Historical Facts and Fictions Part 4
Hi, I’m Lyssa Medana and this is a series of articles with my thoughts on research and the fiction author. I hope that you can use them as a starting point for your own writing journey.
Writing Historical Fiction and Alternate Historical Fiction and Research
If you are writing historical fiction set in a real world setting, then you should know a lot about research. Historical fiction attracts people who love that historical period and who will, as part of that love, know a lot about that time. If you make a mistake, most readers won’t know enough to pick it up, or will be too caught up in your excellent writing to care. But for those who not only notice but also care, it will be a Big Thing. And for every kind soul that sends a gentle private message to help you out and correct you, half a dozen will drag your wonderful book through the mud on every social media platform possible and worse, will make memes. It can get brutal. I suggest that you read widely, check the sources, and avoid anything where you are not absolutely cast-iron sure.
On the other hand, Alternate Historical Fiction, such as steampunk, is slightly more forgiving. You can look that historian coolly in the eye and state firmly, “But it’s like this in my world.” However, life is a lot easier if you build on a firm foundation. My personal view is that for a reader to enjoy a book, they need to be able to relate to the story in some way. If the background is too complicated, then the reader will get too entangled with trying to remember the details to enjoy your delicately crafted love story.
Enough Alternate Historical Fiction is set in Victorian London for me to feel comfortable using it as an example. My own steampunk novel, Out of the London Mist, is set there. I spent far too much time and effort on research. I didn’t need to do as much as I did. But I’ll use my experience as an example (or dreadful warning) and you can make your own decision about how much detail you really need.
I started with the date. If it was going to be Victorian London, I needed to know which year between Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1837 and her death in January 1901. A lot happened between those dates. It’s roughly the difference between 1959 and now, 2022 at time of typing. As it’s a relatively well-known time period, if you get it wrong there is a higher chance of someone pointing and laughing. So I picked 1900, with a few years give or take either side if I needed something to make the plot work.
My decision to base things so heavily on our history is largely due to laziness. It was easier to look something up than make something up, note it, keep it consistent, and remember to check back if I referred to it later on.
If you nail the date and make a firm decision about how much you are going to stick to history and where you are changing things, then you have most of it covered. You can check the books and websites, keep an eye on the sources, and then really have fun. You can do what I did and check the flavours of tinned soup available at that date, or you can just sail right past that detail and on with the excitement and thrill of the narrative. Useful sources for that time period and up to the current date are the websites of firms and brands, who often have a ’history of our brand and products’ or ‘history of corn shucking machines’ or ‘history of wax polish’ tucked away.
A quick word of caution about maps and geography. Mountains usually stay where they are, but rivers, roads and even towns move around. Harbours silt up and passes get widened or blocked. The sea once dashed against the walls of Harlech Castle, but now the coast has silted up so much that there’s a golf course between the castle and the beach. The Mississippi River changed course significantly in 1876 and continues to move. And I am sure that St Albans and Salisbury are not the only places where the towns moved from their original centres. If the street layout is important to the plot, then you may like to check maps and plans contemporary with your story. Remember, this is your world, so if you get a street corner wrong or get the river running the wrong way it doesn’t matter as long as the story works and you stay broadly consistent–and have fun writing!
Read these articles from the beginning of the series here: https://threefuriespress.com/blogs/author-posts/researching-writing-and-rabbit-holes-part-1
Lyssa Medana is a 50-something author living in West Yorkshire, UK. Her works include The Forgotten Village, Digging up the Past, Cats in the Bible, Dinner at Dark and Tales from the White Hart. Lyssa also regularly publishes poems and short stories on her blog, Always Another Chapter. You can find the first book in her Aether Trails series, Out of the London Mist, here: https://threefuriespress.com/products/out-of-the-london-mist-by-lyssa-medana. The first of the Magic Awakening, King's Silver, is available on Kindle Unlimited https://amzn.to/3MkEHVe