry (or something?) by someone who writes Regency romances, and she said she was very careful about her vocabulary and if there was a word she was in doubt about using, she'd use a concordance or Google Book Search or something to make sure that the term was actually in use during her time period, and if it didn't appear in writing from the time she wouldn't use it (I'm sure she made a couple of exceptions). I don't even read Regency romances but I thought that was a nice touch!
posted by mskyle at 6:45 AM on May 31, 2012

Try to find travelogues or journals by travelers from your time period.

Take a look at the bibliographic start I get just from googling the phrase "journal of a voyage."
posted by General Tonic at 7:27 AM on May 31, 2012

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