By Rachel Garrison
Sometimes it’s because of an assignment, and at other times it’s a wandering fascination, a slight pull, a spark from a corner of your heart: to write about what you do not yet know.
The question is how? As young writers, we are taught in high school to write what we know as a way to add particular detail and avoid abstraction. The problem: this is meant as a springboard to learning craft, but not to be relied on as we grow as writers. Relying exclusively on life experience has apparent limitations, particularly when one wants to write about a different era. So how the heck does one write about a historical period long removed from one’s own, especially when there are no primary sources?
Cassandra Clare lived this experience when writing her bestselling series, The Infernal Devices. Having only visited London in the modern day, she knew nothing about placing characters in the late 19th century. To write characters placed nearly a century and a half ago, Clare read nothing but Victorian literature for six months- in addition to walking around London with a map from 1879. She described the process as “research by immersion,” ensuring that the historical novel’s details were as accurate as possible.
Experiences vary from person to person, but writing fiction—no matter the genre—always starts with the same question: what if? The initial springboard is rather similar no matter in which era your fiction is set. Without overselling it, the most important step is research. The History Quill emphasizes the importance of thorough research in a blog entitled, How to Write Historical Fiction in 10 Steps in order to avoid embarrassing anachronisms. Nobody wants to see Starbucks appearing in 18th-century South America (it was founded in 1971.) To avoid this kind of situation, decide on a time and start your research. Look at different sources: firsthand accounts such as letters or newspapers; documents detailing technology of the time, such as maps, fashion catalogs, or agricultural handbooks. To avoid historical anachronisms, utilize sources such as National Museums Liverpool and Crow’s Eye Productions that provide accurate guides on the everyday fashion of the past centuries.
However, don’t let yourself be scared off by the amount of research involved with writing historical fiction. Utilize gaps in historical records for the purpose of your narrative, fitting your characters into the missing pieces- as long as they’re explained in a historical note at the end.
Remember that fiction, even historical fiction, is an exercise in imagination. While it’s important to get the historical details right, the character’s journey is by far more compelling. So don’t be afraid of taking a step outside what you know. Push the boundaries a bit at a time and write what you have no experience with; it’s how you learn!